What is a Rocket?

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  • Written By: Diana Bocco
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  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2018
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The word "rocket" can be used to refer to a couple of different objects. It can be a type of flying vehicle used by astronauts, space explorers, and even unmanned space flights. Others are used as weapons, fired by anything from tanks to airplanes. A model rocket is a small toy used by hobbyists to propel fireworks or to practice direct air launching.

No matter the type, there is always a propellant or chemical reaction used to set the rocket in motion. This propellant can be gasoline or more complex mixes such as liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, although they sometimes use other propulsion systems to get into the air. This device is the main way that spacecraft get into orbit as well, and without one, it would be impossible for artificial satellites, space vehicles, and interplanetary probes to have enough thrust to leave Earth, reach space, and then establish a flight pattern.

The difference between the type used as a weapon and those used in spacecraft is mainly in the construction. Those used to propel items into space have a strong but short thrust, as their only function is to get the vehicle out of the atmosphere; once there, the rockets are then separated from the main body and abandoned. Weapons, on the other hand, need to maintain a long trajectory, so staying power is more important than explosive power.


The earliest form of a rocket was used for firework displays in China and India. There are written accounts of the Han Dynasty using them as far back as 206 BC, but it wasn't until 1379 AD that the Italians developed an early form of a firecracker. From then on, all rockets created were designed with either weaponry or display in mind.

Russian mathematician Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to suggest the use of rockets for space travel. Tsiolkovsky was a visionary who had his eyes on space as early as 1903. By the mid-1920s, Germany had taken a serious interest in rocket science, and it took the leading spot in their research and use.


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Post 5

I’ve always found it a bit strange that the space shuttle required rockets to help it get into space. I thought the shuttle itself could deliver enough firepower from its engines to launch it into orbit, but apparently that is not the case.

We’re not quite in Star Trek yet. Once the space shuttle program retires NASA plans to use the Ares rocket for subsequent human spaceflight missions. Ares is a two-stage rocket and will be able to carry 4 to 6 astronauts and a payload of 25 tons. It will be able to orbit Earth and carry supplies to the International Space Station.

Post 4

@NathanG - Most likely you were playing with Estes rocket kits. They’re not the only makers of model rockets but they’ve been around a long time, and yes, the things you can do with model rockets these days are absolutely amazing.

You’ve got things like extra booster engines, two stage rockets, flight altitudes up to 2,000 feet and a lot more. As long as you’re not launching in an area that has not been zoned off for firework type activity (which is essentially similar technology), then “the sky’s the limit.”

Post 3

When I was a kid I used to play with hobby rocket kits. I launched the rockets in a big park right in front of our house, and watching them take off and then release their parachutes was a big thrill. Some of them even had little pinhole cameras that would trigger a photo on reaching their apex in flight. The models came in a variety of shapes and sizes and even mimicked famous NASA rockets like the Saturn V.

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