National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
Facebook Twitter YouTube Facebook Twitter YouTube Flickr iTunes
Follow Us
History Timeline

The Robotic Exploration of Space
(View Flash Version)

A burst of invention at the beginning of the 20th Century brings technological wonders - automobiles, airplanes and even rockets. But - as physicist Robert Goddard soon finds out - space travel remains pure science fiction to most.
Goddard used science, mathematics and engineering to prove fantastic space journeys were possible, but he died long before his ideas became reality. Instead, he saw rocketry used as a terrible weapon of war.
Inspired as a child by Jules Verne's 1865 science fiction novel 'From the Earth to the Moon,' Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky publishes a theoretical paper "Research into Interplanetary Space by Means of Rocket Power." The paper describes how liquid propellants could give rockets greater range and even function in space.
Image 1: Tsiolkovsky
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky suggested rockets can function in space.
Image 2: Early Designs
Tsiolkovsky's early rocket designs.
Image 3: Space Dreams
Jules Verne's 1865 science fiction novel 'From the Earth to the Moon' inspired many early theorists.
December 17, 1903
Before we could get into space, we had to get off the ground here on Earth. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright break that barrier with the first controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Image 1: Wright Flyer
Orville and Wilbur Wright get humanity off the ground.
Image 2: Blueprint
A Smithsonian Institution recreation of the Wright Flyer Blueprints.
July 7, 1914
Two years after mathematically proving rockets can be used to reach high altitudes, Physicist Robert Goddard is the first to receive U.S. patents for liquid-fueled and multi-staged rockets. A year later, he proves a rocket can work in a vacuum - without air to push against - a key concept in space travel.
Image 1: Patented Power
Illustrations from Goddard's patents for a two-staged solid fuel rocket and a liquid-fuel rocket.
January 1920
Robert Goddard publishes "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." The research suggests a rocket could be sent to the Moon with a load of flash powder to explode on impact and mark its arrival. The proposal is widely ridiculed.
Image 1: Experiment
Robert Goddard with one of his early experimental rockets.
German physicist Hermann Oberth publishes The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, a scientific book describing rocket travel in space. The book inspires interest in rocketry. Among Oberth's protegees: Wehrner von Braun, who would later play a crucial role in sending American astronauts to the Moon.
Image 1: Oberth
German physicist Hermann Oberth.
Image 2: Wernher von Braun
A young Wernher von Braun studied rocketry under Hermann Oberth.
March 16, 1926
Robert Goddard launches the first liquid-propelled rocket in Auburn, Mass. The 4.7 kilogram (10.4 pound) rocket flew for only 4 odd seconds to an altitude of 12 meters (41 feet), but the event is essentially the birth of the space age. By the mid 1930s, Goddard's rockets would break the sound barrier.
Image 1: First Rocket
Goddard stands with the rocket that launched the space age.
Image 2: Diary
Goddard's diary entry describing the launch.
Image 3: Rocket Test
Goddard prepares to launch a rocket in Roswell, N.M.
Image 4: New Mexico Lab
Looking for room to launch larger rocket, Goddard moved his lab to the desert town of Roswell, N.M.
Image 5: Tow Truck
Early rockets rode to the launch pad on trailers.
October 3, 1942
Germany tests the first ballistic missile - a rocket capable of carrying explosives to distant targets. It is also the first rocket to reach the fringes of space. Rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun led the team that designed the missile. He will later design and build the rocket that boosts American astronauts to the Moon.
Image 1: Deadly Rocket
The V-2 rocket was the world's first ballistic missile.
Image 2: Striking Back
An American bomber attacks the German Peenemunde rocket testing ground.
Image 3: Von Braun
Wernher von Braun in his office at Peenemunde.
September 7, 1944
Germany attacks London with V-2 rockets. When the first V-2 hits London, Wernher von Braun tells his colleagues, "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet." His comments are considered treasonous by military police.
The Germans go on to fire more than 3,000 V-2s at England.
Image 1: V-2
A V-2 ready for launch in Germany. (Image courtesy of Centre for Defence and International Security Studies)
Image 2: V-2 Destruction
A V-2 rocket's destruction. (Image courtesy of Centre for Defence and International Security Studies)
Image 3: More Destruction
More V-2 damage in London. (Image courtesy of Centre for Defence and International Security Studies)
January 1945
Wernher von Braun arranges the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans. He spends the next 15 years working on American ballistic missiles. Many of his colleagues end up doing the same thing for America's Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.
Image 1: Surrender
Wernher von Braun surrenders to American troops. (Image courtesy of U.S. Army)
Image 2: Rocket Men
German rocket specialists were brought to the United States.
Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writers: Courtney O'Connor and Bill Dunford
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 30 Jun 2004