Currently viewing website in desktop mode
Currently viewing website in tablet mode
Pricipia Mission Uk Space Agency European Space Agency Literature Works

The Origins of Rocket Science: Facts in Fiction! by Professor Richard Handy FRSB

Professor Richard Handy

The Origins of Rocket Science: Facts in Fiction! by Professor Richard Handy FRSB

At One Giant Read, we’ve been exploring the relationship between science fact and science fiction. We caught up with Richard Handy, author of the alternative historical novel The Reich Device which weaves science into its plot with a thrilling outcome. Richard has penned an exclusive feature for One Giant Read which we think is a fascinating accompaniment to his novel.

It is our very nature as humans to explore. However, our thirst for discovery comes with its own challenges – especially in space. Some obvious problems come to mind: such as providing the air, food, water and warmth that our bodies need to survive; a means of navigation and safe return for the astronauts; and of course, the provision of scientific instruments for the mission. However, the biggest problem is arguably getting into space in the first place. In our modern world we take such things as commercial satellites and the rockets used to launch them in our stride – being in space is now part of our culture. However, it hasn’t always been that way.

An American scientist called Robert Goddard is credited with inventing the concept of modern rockets. Goddard had a fantastic dream; that of space travel! He realised that a method to escape Earth’s gravity was needed to get into space. In short, Goddard wanted to be an astronaut, but he had to be an engineer first. He successfully launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket on the 16th March 1926. His rather small prototype travelled a few tens of feet into the air and then fizzled out. He was ridiculed as a maverick by the press and some members of the scientific community at the time. However, Robert Goddard is now regarded as one of the founding fathers of liquid-fuelled rocket technology – without it there would be none of space exploration we see today. Goddard used a fairly unstable mixture of gasoline and liquid oxygen for his prototypes in the 1920s, but things soon changed in the 1930s with the rise of Nazi Germany.

Europe was a hot bed of innovation in the 1930s. Enrico Fermi (University of Rome) split the atom in 1934. He was subsequently was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1938. In Germany, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch were performing similar experiments and were arguably the first scientists to coin the term ‘nuclear fission’. Germany was producing some of the finest precision engineering and physics of its day. However, Germany also showed a strong interest in Robert Goddard’s early work on rockets and set up their own programme.

In Germany, the Army Weapons Department at Kummersdorf, not far from Berlin, was the home of heavy artillery. It was a natural progression to use Kummersdorf for testing rockets instead of shells from the cumbersome artillery of the Great War. In 1933, the Waffenamt Prüfwesen (‘Weapons Proof’) 1/1 programme was set up. The work was directed by a scientist, Walter Dornberger. The so-called Raketenflugplatz tests of Al and A2 liquid-fuelled rockets had some failures and successes. However, crucially, in September 1933, Adolf Hitler toured Kummersdorf and was so impressed that millions of Reichsmarks were invested into the rocket programme. Some brilliant and charismatic physicists worked on the project, including Wernher von Braun. Germany refined the fuel mixtures, the design of the propulsion system and the aerodynamics of the rockets in flight. This ultimately led to the V-1 rocket, first launched at London on the 13th June 1944, and the V-2 rockets that followed.

Arguably, the stimulus of world war increased the rate of innovation in rocket technology. After World War II, the Americans picked up on the uses of rocket technology. Under the auspices of Operation Paperclip, German scientists and engineers were relocated to the USA. The likes of Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun were hired. They worked with the US army initially, under the direction of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which subsequently evolved to become the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.

Today we scientists are mindful of the implications of our work and a buzz word (or rather phrase) of the moment is responsible innovation. This means what it says on the tin – innovators need to act responsibly so that new inventions are safe and bring net benefits to society. However, Nazi Germany worked on many other technologies (as did the British and Americans), and one has to ask… what if… Germany had developed weapons other than the atom bomb and liquid-fuelled rockets?

As a member of the European Nanosafety Cluster, I’m part of a scientific community that is studying the safety, risks and benefits of nanomaterials and their application (nanotechnology). Nanomaterials are used in aviation and space exploration. For example the airframe of the A380 airbus, one of the largest passenger planes to date, incorporates carbon nanofibres – a material that very light but over 100 times stronger than steel. Nano silver is also reported to be used in the water purification systems for astronauts and in ergonomic clothing for its anti-microbial properties. Nanotechnology is also getting in on the act with propulsion systems. Science is moving forward (please excuse the pun!) with particle thruster technology. These small particle-based motors are a reality. They are intended to be used for subtle adjustments of the attitude of structures in space, such as the International Space Station. The motion that particle thrusters can produce is modest and currently only useful in the vacuum of space, but nonetheless it is a new beginning, just as it was in Goddard’s day.

However with all this innovation, one might ask who is keeping an eye on the innovators? What are the consequences of our scientific research? My recent novel, The Reich Device, gives a cautionary tale of an alternative history where Nazi Germany evolved three avenues of new technology: the atom bomb, rockets, and nanotechnology – and decided to go with nano with some dire consequences. The story is set in 1930s Germany with cameos from some of the scientists of the day, including Einstein, Dornberger and others. There is of course, a villain, a hero, state-sponsored industrial espionage, spies, assassins and a beautiful woman – a thriller wouldn’t be a thriller without them! This historical novel with some ‘science in the fiction’ is of course intended as entertainment to fuel the public imagination, but it’s also about our collective responsibility for big science. Who knows where new materials and rocket technology will take us next?

The Reich Device was published in 2015 by Matador Books.