The Founding Fathers of Rocket Science

The name most frequently associated with modern rocketry is that of Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), the German rocket scientist who moved to the United States at the end of the Second World War, known to many as  ‘the Father of Rocket Science’.  And, to be fair, when one considers that his career is more or less bookended by the creation of the V-2, the world’s first long-range ballistic missile, and leadership of the team that developed the Saturn V booster rocket for the Apollo space programme, it’s hard to argue with his pre-eminence in the pantheon. But there were at least three other men with a reasonable claim to the title.

Robert Goddard (1882-1945), for whom NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Centre is named, is one. He patented both the liquid-fuelled rocket and the multi-stage rocket – both vital to the eventual success of the Apollo programme. He certainly had some influence on von Braun as it’s known that German scientists contacted him directly (before 1939, of course) with technical questions.

Speaking of Germany, Hermann Oberth (1894-1989), who independently arrived at the concept of the multi-stage rocket, was known to have encountered a young Wernher von Braun. Indeed, von Braun himself acknowledged Oberth’s influence on him and importance to the field of rocketry.

And the fourth name to complete the quartet that did so much to advance the science, the giant upon whose shoulders von Braun, Oberth and Goddard stood, was born 156 years ago, today: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). Inspired by the romances of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky conceived almost all of the key elements of astronautics and rocket science that later generations would bring to fruition – among them steering thrusters, multi-stage boosters, space stations and airlocks. He also originated the concept of the space elevator, a consistent trope of Arthur C. Clarke‘s works from The Fountains of Paradise onward. Wernher von Braun was known to have read Tsiolkovsky’s work in translation, and the two principle architects of the Soviet space programme studied his work in their youth.

It is not fanciful to draw a direct line from Tsiolkovsky’s work to the launch of Sputnik and, therefore, the beginning of the Space Age. And as science fiction fans, that makes us very grateful. Happy Birthday, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky!