A Brief History of Flight – The Rocket Age, Part 1
During World War II, the Germans were way ahead of the Allies in all matters Rocketry. Even as they were decisively losing the ground war, London (and later Antwerp, in the Battle of the Bulge) were being bombarded by rocket bombs called the V-1. The British dubbed these rocket bombs “buzz bombs” because of their distinctive buzzing sound.
The V-1 was powered by a pulsed jet engine, and was launched from airplanes. It had no inherent guidance system, and just turned off and fell after a set amount of time.
Contrary to popular belief, less that 20% of the “buzz bombs” fired ever reached their intended targets. They were relatively slow, and could easily be shot out of the air by allied antiaircraft guns and war planes.
Nevertheless, as the allies advanced towards Berlin, intact V-1 bombs were captured and sent back to the US, and thereof was born the first US guided missile, the JB-2.
After WWII, The US embarked on a program to develop the first true rocket plane or space plane, the X-15. Because the X-15 was a liquid fueled manned rocket, it could go into true space, which at the time was defined as an elevation of 62 miles.
The X-15 was not a warplane, but a research plane built for NASA. It used up its fuel in a mere 2 minutes, so it was launched from the underside of a specially modified B-52.
The X-15 flew 199 missions from 1959 to 1968, and during that time set world altitude and speed records for a manned aircraft that have never been exceeded. In October, 1967, pilot William J. Knight flew at a speed of 4,519 miles per hour, or Mach 6.72, at an altitude of 102,100 feet.
The X-15 was originally considered as part of a low-Earth orbit satellite delivery system, but that idea was retired with the encroaching successes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flight programs.
The Russians Are Coming
On October 4, 1957, Americans (and the whole world) woke up to find that the Soviets (the USSR) has launched a satellite into near-Earth orbit for the very first time in human history.
At an altitude of about 560 miles, this satellite, Sputnik I, was moving at about 18,000 mph, and took a little over 90 minutes to circumnavigate the Earth.
There was no doubt that the Soviets had done this: any amateur radio operator could easily pick up Sputnik’s radio signals broadcasting at 20MHz and 40MHz. The space age, and the space race, had begun.
Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet space mecca in what today is called Kazakhstan, Sputnik I was quite small by today’s satellite standards, only being 23 inches in diameter, but it certainly made a big splash in the worldwide press, as indicated by the above video.
The satellite made only 1440 revolutions of the Earth before reentering Earth’s atmosphere and burning up in January of 1958.