mysore rockets tipu sultan british

History of Revolutionary Rockets from Mysore to Sputnik Will Make You Curious

mysore rockets british army lose
Mysorean rockets of the South Indian ruler Tipu Sultan were used against the British in the 18th Century.

The rockets were well in use before the 20th century. The rockets were all conventional solid-fuelled rockets. The invention of liquid-fuelled rockets in the 20th century greatly increased the rocket’s efficiency and size.

The liquid-fuelled rockets could be well controlled, and since the oxidizer is carried along with the rocket, the rockets could well work in the realm of space without an atmosphere.  The process of staging increased the rocket’s velocity and range.

The multi-stage rockets made possible space travel. Thus the 20th-century rockets placed satellites in orbit around the earth, took humans into space, sent satellites to various planets, and landed humans on the moon.

Tsiolkovksy Rocket Equation

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian teacher was the first person to suggest liquid-fuelled rockets over solid-fuelled rockets for their efficiency.

The rockets available during the early 20th century were all solid-fuelled rockets. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian teacher was the first person to suggest liquid-fuelled rockets over solid-fuelled rockets for their efficiency.

He derived an equation in 1903 called the ‘Tsiolkovsky Rocket Equation’ in order to measure the delta-v capacity of the rockets. Delta-v is the maximum change in velocity that the rocket can undergo.  Robert  Goddard,  an  American physicist was experimenting with solid-fuelled rockets and measuring the exhaust velocities of the propellants. 

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Robert Goddard

Robert  Goddard,  an  American physicist was experimenting with solid-fuelled rockets and measuring the exhaust velocities of the propellants. 

After conducting these experiments he was convinced that rockets could be better propelled by liquid propellants. In 1919,  he published an article entitled “A method of reaching extreme altitudes”. He noted that rockets could work well in space as they do on earth.

This article was also criticized at that time. New York Times had even written that “Prof. Goddard, with his chair in the Clark college, is lacking the knowledge that is ladled out daily in high schools,  against which to react in space to form an action-reaction pair”. Goddard continued his further research on rockets and he was financed by the Smithsonian institution.

Hermann Oberth

Hermann Oberth

In Hungary in 1923, Hermann Oberth wrote a book entitled ‘Die racketen zu planetarium’ (The rocket into interplanetary space). This book caused interest in rockets in Europe. Many rocket societies sprung up in the world. Important among this was the German Vfr (Verein fur Raumschiffahrt). Vfr was conducting experiments using smaller rockets.

Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun, a young technical graduate, joined the Vfr society. rockets

Wernher von Braun, a young technical graduate, joined the Vfr society. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the work of Vfr became classified. Its work could provide a long-range artillery option.  von Braun became a SS member. The  Vfr after being absorbed into the army started development of the rockets that could bombard other countries.

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Early Soviet Rockets

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, rocket engine development was taking place in the Gas Dynamics Laboratory in Leningrad. Sergey Korolev
Sergey Korolev

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, rocket engine development was taking place in the Gas Dynamics Laboratory in Leningrad. Sergey Korolev and Valentin Glushko were the Soviet rocket technology pioneers. Stalin’s purge took away important rocket scientists along with many of the Soviet intellectuals to the Siberian Gulag camps where they were put into forced labor in very pitiful conditions, Sergey Korolev would not return to rocket development until the world war was over.

Early Liquid-fuel rocket development

The development phase was a very problematic one. Everything had to be developed anew. Rocket engines had to be developed. There were problems in controlling the rocket’s flight. The combustion chamber was a bit too problematic. Combustion chambers in the rocket engines have to withstand the enormous temperatures and pressures of rocket propulsion necessary to provide a fixed thrust.

V-2 rocket

The new rocket was called the 'Vergeltungswaffen-2' or popularly called the 'v-2'.

Finally, the needed combustion chamber could not be developed, and instead many small combustion chambers were used, to sum up, the necessary thrust required. The new rocket was called the ‘Vergeltungswaffen-2’ or popularly called the ‘v-2’. It used the mixture of ethyl alcohol and water as the fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.

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The Systems in V-2

v-2 rocket view from bottom to top

The turbopump in the rocket engine was run by the steam generated by the steam generator powered by the decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. The rocket followed its pre-determined trajectory due to the gyroscopes and accelerometers in it. Any deviation from the pre-determined path was sensed by the onboard gyroscopes.

If the rocket was following the pre-determined trajectory, then the voltage in its instruments unit would measure zero. If it deviated, then the voltage would be not zero. The gyroscopes would then act to make the voltage zero and keep up the right trajectory.

The rocket would attain a certain value of velocity in a particular direction, and then the onboard accelerometers would sense it and cut off the engine. Then the rocket would fly on a free-fall trajectory. The initial developments of the v-2 were made in a place on the Baltic coast. 

Allied Bombing

Allied Bombing v-2 rocket production

However, its vulnerability to allied bombing forced Germany to shift the v-2  production and developments to a safer location in the interior of the country in Mittelwerk. This place had underground production facilities, less vulnerable to allied bombing. Many test flights of the v-2 were conducted, of which there were both successes and failures.

World War 2 usage

World War 2 usage v-2 rocket direct hit london

v-2 was utilized fully in conflict from 1944 onwards. Belgian, French, and British cities were its main targets. The v-2 was designed to be transported and launched from any location. Thus many of the v-2s were launched from secret locations such as dense forests where they had little chance of identification by the Allies.

v-2s were also launched from German-occupied nations. Many v-2s were directed towards Antwerp in Belgium and London. v-2 was a ‘wonder weapon’ for Germany because it had no opposition. The Allies could not do anything once they spotted v-2s over their territory. The British investigated the wreckages of v-2 attacks to find out if there was any radio-guided instrument.

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British attempts at preventing V-2 attacks

They flew jammers believing that they would disrupt the enemy’s radio communication with the v-2. However, the attacks could not be stopped. This was because v-2s did not need radio guidance since they had instruments to cut-off engine fuel supply once it reached desired height and radio guidance was not needed for the last phase of the flight.

The Germans had almost no information on the impact of the v-2 attacks on London. Their only source of information was the spy network in England. However the spy network by then was in  British hands,  they sent falsified information through it tricking Germans that their missile missed targets. Germans believed this information and from then on v-2s were falling towards the less populous areas in England and not in London.

No impact on the course of the war

The v-2 campaign although successful made very less impact to change the course of the war. The casualties caused by the v-2 attacks were very insignificant when compared to other forms of weapons arid the cost and resources involved in the v-2 production. The v-2 had ethyl alcohol as the fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.

Large quantities of potatoes were required for ethyl production and that was the time when there was food scarcity in Germany. The v-2 production took up many of the German scientific and technical capabilities of the time The v-2s were mass-produced by using slave labor in the underground facilities. People put into forced labor were worked to death.

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Slave labor

About 20,000 people died of slave labor during the v-2 production. About 2,000 people died as a result of v-2 attacks. This was the only weapon in world war 2 in which more people died during its production than with its attack. It was a very costly weapon for Germany in WW2. Adolf Hitler forbade the use of v-2s on the eastern front.

Other rockets in WW2

Soviet unguided Katyusha rocket launchers were also successful

Solid rockets were used during world war 2 for a variety of purposes. They were used for Jet Assisted Take-Offs (JATO) in aircraft. The Soviet unguided Katyusha rocket launchers were also successful as deadly weapons. There were many rocket-powered planes invented during world war 2. The Japanese Kamikaze suicide planes were often rocket-powered.

The Nazis did not want their advanced rocket technology falling into Allied hands.  Nazis had planned to execute the rocket scientists once they were about to be captured by the Allies. As the Soviets were approaching Peenemunde, Nazis instructed the rocket scientists to go with Nazi officers who were instructed to kill all the rocket scientists once they were about to be captured by the Soviets.

von Braun’s escape to America

von Braun team moved further south along with the blueprints and documents related to the v-2

However, von Braun and his team convinced Nazi officers that they wouldn’t let Mies capture them. The von Braun team moved further south along with the blueprints and documents related to the v-2. They could pass Nazi check-posts in the guise of a  non-exist organization called the ‘Special Dispositions Unit’.

Knowing the attitude of the Soviets towards the prisoners of war, the team decided to surrender to the Americans. One day von Braun’s brother Magnus von Braun rode a bicycle and told in broken English that he was the brother of the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. The Americans then enquired and understood about the team. 

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Soviets occupy missile manufacturing sites

Meanwhile, the Soviets had captured Peenemunde v-2 production sites and captured several v-2 rockets intact. The then US president, Harry Truman initiated the secret operation paperclip which brought von Braun’s rocket team to the United States. Initially, their only work was to tell the workings and designs of the v-2 to US rocket scientists who tested many v-2s.

The Russians on the other hand had got a few v-2 technicians from whom they learned about the v-2. The Soviet occupation of the East European countries initiated the cold war. The hostility of the US and the Soviet Union demanded advanced weapon technology for both. Both tried to have missile technologies. The Americans developed their rockets based on the design of v-2.

The USA vs the Soviet Union

First Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile R-7 Semyorka. rocket soviet union ussr
First Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile R-7 Semyorka.

They had the advantage of the von-Braun team that designed the v-2, whereas the Soviets started their own rocket development and the German technicians were soon sent home. von Braun soon began publishing scientific articles related to interplanetary space exploration. He made a variety of designs including rockets, space stations, human spaceflight, etc.

He also was giving scientific shows related to space exploration on TV. Americans developing sounding rockets and missiles. The cold war made both US and the Soviet Union desperately need ballistic missiles that could strike each other’s territory. The first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was the Soviet R-7 Semyorka. The development of rocket technology made it possible for both US and the Soviet Union to take up plans to send a satellite into Earth orbit. 

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Sputnik 1 is the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. It was launched by the USSR on October 4, 1957.
Sputnik 1 is the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. It was launched by the USSR on October 4, 1957.

When 1957 was declared the International Geophysical year, pressure came upon both superpowers to launch a satellite in that year. The Soviet rocket development was led by Sergey Korolev who had returned from the Siberian Gulag camp and soon the false charges against him were dropped. His design bureau designed the R-7 Semyorka ICBM.

Initially, the Soviet plans for a satellite were more technical in design, however fearing that Americans would be the first to launch a satellite, the Soviet design was simplified. It was a simple aluminum sphere and the only instruments in it were a radio transmitter and a battery. The radio transmitter would give out beeps in accordance with the temperature of the space.


The satellite was named ‘Sputnik’ and it weighed 84 kgs. Sputnik was launched in October 1957 atop a modified R-7 Semyorka rocket from the Soviet spaceport at Baikonur Consmordrorne (row a part of Kazakhstan). The launch of Sputnik was met with great suspicion in the United States and called the Sputnik crisis.



Explorer 1 satellite.
Explorer 1 satellite.

The Americans feared the that Soviets were technically more advanced than they and pressure came upon the US government to launch a satellite. The US would not launch successfully an Earth orbit satellite until the launch of Explorer-1 in January 1958. Sputnik-1 kept orbiting Earth in a low-Earth orbit until it burned up reentering the atmosphere 92 days later.

Sputnik 2 – Laika

sputnik 2 ussr soviet union satellite

Meanwhile, the Russians launched their second satellite Sputnik-2 in November 1957. It carried a dog named Laika. The dog orbited Earth until it died in orbit some hours later or a few days later. The exact time Laika survived orbiting Earth is not known. This mission’s aim was to test if living beings survived in space.

Sputnik-2 had a container in which the dog was kept, the oxygen and food supply for the dog, and instruments. There were instruments in it measuring several health parameters of the dog. These parameters indicated dog survived the launch and Earth orbit. The satellite was quite heavier compared to Sputnik-1.

Sputnik-2 had a timer that activates the satellite once it was over Soviet territory and switched off the satellite when it was not above Soviet territory. This was done to prevent other nations from having control over the satellite. The dogs selected for this mission were all street dogs because they have a high tolerance for the external environment.

The dogs were subjected to stresses and loud noises experienced during launch. Finally the female dog Laika was selected. The satellite had a food container containing food for the dog. The scientists had no plans to return the dog to Earth. Their plan was to let the dog die in orbit. This raised ethical questions about the mission. But Laika proved that living beings could survive launch and reach Earth’s orbit.



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