Hi, I'm Trish, Programs Coordinator at the Space Centre.

Rocket science is very complex, but at its essence, very simple. A rocket, a projectile propelled into the air by the combustion of its contents, relies on Newton’s third law of motion. Sir Isaac Newton developed three laws of motion. His third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In a rocket it is the combustion of fuel coming out of the bottom of the rocket that results in the rocket moving up (the opposite direction). Watch this short video demonstration of Newton’s third law. It’s easy to try this out without a rocket—you just need a balloon. Fill the balloon with air, hold the neck closed and then let the balloon go. What happens? The balloon flies off in the opposite direction to the opening in the neck. Now it probably didn’t go in a very straight or predictable direction…that is where rocket science becomes more complex.

Understanding where we’ve ended up with rockets means looking back at the history of rockets. The first rocket probably dates to 1232 when the Chinese use rockets in battle against the Mongols. Their rockets, called "arrows of flying fire" were a simple form of a solid-propellant rocket. Much like the balloon example above, there was little control over the rocket’s flight. People really didn’t know just where the rockets would land! As you could imagine this was a BIG problem, launching a rocket whether it be large or small and not knowing where it will land is dangerous for everyone. Leap forward a few hundred years and some very smart scientists, Russian Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky and American Robert Goddard, moved rocket science into the modern era.   

Robert Goddard, credited with building the first liquid fueled rocket, advanced rocket science with the development a multi-staged rocket that made it possible to send people into space. 










Dr. Robert H. Goddard tows his rocket to the launching tower behind a Model A Ford truck. 1930-1932. Credit: NASA


Rocket science has advanced from Goddard’s vision. One of the biggest new developments is the Falcon 9 rocket, used recently to send the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. Falcon 9 is unique in that it has reusable components, greatly decreasing the costs of launching people and materials into space.











Image credit: NASA

I hope this has inspired you to discover more about the history of rockets and how they work. We’ve pulled together a couple of playlists with some of our favourite web resources about rockets. Stay tuned as we dive more deeply into the future of rockets in a couple of weeks and a rocket-building contest.

Go through the playlist at your own pace. Here’s how we suggest you start:

Junior Astronomer Playlist (kids 8-12)
TimeActivity
5mins.

Get inspired by watching the Knowledge Network episodes about the history of getting into space – Fly Me To The Moon. You have to sign up and log in but it is worth it!

Ask yourself: What do you think will be the next great leap in rocket design?

20mins.

Start thinking about rocket design with this fun activity.

Ask yourself: What kinds of rockets can you design

20mins.

Build your own straw rocket. Experiment with different ways of launching rocket by blowing harder and changing the angle of your aim.

Ask yourself: How far can you send your rocket?

60mins.

Spend a bit more timing working on designing rockets.

Ask yourself: What are the most important components of rocket design?

Senior Astronomer Playlist (teens 13-15/adults)
TimeActivity
5mins.

Get inspired by watching the Knowledge Network episodes about the history of getting into space – Fly Me To The Moon. You have to sign up and log in but it is worth it!

Ask yourself: What do you think will be the next great leap in rocket design?

10mins.

Watch this short video about rockets and discover more about how rocket design supports space exploration.

60mins.

Build your own foam rocket. Experiment with how the launch angle affects a rocket’s path.

Ask yourself: How far can you send your rocket?

60mins.

Investigate how rockets have changed since the beginning of the space race. Watch the following videos of rocket launches and do a little reading about each of the rockets’ designs:

Saturn V launch of Apollo 11
Space Shuttle Launch
SpaceX Falcon heavy – launch and landing of boosters 

Ask yourself: What do you think have been the most important advancements in rocket science?