Today in History – March 16, 1926 – Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard launched the world’s first successful liquid-fuel rocket. Goddard’s rocket was a very small contraption connected to tanks with gasoline and liquid oxygen, and sitting atop a frame 10 feet tall. It screeched into the air for a few seconds, reaching an altitude of about 40 feet and crashing down about 200 feet from its launch site. Goddard wrote in his diary that the rocket “looked magical as it rose.”
In a liquid rocket, stored fuel and stored oxidizer are pumped into a combustion chamber where they are mixed and burned. The combustion produces great amounts of high-pressure exhaust gas, which produces thrust. Today’s missiles and spacecraft are launched on liquid-propelled rockets based on Goddard’s groundbreaking experiments. In memory of Goddard’s work, a major space science laboratory, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, was established on May 1, 1959.
Also on this date in 1966, NASA launched Gemini VIII, the 12th manned American space flight and first space docking with the Agena Target Vehicle. Neil Armstrong, who was a recent test pilot assigned to the X-15 rocket airplane before becoming an astronaut in 1962, made his first space flight in 1966 on Gemini VIII with David R. Scott. The two men performed the first successful docking of two vehicles in space — the Gemini VIII and an uninhabited Agena rocket. This was the world’s first orbital docking. David Scott was to spend two hours outside of the spacecraft, but subsequent events canceled the planned space-walk. A thruster malfunction caused the Gemini VIII capsule, still docked to the Agena, to roll continuously. The crew undocked from the Agena while rotating at a rate of 60 RPM. The only way to stop the motion was to use the capsule’s reentry control thrusters, which meant that Armstrong and Scott had to cut short their mission and make an emergency return to Earth 10 hours after launch.