The Strange and Wonderful Origins of Rocketry


Beard-singed Taoist alchemists discovered the secret to blasting off.


I want to tell you about exciting new research into the strange and mystical origins of rockets---but first, indulge me a brief meditation on the general awesomeness of rocketry. 

Think about what a rocket actually does: it conjures up hot, fiery gas, then breathes it, dragon-like, into the Earth, blasting skyward, riding through its selfmade escape tunnel out of Earth's gravity, humans and satellites and telescopes along for the ride. Rockets create temporary space portals.

And they do it in grand style. Last Monday was the 43rd anniversary of rocketry's most spectacular feat, the Apollo 11 launch, the controlled explosion that heaved humans to the moon. That launch was powered by a 300-foot Saturn V rocket, an engineering marvel consisting of 5.6 million distinct parts, all of which had to work perfectly for it to succeed. While the precision involved in designing and assembling a Saturn V is impressive, it's not nearly as impressive as seeing, firsthand, the goosebump-raising spectacle of lift-off. Among the many, many cultural mementos that have come down to us from the Apollo missions, one of my favorites is Norman Mailer's majestic account of the Apollo 11 launch for LIFE magazine:

"Two horns of orange fire burst like genies from the base of the rocket . . . white as a ghost, white as Melville's Moby Dick ... this slim, angelic, mysterious ship of stages rose without a sound out of its incarnation of flame . . . because of the distance, no one heard the sound of the motors until 15 seconds after they had started . . .  then, the ear-splitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once ... the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame ... an apocalyptic fury of sound."

Few machines inspire purple prose like that. 


So where did this charismatic technology come from? What is the origin story of the rocket? A new paper by Frank Winter, Michael Neufeld, and Kerrie Dougherty makes a convincing case that the rocket was "invented" by accident.

To understand how, we have to travel back to the invention of the first rocket fuel: gunpowder, or "the fire chemical," as it was called in ancient China. You see, to make a rocket, you need a substance that can deliver an explosion on command. That's because rockets derive their power from Newton's Third Law of Motion, which holds that for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Rocketry is all about creating a big action (an explosion) and directing the propulsive force of its equal and opposite reaction.

Gunpowder goes back quite a long way. It was first discovered in the 9th century, by Taoist alchemists who mixed together a crude version composed of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. But, interestingly, the alchemists weren't actively trying to make gunpowder; it's not as though they set out on a prolonged trial-and-error pursuit of a combustible substance. Instead, they were searching for eternal life. You see, Taoist aclhemists were obsessed with making potions to purify the spirit and the body, elixirs that they hoped would help them achieve immortality. The first gunpowder was a botched version of one of these potions, a chemical accident that (literally) blew up in the alchemists' faces. How do we know? Because ancient Chinese texts tell us of Taoist alchemists who walked around with singed beards and scorched hands---some even burned their own houses down. 

Though the Taoists went to great lengths to refine gunpowder, they don't appear to have possessed what we would consider to be a scientific understanding of its properties. As Winter and his co-authors explain, the explosive property of gunpowder "was regarded as the interaction of yin and yang, a belief entirely in accord with the principles and practice of Taoism." In gunpowder, these singed-face mystics thought they'd stumbled upon something metaphysical, a new magic borne of unseen forces. And in a way, they did, especially when you take into account the sorts of magical things that rocket fuels have enabled over the last half century. Things like this:

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Ross Andersen is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. He is based in California.

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