Smithsonian National Air and Space MuseumPioneers of Flight

Rocket Pioneers

Rocket Societies

Beginning in the late 1920s, spaceflight enthusiasts banded together into groups to advance their cause. These "rocket societies" especially flourished in Russia, Germany, and the United States. Most quickly moved toward developing the one technology that pointed a way into space: the liquid-fuel rocket.

The rocket societies spun off the first groups of professional rocket engineers in corporations and government laboratories. With the world again edging toward war, they inevitably worked on weapons. By the end of World War II in 1945, rocket technology had reached a state of maturity.

The American Interplanetary Society
A group comprised mostly of science fiction writers formed the American Interplanetary Society(AIS) in New York City in 1930. The fact that science fiction writers predominated was unique to America. It reflected that genre's flourishing and the dearth—with the exception of Robert Goddard—of serious space theoreticians in America.

This explosion of space fantasy in the 1920s and '30s was a double-edged sword for spaceflight advocates. It inspired young people to believe in the possibility of space travel but convinced many adults that the idea was absurd.

The American Rocket Society
The AIS quickly focused on liquid-fuel rockets. In 1931 founders Ed and Lee Pendray visited Berlin, where they saw a rocket test stand and befriended Willy Ley, an influential German spaceflight enthusiast. The first AIS tests took place in rural New Jersey that year, and their first successful launch came in 1933.

With the shift toward practical experiments, engineers and technicians came to dominate AIS leadership. In 1934 they voted to change the society's crackpot-sounding name to the American Rocket Society (ARS).

Gawain Edward “Ed” Pendray

Gawain Edward "Ed" Pendray 1901-1987,
born in Nebraska.
A newspaper reporter/ editor, freelance writer, and public relations man in New York City, Pendray and his wife, writer Leatrice "Lee" Gregory, became enthused by space travel in the 1920s. He wrote science fiction stories, and they became founding members of the AIS. In 1945 he published the Coming Age of Rocket Power and in 1970 co-edited The Papers of Robert H. Goddard with Esther Goddard. In this photo, Pendray uses a tracking device during solid-fuel rocket flight tests in Midvale, New Jersey, 1937.

James Hart Wyld

James Wyld with one of his rocket motors at an ARS test in Midvale, New Jersey, 1941. He helped design the Reaction Motors XLR-11 engine, which powered Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1 airplane through the "sound barrier" in 1947.

Russian Rocket Societies
From Space Enthusiasm to Military Rocket Research
Revolution helped foster enthusiasm for space in Soviet Russia. Spaceflight advocates brought the little-known theoretical work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to public attention. The world's first spaceflight society formed in Moscow in 1924.

The Communist government consolidated the work of rocket enthusiasts as part of centralizing the development of military technology. In 1933 it created a government rocket research institute.

Russian Rocket Society

Russian Rocket Society
Russian rocket engineers and enthusiasts pose with their first liquid-fuel rocket, GIRD-X in 1933. At far left with a Red Army cap is Sergei P. Korolev,who would lead the Soviet space program during the 1950's and 1960's.

German Rocket Societies
From the VfR to the V-2
A vibrant space movement also developed in Central Europe. A small rocket society formed in Austria in 1926, followed by the Society for Space Travel, or VfR, in Germany a year later. Out of the VfR emerged the Raketenflugplatz Berlin (Rocketport Berlin), the world's largest, most active rocket group.

Two months before the Nazis came to power in 1933, physics student Wernher von Braun left the group to work on rocket weapons for the German army. Von Braun's establishment made a breakthrough to large-scale rocket engineering. It created the world's first operational ballistic missile: the V-2

Hermann Oberth and German Rocket Societies

Hermann Oberth and German Rocket Societies
Hermann Oberth (center, in profile) demonstrated his tiny liquid-fuel rocket engine in Berlin in 1930. Second from the right is 18-year-old student Wernher von Braun.

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