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A space rocket is basically any rocket propulsion system that launches a space craft into space. The rocket engine is the main propulsion design in use and has its origins in the military use of rockets during the Second World War. Before World War II rockets were still considered in the experimentation phase. They were mostly used in testing of engines with little practical application coming to the forefront. This changed with advance in rocketry by Dr. Goddard in the United States and growing interest in the use of rockets by the German military.
The two events are linked by the fact that German scientist drew a lot of the inspiration for their rocket design from frequent correspondence with Dr. Goddard. The Reich eventually looked into their military uses asking German scientist Dr. Werner Von Braun to lead the military development of the V-6 rocket, the first ballistic missile. The important link with space flight happened when Von Braun defected to the United States after the war and became the head of the United States Space Agency NASA. This allowed for the developments presented by military rockets to be used in the development of space rockets. The Russians who also worked with developing missiles also followed suit.
The next stage in the development of space rockets was to use them to send small payloads into space. The most successful launch was the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union. This proved the ability and possible application of rockets in space flight. This was shortly followed by the development of the Vostok and Mercury rockets. Both were based off of military design and trial and error. This proved to make the most reliable form propulsion for space flight and gave birth to modern space exploration.
Today rockets still play an important role in space travel. However scientists are looking to new forms of propulsion besides traditional liquid and solid propellant rockets. New types of engines such as the Ion Engine and VSIMR are being tested to see if they can improve on the importance of traditional rockets. Private companies in the meanwhile are developing tradition propulsion systems for the first time and are perfecting the market what governments developed in their respective agencies.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.