Some images from the early days of rocketry: 1940s and 1950s

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Rockets

Rockets differ from jet engines in not needing oxygen from the atmosphere to burn their fuel.  This makes them suitable for use in space and in the very high atmosphere.  Because rocket fuel is highly energetic and flammable, it is usual to provide it in two separate components that are individually slightly less hazardous.  Nonetheless, the manufacture and provision of rocket fuel is a dangerous undertaking more or less from beginning to end. 

Rocket engines are comparatively light weight for the power they produce and have few moving parts. Even in the lower atmosphere they can achieve rapid acceleration and fast speeds.  They have no gearbox and usually run flat out all the time. To make use of their advantages, traditional rockets burn fuel quickly and use up their fuel in a time measured in minutes or tens of minutes rather than the hours a jet engine can achieve.  Rockets in flight are more often used to gain height than to maintain speed, with long flights achieved in space by cruising without power or over the Earth by dropping down from a great height using gravitational potential energy to maintain speed.  From the 1950s onwards, small rocket motors have also been used in satellites, spacecraft and on rockets themselves for steering and orienting.

Messerschmitt 163.  The first rocket plane, developed in the early 1940s for use against allied bombers.  The plane had no tail wings but flew well at speed even after its fuel had run out in less than 10 minutes.  It could climb to over 10 km height in under 3 minutes.  The undercarriage seen in the picture was left on the ground at take-off and it landed on skids.  A few hundred were built.  It was technically brilliant but most of the production never flew because of practical problems.

Messerschmitt 163 rocket plane
Sea Hawk VP 401 under power.  The Armstrong Siddeley Snarler was the first British liquid-fuelled rocket engine to fly.  It was developed in the late 1940s and added to the early jet-engined Sea Hawk in 1950, seen in this image firing its rocket.                                                  
Sea Hawk VP 401
Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket.  This sleek American rocket plane with swept-back wings was built by Douglas Aircraft Co. for the US Navy in the early 1950s.  It was the first plane to fly at over Mach 2, about 2000 km per hour, in 1953.  All the early rocket planes were really experimental rigs to test rocket engine technology and the aerodynamics of flying under control at high speed. Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket

Small rocket. More wings than a plane - a missile from the 1950s needed the ability to steer in flight and not tumble. Steering added significant complexity in the form of steerable fins or a steerable thrust. It also needed some form of internal navigation. Robert Goddard (one of the 'fathers' of rocketry, after whom the Goddard Space Flight Centre is named) is credited with the development of the first liquid-fuelled rockets in the 1920s and the development of inertial navigation for rockets in the 1930s.

Small rocket
Rocket firing. A missile launch conveys the power available from a modest sized rocket motor.                                                   
Missile firing
Preparing for a modified V2 launch at White Sands. Much of the 1940s American Army rocket program was based on developing the V2 design or learning from its defects.
Modified V2
Cameras roll as a 2-stage rocket derived from the V2 blasts off. This may be the launch of project Bumper where the second stage, a modified WAC Corporal, reached a height of almost 400 km in 1949 - the first rocket to go into ' space'.
Cameras roll
Viking rocket. A Viking liquid fuelled (alcohol and liquid oxygen) rocket of the US Naval Research Laboratory getting ready for launch in the early 1950s.  Viking rockets had advanced directional and roll control and were used for upper atmosphere research.
Cameras roll

The Aerobee, 1954.  The anatomy of a research rocket. One of the last of the Aerobee rockets, designed to send animals into 'space'

Anatomy of a reseach rocket
Aerobee solid fuel research rocket. The largest of the Aerobee rockets preparing to send mice into space. Just as well a strong wind isn't blowing.
Aerobee on the launch pad
Mice in space. As with the very first balloon ascents in the late 18th century, animals were sent in to space before humans.
Mice in space
Pioneers. Left: a young Werner von Braun, architect of the German V2 rocket and later American developments leading to the Saturn rockets. Centre: Hermann Oberth, rocket and space flight visionary of the 1920s and 30s who was an inspiration for Von Braun. Right: Robert H. Goddard, pioneer of independent American rocket initiatives whose book A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes published in 1919 was one of his many contributions but whose work was not much appreciated at that time.
Braun, Oberth, Goddard