A rocket in its simplest form is a chamber enclosing a gas under pressure. A small opening at one end of the chamber allows the gas to escape, and in doing so provides a thrust that propels the rocket in the opposite direction. A good example of this is a balloon. Air inside a balloon is compressed by the balloon’s rubber walls. The air pushes back so that the inward and outward pressing forces are balanced. When the nozzle is released, air escapes through it and the balloon is propelled in the opposite direction.

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One of the interesting facts about the historical development of rockets is that while rockets and rocket-powered devices have been in use for more than two thousand years, it has been only in the last three hundred years that rocket experimenters have had a scientific basis for understanding how they work.

The science of rocketry began with the publishing of a book in 1687 by the great English scientist Sir Isaac Newton. His book, entitled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, described physical principles in nature. Today, Newton’s work is usually just called the Principia. In the Principia, Newton stated three important scientific principles that govern the motion of all objects, whether on Earth or in space. Knowing these principles, now called Newton’s Laws of Motion, rocketeers have been able to construct the modern giant rockets of the 20th century such as the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle. Here now, in simple form, are Newton’s Laws of Motion.

  1. Objects at rest will stay at rest and objects in motion will stay in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
  2. Force is equal to mass times acceleration.
  3. For every action there is always an opposite and equal reaction.


Means of compression: Compression due to combustion

Engine working fluid: Oxidizer/fuel mixture

Propulsive working fluid: Oxidizer/fuel mixture

Rocket Propulsion

The thrust of a rocket can be modeled from a generalization of Newton’s 2nd Law to include a variable mass:


In free space this would lead to a rocket velocity


and for a rocket launched from the Earth’s surface it leads to the expression


at low altitudes where g can be considered to be constant.

Thrust of a Rocket

Rocket thrust results from the high speed ejection of material and does not require any medium to “push against”. Conservation of momentum dictates that if material is ejected backward, the forward momentum of the remaining rocket must increase since an isolated system cannot change its net momentum.



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