Hi, I’m Marley, the Astronomer here at the Space Centre.

Rockets have gotten quite the upgrade since they were first used.  In the first century, the Chinese used what historians consider to be the first real rockets, similar to fireworks we have today, during religious festivals.

Fast forward to the 20th century, and three people are credited with the invention of modern rocketry: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth. Their work resulted in advancements in rocketry including the “rocket equation”, an equation that describes the motion of rockets, and liquid-fueled and multistage rockets.  

Rocket development had an impact on the Cold War that followed. You can trace the ‘lineage’ of many rockets to their Cold War missile counterparts; a R-7 Semyorka intercontinental ballistic missile launched the first object into space, the Sputnik-1 satellite, in 1957.  

Rockets now are used for a variety of purposes. The type of rocket used depends on the mission. Are you going to the Moon? Mars? Sending food to the International Space Station (ISS)? Or maybe you’re just putting a satellite into orbit around Earth? All of these ventures will have different requirements, and the type of rocket needed boils down to two simple things: how heavy is the payload (what the rocket is carrying), and how far does it need to go.

Take the Saturn V rocket as an example.  This rocket is the tallest and most powerful rocket ever launched. It stood 111 meters tall, or 11 school buses parker end to end. Fully fueled, it weighed as many as 254 school buses: 2.8 million kilograms! It needed to be so large because it had to deliver the payload of the Apollo 11 mission. This payload consisted of the Apollo command and service module and the lunar module, as well as the astronauts, and more! Altogether, the payload delivered to a low Earth orbit (LEO) was 140,000 kg, the heaviest payload ever launched. This payload was heavy, and it went far, so a large rocket was needed.  

Looking to the future of rockets, it is useful to look at the two types of rockets that are coming into popularity: heavy-lift and super heavy-lift launch vehicles.  

Heavy-lift Vehicles
Heavy-lift rockets can send 20,000 – 50,000 kg of payload to LEO by NASA classification, or 20,000 – 100,000 kg to LEO by Russian classification. Examples of heavy-lift vehicles include the Space Shuttle, Arienne 5  and Falcon 9, the rocket used to launch Dragon to the ISS.

With the increase of space activity, new heavy-lift rockets are being developed.  The ArianeGroup for the European Space Agency is developing the Ariane 6, which will have better abilities to put satellites into different types of Earth orbits. New Glenn by Blue Origin is scheduled for 2022 and will have a reusable first stage.   

In addition, these types of rockets are being developed by a wider range of space agencies and private corporations. The Indian Space Research Organization has two rockets currently in development, and both JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and the United Launch Alliance, an American spacecraft launch service provider, are developing heavy-lift rockets for both space agencies and commercial endeavors.  

Super Heavy-launch Vehicles
Saturn V was a super heavy-lift launch vehicle. This classification is reserved for launch vehicles - or rockets - that can lift more than 50,000 kg by NASA qualifications, or 100,000 kg by Russian classification, of payload into a low Earth orbit. Super heavy-lift rockets are being developed for exploration; to the Moon and beyond.  

One super heavy-lift rocket that is currently undergoing testing is the SpaceX Starship. This rocket will have the ability to carry in excess of 100,000 kg to a LEO and will be able to be configured for cargo or crew. It will be 120 meters tall, one school bus longer than the Saturn V!  Another difference from the Saturn V is that the first stage, or the booster, will be reusable. The 70-meter-tall booster will return to the launch site after separating from the second stage.   

The Chinese National Space Agency is currently developing the Long March 9. The first flight is planned for the 2030s in preparation for the lunar mission the agency has in the same time frame. As it is still under development, not much is known about it yet. What we do know is that this rocket may have the same 140,000 kg payload capacity to LEO as the Saturn V, and a 44,000 kg payload capacity to Mars.  

With the announcement of NASA’s Moon to Mars initiative came the Artemis missions, and with the Artemis missions comes a new rocket: the Space Launch System (SLS). This rocket is being designed specifically for deep space exploration.  The very first version of the SLS vehicle will be used for Artemis I, and will have the ability to send more than 27,000 kg of payload to the Moon. The next version of the rocket will have increased payload capacity, and will have the ability to send more than 46,000 kg of payload to the Moon!   

Since we have an increase in space activity, with new ventures planned that will take humanity further than we’ve been, new rockets are definitely needed. So, keep your eyes peeled, and try out some of these activities to learn more! 

Comparison of some super heavy-lift launch vehicles (source: Wikimedia Commons




Astronomer Activity Playlist

Let your creativity soar and try some of these activities.

Make a Rocket Pop Up Card

Make a Rocket Out of Shapes

Build your own SLS

Ask yourself: How do you think making models of rockets might help engineers in the rocket design process?


Build some of these rockets and experiment with how rocket design and shape affect how they fly.

Build and launch a straw rocket

Build and launch a foam rocket

Experiment with lift and payload

Ask yourself: What challenges did you face in building your rockets? How did the design affect how they flew?


Fuel your brain and learn from rocket scientists. Watch this short video about the SLS rocket. And then watch some of NASA’s rocket science in 60 second videos.  

Ask yourself: What aspects of designing and building the SLS rocket do you find most interesting?