Sky High

Notorious and ignominious moments in unmanned rocketry

The enthusiasts at the Large Dangerous Rocket Ship event pursue rocketry for its own sake, but that purity is rare in the history of the endeavor. Most unmanned launches have been aimed at military advantage or space domination.

1232: In the first documented use of rockets, the battle of Kai-Feng-Fu, a Chinese town held out against superior Mongol forces with the help of rocketlike “fire arrows.”

September 13, 1814: The British launch a rocket attack against Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. The rockets do little damage but impress one onlooker, Francis Scott Key, who enshrines them in the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

March 16, 1926: Clark University physics professor and nascent rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard launches the first-ever liquid-fueled rocket from a nearby farm. It flew 184 feet.

1928: Fritz Lang asks German rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth to build a rocket for his film Girl in the Moon. It never leaves the ground, but Lang invents the “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” countdown.

October 1942: Oberth´s protg Werner von Braun co-leads the German research team that launches the first V2. The rocket was 46 feet long and designed to carry a 2,200-pound payload up to 500 miles. More than 4,000 V2s terrorized Great Britain and continental Europe in 1944 and 1945.

October 4, 1957: The Russians score an early lead in the Cold War space race, launching the Sputnik satellite on a cluster-propulsion rocket.

November 3, 1957: Von Braun-who had been quietly retroengineering the giant Atlas ICBM military rockets into the beginnings of the U.S. space fleet-receives an emergency order to have a U.S. satellite up in 90 days. Deploying one of his Redstone rockets, he makes the deadline with a few days to spare.

1957: Aerospace engineer G. Harry Stine and amateur pyrotechnician Orville Carlisle create the National Association of Rocketry and begin selling reliable commercial model-rocket kits.

February 1969-November 1972: The catastrophic failures of the Soviet Union´s secret N-1 lunar rocket during four test launches doom the USSR´s effort to land a man on the moon.

August 20 and September 5, 1977: The twin Voyager spacecraft head into the solar system to send back images and data on our solar system. Both are still traveling-Voyager 1 is now the farthest human-made object from the sun, at 14 billion miles.

July 24, 1982: Chris Pearson, president of the northern Ohio chapter of the Tripoli Rocketry Association, inaugurates the first Large Dangerous Rocket Ship (LDRS) launch in Medina, Ohio.

June 4, 1996: The European-built Ariane 5 satellite launcher self-destructs 40 seconds into its maiden flight, the result of a software error.

May 2004: After battling federal regulators for two and a half years, former Hollywood stuntman Ky Michaelson launches his Go Fast rocket in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, shattering amateur-rocketry altitude records with a 72-mile-high flight.