Writer at The Secrets of the Universe and Founder of Astronomy Hub, I am 17 year old student from Romania. I am an astronomy popularizer and love to teach the subject. I also enjoy classical music and love reading philosophy and literature.
We are living in an age when every time you read news, rockets are being launched into space from all around the world. I doubt you never asked yourself: how powerful is a rocket of that kind? What does it take for a rocket to go into space?How far can it go? And what is really behind the NASA, SpaceX, or Blue Origin rockets?
Where It All Began
Really, the history of rockets is very long. Still, the real works in the development of space travel date back to 1903. In that year, the high-school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, inspired by Jules Verne and the Cosmism philosophical movement, published the first serious work on space travel, called “The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices”. He advocated the use of liquid hydrogen and oxygen as a propellant.
In 1912, the so-called “father” of rocketry, Robert Goddard, began an analysis of rockets. He developed a model of how a rocket should look like. He concluded that rockets should be arranged in stages. In 1914, he patented his concepts, while working out the mathematics of rocket flight. Also, Robert Goddard is credited with creating the first liquid-fueled rocket. He successfully launched his rocket on March 16, 1926.
Another pioneer in the development of rocket science is Wernher von Braun, who was an aspiring rocket engineer, a rising star in the field, working for the Nazi regime. He is credited with the creation of the first long-range ballistic missile, the well-known V2. On 20 June 1944, the rocket became the first man-made object to reach the outer space. It’s maximum altitude (if launched vertically, obviously), was 206 km.
The Cold War was a great opportunity for rocket development. Bigger and more powerful rockets were designed both in the United States and in Russia, and the interest for rocket science had increased a lot.
The Powerful Ones
Rockets came to extraordinary performances these days, coming with technologies Jules Verne wouldn’t even have imagined could exist. Also, new rockets are being launched every day. As I said in a previous article, we are witnessing “new space race”.
But there are many ways rockets can be classified. There is efficiency, payload capacity, thrust force, or size. Let’s see and compare the biggest of the biggest.
The Falcon Heavy
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is currently the most “powerful” operational rocket in the world. That doesn’t make it the most powerful rocket ever. It can produce an impressive thrust of 1.7 million pounds and has 9 Merlin 1D engines per booster. It can take up to 63,802.3 kg into Low Earth Orbit. The rocket was first tested on February 6, 2018, and the thing that is really amazing, is that the rocket cost 90 million USD, price which basically breaks all the barriers of space travel.
NASA’s Apollo program rocket is really the most powerful rocket ever made. Wikipedia calls it a “super-heavy lift launch vehicle”, which is a classification for rockets that can take 50 tonnes of payload into Low Earth Orbit. Falcon Heavy has a theoretical lift of 68 tonnes too, but it is an unproven statement, as SpaceX has never tested with such payloads. Saturn V can lift 140 tonnes, which is almost double the lift capacity of Falcon Heavy. Now this is really cool. Also, Saturn V’s thrust equals 5,141 kN, compared to Heavy’s 934 kN.
Still, Falcon Heavy has a lot of advantages over Saturn V. Bigger size doesn’t always mean better. SpaceX’s Falcon is more efficient, and re-usability, for example, is a huge advantage, and a big progress to rocket science.
Which one of these will take us to Mars?
Actually, none of them. The SLS, the Space Launch System under designation at NASA, is one of the contenders to take us to Mars, or to the Moon. NASA is currently aiming for the Moon, developing the Artemis program, but a further adventure to Mars may be on SLS’s flight computer too, at some point in the future.
The SLS is also a super-heavy lift vehicle, actually more powerful than anything built before. It is designed in two Blocks, Block 1 and Block 2. Block 1 will use solid rocket boosters, and for Block 2, NASA is planning to use some advanced rocket boosters, which are still under development.
Another contender to the title of “first vehicle getting us to Mars”, is SpaceX’s new rocket, of course. This one is also under development, and it will be called Starship. It will be slightly better in payload capacity than SLS, but SpaceX is planning to come with some innovative ideas in other areas. Reusability will always be SpaceX’s main advantage.
There are many other rockets under development, and I am extremely pleased that rocket engineering is such an active field. With new challenges every day, it’s hard not to be. But the United States engineers are not the only ones working in the field, as I pointed out in a previous article. For example, China is preparing a contender to the “most powerful” rocket, the Long March 9. So keep an eye on, because bright days are coming.