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Launch of a Saturn V with Apollo 8 on top
Rocket gun, 1865 ( HGM )
Ascent of the space shuttle Atlantis
Soyuz-FG launches the manned spacecraft Soyuz TMA-5
Firework rocket in flight
Toy rocket (Soviet Union, 1969)

A rocket ( Italian rocchetta , spindle , from which Conrad Haas gave the term rackette ) is a missile with a recoil drive ( rocket drive ). The drive can also work independently of an external substance supply (e.g. oxidizer) during operation and therefore accelerate the rocket even in a vacuum . In contrast to projectiles , rockets have (comparatively) long acceleration phases. The significantly lower load as a result enables a correspondingly lighter structure. Rockets come in sizes from handy firework rockets to giant space rockets such as the Energija or Saturn V , which was used in the Apollo program , the manned flight to the moon .

Missiles are used in particular as a military weapon , in space travel , as a signal rocket or as fireworks . If a missile has very extensive self-control and can, for example, follow moving targets, then it belongs to the guided missiles .


The first recorded rocket launch took place in 1232 in the Chinese Empire . In the war against the Mongols , the Chinese used a type of missile at the Battle of Kaifeng : They fired a large number of simple missiles powered by black powder at the attackers. The missiles were less intended to injure the enemy than to frighten the enemy horses.

In Europe, the first documented Start found a rocket in 1555 in the Transylvanian Sibiu instead. The missile already had a three-stage propulsion system. (see: Conrad Haas )

According to the report by Evliya Çelebi , Lâgari Hasan Çelebi is said to have flown in the 17th century on the coast of the Bosporus below the Topkapı Palace (today: Istanbul) with a self-made rocket for about 20 seconds before landing with wings in the water. However, exact dates or independent third-party reports that testify to this flight are not known.

In India, so-called Mysore rockets were used against the English troops in the Mysore Wars (1766–1799). Their success took the British by surprise, especially in the Battle of Pollilur / Perambani (1780), in which missiles detonated a powder wagon and turned the battle around.

Inspired by these models, the Englishman William Congreve made his  first major experiments in 1804 with the Congreve rocket developed by him and later named after him - a kind of incendiary rocket; the weapon was used in 1806 at Boulogne, in 1807 when bombarding Copenhagen , in 1809 when attacking the French fleet near Île-d'Aix and when bombarding Vlissingen and in 1813/1814 off Glückstadt. During the Wars of Liberation , the English sent their allies rocket batteries, which were used in 1813 in the sieges of Wittenberg and Danzig and in the Battle of Leipzig . Congreve's missiles were also used against the Americans in the war of 1812 .

After carefully studying the English missile weapons, the Austrian baron Vincenz von Augustin introduced this new weapon into the Austrian army. Augustin was head of the war rocket facility from 1814 and was in command of the rocket corps (fireworks corps) in Wiener Neustadt that had been newly established in the Austrian artillery until 1838. An Austrian rocket gun for eight-pound rotary rockets dates back to 1865 and is in the Army History Museum in Vienna . In the further development of the British William Hale (1797–1870), the Hale rocket , stabilization was no longer achieved by a rod, but by the propellant itself. After the ignition, the powder gases emerged not only through the rear drive opening, but also through boreholes on the side, thus setting the rocket in rotation. In Russia Konstantin Iwanowitsch Konstantinow developed rockets with a range of 5 km in the years 1847–1871; from 1894 Nikolai Ivanovich Tichomirow carried out investigations into solid rocket engines , which led to the development of the Katyusha rocket launcher .

In 1903 Konstantin Ziolkowski published the basic rocket equation and thus put the principle of the multi-stage rocket on a scientific basis.

The physicist Hermann Oberth carried out a series of fundamental rocket experiments at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1923 he published The Rocket for Planetary Spaces , a version of his dissertation that had been rejected by Heidelberg University.

In 1926 Robert Goddard successfully tested his self-developed rocket with liquid fuel in the USA.

At Opel , rocket research began in 1927 with a specially constructed test bench to measure the rocket's thrust. Even Max Valier and Friedrich Wilhelm Sander participated. On April 11, 1928, Kurt C. Volkhart drove the first result of Opel's research on the factory racetrack: the RAK1 rocket car . Fritz von Opel completed what was probably the world's first manned rocket flight on the Frankfurt Rebstock in September 1929 . He reached a speed of 150 km / h with the Opel Sander aircraft RAK-1.

In 1931 Johannes Winkler , founder of the VfR ( Association for Space Travel ), succeeded in launching a liquid rocket for the first time in Europe. The GIRD-09 and GIRD-X missiles were launched in the Soviet Union in 1935 . Both missiles were developed by the GIRD ( Group for the Study of Recoil-Driven Motion ), a sub-organization of the OSSOAWIACHIM . 1,942 raised in Peenemünde by the German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun developed unit 4 as a first controlled flight and stabilized space rocket, and thereby initiating the development that led to the use of missiles as means of transportation for weapons of mass destruction. Lothar Sieber carried out the first manned vertical take-off of a rocket aircraft in 1945 in a Ba 349 Natter . The flight ended in a fatal crash. 1957 left a modified Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile of the type R-7 the earth's atmosphere and brought the satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit around the Earth.


Each rocket consists of the following assemblies:

The assemblies are held together by the shell. Individual assemblies can also appear several times ( multi-stage rocket ).


Chemical rocket engines are generally used for self-launching missiles, a distinction being made between liquid and solid-state engines .

However, the term missile is not limited to functional principles based on the combustion of propellants. In the area of ​​very small rockets, the support mass can also consist of simple water , which is ejected backwards with the help of compressed air. One then speaks of a water rocket .

Nuclear engines that have already been tested have not yet been used for safety and environmental reasons. Electric rocket engines are only used for space probes and satellites that have already been launched, as their low thrust forces are insufficient to overcome terrestrial gravity and are only effective in space ( ion propulsion ).

Control and steering devices

Like all missiles, the missile needs controls that bring the missile on course and keep it on course. These units must also keep the flight attitude stable. For flight in the earth's atmosphere, rockets have so-called “fins” or “fins”. They use the air flow that occurs during flight, comparable to the function of a tail unit on an airplane , and hold the rocket straight to the direction of flight to prevent it from drifting. The missile can also be steered with the fins; this type of control is only possible within the earth's atmosphere.

Most of all rockets are controlled by direct slewing of the engine or built-in thrusters . Here the gas flow of the engine is directed so that the rocket pushes in the desired direction; this control system works independently of the environment.

Control nozzles ( Reaction Control System , RCS) are required for precise control in space . These are often very small and generate only small thrusts. With them the rocket can be steered in any direction.

Unguided missiles

Unguided rockets are aligned by the launch angle and are only stabilized aerodynamically or by rotating themselves during flight . Examples of this are fireworks rockets , model rockets , ship rescue rockets , smaller sounding rockets ( e.g. MMR06 -M), numerous short-range military rockets ( e.g. Katyusha ), simple surface-to-surface / surface-to-air missiles or projectiles from rocket pistols and rocket guns.

Stabilization can be done by:

  • Twist stabilization . The rocket is set in rotation around its longitudinal axis. The principle is the same as with the gyroscope , which is stabilized in its position by rotating.
  • Tail units, which can also generate swirl if necessary. The tail units are usually located at the rear end of the rocket, but always behind its center of gravity . They cause aerodynamic stabilization. If there is a deviation from the intended flight path, dynamic pressure is created on the tail units, which realigns the rocket.
  • A stabilizing rod, such as B. in fireworks rockets. Due to the length of the rod, it has a large moment of inertia , which makes it difficult to twist out of the intended flight path. At high speeds, the rod also acts like a tail unit. Lowering the center of gravity is not decisive here, since - in contrast to a suspended pendulum - gravity does not generate any torque in a rocket .

Guided missiles

Guided missiles are subject to course monitoring during flight and have the ability to correct the course. The course correction can be done autonomously or by a control station.

The course correction is usually initiated by a gyro system that monitors the spatial position , also called an inertial navigation system . Today it is supplemented, for example, by GPS control. This can be done by the following control elements:

  • Tail units act on the surrounding air and can therefore be used during flights in the atmosphere even after the fire has closed.
  • Thrusters act directly in the expelled gas flow.
  • Swiveling expansion nozzles or gas dynamic steering .
  • Steering thrusters that act on the side of the longitudinal axis.

In the military field, guided missiles are called missiles .

Examples of this are long- range military missiles ( the first ballistic and guided missile in series production was the A4 from 1944 ), as well as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles , larger sounding missiles and launch vehicles for satellite launches.


The shell of rockets has to be as light as possible in order to benefit the fuel and the payload. In order to carry as little dead load as possible after a certain amount of fuel has burned off , larger rockets are designed in multiple stages - after one stage has burned out , it is disconnected and the next stage ignited. The separation takes place mostly by blasting off ( pyrobolt ), but can also take place by the ignition of the subsequent stage. This optimizes the usable energy and increases the specific power and payload capacity. There are up to five-stage rocket systems in space travel.

The envelope must be designed to be aerodynamically suitable for flights in the atmosphere; there can also be considerable thermal loads from air friction. In some rockets, such as the US Atlas rocket, the envelope is held in place by increased internal pressure. The mass of the envelope is very often only a fraction of the total mass of a rocket (mass of the envelope, the payload and the fuel). In some launch vehicles, the weight of the shell is only 5% of the total mass. The shell and structures of a rocket are mostly made of aluminum , as this metal is relatively light and stable. Components that are under high stress are made of steel or titanium .

Launchers and sounding rockets

Missile accidents

Although many explosions occurred during the development and testing of missiles, there were only a few missile accidents with personal injury as very strict safety measures were generally used.

Fatal missile accidents with victims on the ground

date Disaster Number of fatalities Type of misfortune
May 17, 1930 Berlin , German Empire 1 Max Valier dies in a combustion chamber explosion
October 10, 1933 Bohmte , German Empire 3 Explosion in Reinhold Tiling's workshop
July 16, 1934 Kummersdorf , German Empire 3 Engine explosion during ground test
1944? Tucheler Heide , German Empire ? During a test launch, an A4 rocket crashes into a trench in which several people are - several dead.
August 28, 1944 Redl-Zipf concentration camp subcamp , German Empire 24 Explosion of an A4 test engine on the “Schlier” rocket test stand. Among the dead is the rocket technician Ilse Oberth, daughter of Hermann Oberth .
October 24, 1960 Baikonur , Kazakh SSR over 126 Explosion of an R-16 on the launch pad (see Nedelin disaster )
April 14, 1964 Cape Canaveral , USA 3 Missile ignites in the assembly room.
May 7, 1964 Braunlage , Germany 3 During the demonstration of postal rockets by Gerhard Zucker , a rocket explodes shortly after takeoff, debris hits people in the crowd.
December 14, 1966 Baikonur , Kazakh SSR 1 (?) False start of an unmanned Soyuz spaceship. The rescue tower sets the missile on fire, which then explodes. See cosmos 133 .
January 27, 1967 Cape Canaveral , USA 3 Fire breaks out in the Apollo 1 command module during a launch simulation. The three astronauts Virgil Grissom , Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee die.
July 29, 1967 Gulf of Tonkin 134 A missile is accidentally launched from an aircraft parked on the flight deck of the US aircraft carrier USS Forrestal , hits another machine and causes a chain reaction of leaking fuel and exploding ammunition. See Forrestal disaster .
July 14, 1968 Baikonur , Kazakh SSR 1 During the preparations for launching a Zond moon probe, one of the rocket tanks bursts on the ramp, damaging the rocket and the launch tower. It took two weeks until the explosive debris could be recovered from the launch tower.
June 26, 1973 Plesetsk , RSFSR 9 Explosion of a Kosmos-3M on the launch pad
March 18, 1980 Plesetsk, RSFSR 48 Explosion of a Vostok-2M on the launch pad
February 14, 1996 Xichang , People's Republic of China 6th A CZ-3B missile crashed into a nearby village shortly after takeoff.
October 15, 2002 Plesetsk, Russia 1 Soyuz rocket launch explosion
August 22, 2003 Alcântara , Brazil 21st Explosion of a VLS-1 missile on the launch pad

Fatal missile accidents in manned flights and space travel

date Aircraft Number of fatalities Type of misfortune
March 1, 1945 Bachem Ba 349 snake 1 Crash after start. First ever manned rocket flight. Pilot: OLT Lothar Sieber . A start-up rocket could not be dropped, which prevented the braking parachute from being released during the subsequent maneuver .
April 24, 1967 Soyuz 1 1 During the landing, both the main and the reserve parachute of the spaceship, which was already struggling with problems, fail. The cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov dies on impact.
June 29, 1971 Soyuz 11 3 Asphyxiation of the cosmonauts. Before landing, a valve opens in space so that the air can escape from the capsule.
January 28, 1986 STS-51-L ( Challenger ) 7th Explosion shortly after takeoff. Exhaust gases from a leaky booster rocket cause the main fuel tank to explode.
February 1, 2003 STS-107 ( Columbia ) 7th The shuttle breaks apart when it enters the earth's atmosphere. The cause was a defect in the heat protection jacket of the shuttle caused by falling insulation parts of the external tank.

Physical basics

Although there are very different technical implementations of rockets, they all rely on the transmission of momentum from mass ejected against the desired direction of the rocket's acceleration .

The fundamental rocket equation describes the relationship between the mass of the rocket and that of the fuel . It follows from Newtonian mechanics and was first set up in 1903 by the Russian physicist Konstantin Ziolkowski .

See also


  • Philipp Burkhalter: Rockets and space travel - how rockets work and are made in an easily understandable way. Burkhalter Verlag, Bern 2011, ISBN 3-033-02876-4 .
  • Volkhard Bode, Gerhard Kaiser: Missile tracks. Peenemünde 1936–1996 - A historical report with current photos. Christoph Links Verlag - LinksDruck GmbH, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-86153-112-7 .
  • Gerhard Reisig: Rocket Research in Germany. How humans conquered space. Klaus Lenser agency, Münster 1997, ISBN 3-89019-500-8 .
  • Michael J. Neufeld: The rocket and the realm. Wernher von Braun, Peenemünde and the beginning of the rocket age. Henschel Verlag, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-89487-325-6 .
  • Harald Lutz: The forgotten rocket experiments from Cuxhaven. In: Sterne und Weltraum 44 (3), 2005, ISSN  0039-1263 , pp. 40-45.

Web links

Wiktionary: rocket  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Missiles  - Collection of Images

Individual evidence

  1. Image: RIA Novosti archive, image # 566218 / Oleg Ivanov / CC-BY-SA 3.0
  2. Science Online. Website of the Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. Retrieved January 25, 2010.
  3. “They also use large rockets that are eight to ten inches long and have a sharp, sickle-shaped blade at the tip. They are fired horizontally and are intended to bring disorder to the cavalry units. They are less effective than our hand grenades, but they go much further. According to the Indian authors, these missiles, called vana , were used very early on. The Rāmāyana speaks of the vana Rāmas as one of its most important weapons. Doesn't one therefore have to assume that gunpowder was known very early in India? "; Jean Antoin Dubois, Life and Rites of the Indians, Part III, chap. 9, p. 542
  4. " During war, the Indians use a kind of fire arrows called foguetes [port." Fireworks rockets "]. These are iron rods, 8-10 feet [2 ½ - 3 m] long and about 3 inches [7, 5 cm] thick; at one end a heavy iron quiver is filled with powder, which is ignited through a small hole in the can, whereupon the rod flies away with constant rotation at astonishing speed, sometimes killing or seriously injuring five to six people There are special people who handle these fire arrows, and it takes some strength and skill to steer them properly and give them a horizontal direction "; Jakob Haafner, Reise in einer Palankin, p. 60, footnote 1.
  5. Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Ed.): The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum in Vienna. Vienna, Graz 1960, p. 51.
  6. ^ Manfried Rauchsteiner , Manfred Litscher (Ed.): The Army History Museum in Vienna. Graz, Vienna 2000, p. 51.
  7. ^ Rudolf Hofstätter: Soviet space travel , Springer-Verlag , 2013, ISBN 978-3-0348-5280-7 p. 15 [1]
  8. Konstantin Eduardowitsch Ziolkowski : Exploration of space using reaction apparatus (Russian) in Wissenschaftliche Rundschau , St. Petersburg, No. 5, 1903.
  9. Alain Chabot: Mission L1 No. 8L: A deadly accident. In: July 14, 2018, accessed on July 20, 2020 .