It's been over 2 millennia since mankind has been studying rocketry. Just like other advanced technology, the roots of rockets too are grounded deeply in the humble inventions of the past.
How it All Started
You will be astonished to know that todays rockets were inspired by a small wooden bird. This wire-suspended pigeon was invented by Archytas, a Greek philosopher and mathematician.
Another similar rocket device known as the 'aeolipile' was invented three centuries later by another Greek, namely Hero of Alexandria. This device was actually a sphere seated above a pool of water. The water would be boiling and the rising steam would go through L shaped tubes into both the sides of the sphere. This in turn, would cause the sphere to rotate. This concept of thrust, created by the steam, paved way for one of the basic principles of rocket science.
Right now, you may also recall the tiny firework-like rockets that come in a lot of films and cartoons. China was the first country to use the likes of those, similar to fireworks. This was back in the first AD and they would use it for religious festivals and celebrations.
After the Chinese, rockets began to be used for military purposes. One of the first such rocket, the 'Congreve', was developed in the early nineteenth century, by the British military.
The Three Pioneers and Rockets for Space
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian school teacher was the first to suggest using rockets for space exploration. He is acclaimed and accepted as the father of modern astronautics. His reasoning was ingenious, as he suggested that gas in rockets be replaced with liquid fuel. He made this proposition, so that rockets become capable of attaining more range.
Later, Robert H. Goddard, an American, was became keen to enable solid-propelled rockets. In the early 20th century, he conducted experiments for higher altitudes. During these experimentations, he realised that rockets are better off using liquid as fuel. On March 16, 1926, he acquired the first ever liquid propelled rocket flight. It was a short flight of two and a half seconds, but a breakthrough and would serve as a foundation for future rockets. He kept on making bigger rockets, with longer flight duration and parachute systems. He is credited as the father of modern rocketry.
Hermann Oberth, from Transylvania, is known as the third pioneer of modern rocketry. A lot of space societies had been formed when he had published his book on using rockets to travel into outer space (1923). The V-2 rocket was developed by one such society and used against London in World War II, in 1937.
As compared to the rockets of today, the V-2 rocket was smaller. In Germany it was called the A-4. The outcome of the war was in favor of London and allies, but German scientists had prepared other missiles as well, with payload capacities. A lot of V-2 rockets and components went unused due to the fall of Germany.
This led to both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to start exploring rocketry.
The First Orbit
It was on October 4, 1957, that the first ever earth-orbiting satellite, called the Sputnik I, was launched into outer space by the Soviet Union. This created competitive tension between the U.S and the Soviet Union.
Similarly, on January 31, 1958, launched Explorer I into outer space. In October, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed by the U.S, which was later turned into a civilian agency.
As seen in this infographic by Energy Minute, a series of programs and rockets followed these events.
Infographic by: Energyminute.ca