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:


Winter speculates that the alchemists' discovery eventually led to the development of primitive rockets. But it's hard to be sure. Because there is no ancient Chinese word or symbol for rocket, scholars have to be careful when examining texts for evidence of early rocketry. Some texts describe rockets as "fire arrows," but others use that term to refer to regular fire-tipped arrows that were used in warfare. The key to finding textual evidence of ancient rockets is to look for accounts of self-propelled "fire arrows." This confusion surrounding the use of "fire arrows" caused previous historians of spaceflight to suspect that rockets originated in warfare, an idea that was encouraged by the fact that modern rocket science bloomed during the Second World War. But scholars like Winter have recently shifted towards a gentler view: that the first rockets were actually fireworks.

According to the research, the earliest versions of these firework-rockets were called "ground rats." Ground rats were small gunpowder-packed bamboo tubes that Emperors used to amuse guests at court.  They were, at essence, spectacles---amusements meant to delight and inspire. As the name suggests, these proto-rockets moved laterally along the ground, rather than upward into the sky, though airborne fireworks, known as "meteors," would come later. Not everyone was charmed by the new technology. One legend, preserved in an ancient text, tells the story of a mischievous "ground rat" that ruined an Emperor's party:
"During the royal banquet in the palace, the Empress-dowager was entertained by the Emperor with yen huo [fire crackers] fired in the court. Suddenly, a ground rat ran quickly to the Dowager and went beneath her chair. She was so frightened and angered that the banquet was called off. The responsible eunuchs were put in jail, and the emperor apologized."   
Despite strong evidence, Winter and his colleagues are careful to note that the "ground rat" theory is only one among several plausible ways that rocket propulsion could have originated in ancient China. But to me it's the most convincing. I say that partly because the theory plays to my intuitions about human innovation, about the messy and often whimsical way that new technologies are invented. It's poetic to think that humans, in seeking eternal life, accidentally discovered the means by which they'd eventually travel to new worlds. The fruitless pursuit of one kind of transcendence begat another.
But there's another, more sentimental reason that I buy the rocket-as-firework story, and it has to do with how we relate to rockets today. Over the past thousand years, rockets have become quite useful; they're used to deliver weapons, to teach physics, and of course, to power space exploration. But even amidst this burst of functionality, the rocket has retained the essence of a firework. It still enchants like one. I know this from experience.
I've never seen a NASA launch in person, never witnessed Mailer's "mysterious ship" rising out of its "incarnation of flame," nor heard the accompanying "apocalyptic fury of sound." But I have seen the rocket work its magic another way. Like many 3-year-olds, my son is an early riser. On mornings when he wakes before dawn, my wife and I will often buy a little extra sleep by letting him watch old shuttle launches on YouTube. He'll sit for minutes, transfixed by the slow, tension-building countdown, the murmured technical jargon, the big booming thrust of lift off:
Such is the rocket's mesmerizing draw that it can entertain toddlers, our most attention-deficient demographic, for long stretches at a time. And it's the rocket's showmanship, its colorful, gravity-defying explosiveness that's doing the work. There's more to it, of course; at some level, my son understands that the rocket atop the big, shimmering stream of orange has a job to do, that it's carrying people into space. But mostly, it's just a big firework to him---a ground rat crawling its way to the stars.