Important Early Rockets and Missiles

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Early Prototypes

Goddard's first rocket Goddard's prototype rocket was pulled rather than pushed. Pressure from the oxygen tank was used to push fuel to the combustion chamber. A small alcohol heater was used to speed up vaporization of the oxygen, and an umbilical oxygen line was used to begin the combustion process.

The rocket was first flown on March 16, 1926 at Auburn, Massachusetts.

Rockets and Missiles of World War II

The German Missile Program

V-1 missile The V-1 was 8 meters long with a range of 240 km. It was powered by a pulse-jet engine, the source of its distinctive buzzing sound, hence the nickname "buzz bomb". It flew at an altitude of about 900 meters and the first of over 8500 was launched against England on June 13, 1944, a week after D-Day.

An American copy of the V-1, called the JB-2 or Loon, actually went into production during World War II, intended for use against Japan. About 300 were built. The principal effect was to give American manufacturers their first experience in missile production.

V-2 missile

The V-2 was about 15 meters long. Between September 6, 1944 and March 27, 1945, over 4000 were launched. It had a range of 300 kilometers, reached an altitude of 100 kilometers and a speed of over 5000 km per hour. From launch to impact was about five minutes.

Missiles of Other World War II Powers

Many varieties of small artillery rocket were used by all powers. The emphasis here is on missiles that foreshadowed modern ballistic missiles and spacecraft. One small rocket is of interest because it was the first practical retrorocket. It was used to slow down anti-submarine bombs dropped from aircraft and was credited with numerous submarine kills, including the last German submarine sunk in the war just a week before Germany surrendered.

kamikaze rocket plane Japan had by far the least sophisticated rocket program of any major power in World War II. The Okha manned rocket plane was a kamikaze aircraft, built for a one-way trip. Its intended American recipients called it the "Baka", the Japanese word for "fool." It was dropped from a bomber, glided most of the way to its target, then ignited its rocket engines to accelerate to about 600 miles per hour for the final attack.
U.S. Lark missile The U.S. Navy designed the Lark to intercept kamikaze attackers, but it was not fully operational by the end of the war.
British Stooge missile The British response to the kamikaze threat was the Stooge, which was not operational when the war ended.
U.S. Bat missile The 4-meter long Bat was launched from a bomber. It had a range of 30 km and sank a Japanese destroyer at that range in April, 1945.

It seems clear that, had World War II lasted a few years longer, it would have evolved into a very modern war indeed, fought with jet aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles, and quite possibly many more nuclear weapons.

V-2 Spinoffs

V-2 spinoff versions

Pioneering Cruise Missiles

To the casual observer, "cruise missile" carries connotations of the Persian Gulf War. In fact, much of the early U.S. effort on military missiles was directed toward cruise missiles, some of which were as elegant in design as any winged craft ever flown. If you think about it, the first cruise missile was actually the German V-1.

Bomarc missile Bomarc was a surface to air missile 14 meters long with a range of up to 400 km. Its origins date to 1946. It first flew in 1952 and became operational in 1957.
Hound Dog missile Hound Dog was an air to surface missile 12 meters long with a range of 800 km. First launched in 1959, it was designed to be launched from a B-52 and carry a nuclear warhead.
Matador missile Matador was a surface to surface missile 12 meters long with a range of 1,000 km.
Mace missile Mace was a surface to surface missile 14 meters long with a range of 1,100 km. It was the successor to the Matador.
Regulus missile Regulus was a naval ship to surface missile. Regulus 1 was 10 meters long with a range of 800 km. Regulus 2 was 17 meters long with a range of 1,900 km.
Snark missile The Snark, 20 meters long, was envisioned as an intercontinental nuclear cruise missile. It had a range up to 10,000 kilometers and, being unmannned, cost only a fifth as much as an equivalent manned bomber. It first flew in 1951.
Navaho missile The Navaho was an odd-looking hybrid of a rocket booster and a winged cruise missile.

Early U.S. Military Missiles

Nike series missiles
  • Nike Ajax (11 meters long) was the first American air-defense missile, operational from 1953 to 1958.
  • Nike Cajun (8 meters long) used the Nike booster but had a lighter second stage and was used for research. It could reach altitudes of over 150 km.
  • Nike Hercules (12 meters long) had four boosters and could carry a nuclear warhead. It was conceived in 1953 and operational from the late 1950's until the mid-1970's.


aerly Soviet boosters The core of the Soviet space program was an early ICBM, the SS-6 or Sapwood (left). It was modified by removing the warhead and adding an upper oxygen tank (center). Four more SS-6 engines were added around the base and covered with an aerodynamic shielding. This design proved so successful it remained the basic Soviet booster design for two decades.

A note on names. To the former Soviet Union, even the existence of certain weapons systems was often regarded as a secret. When the Russian name of a system was known it was used (as in Akula "shark" class submarines.) When, as was usually the case, the Russian name was not known, NATO planners assigned code names. Strategic missiles had code names beginning with S, like Sapwood. Bombers began with B: Bear, Badger, Backfire, etc.

Sputnik 1 Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. It was about 60 cm in diameter and weighed about 80 kg. It is shown here against the former Soviet flag to dramatize its psychological impact.

Sputniks 2 and 3

Sputnik 2 carried the first living creature into orbit, a small female dog named Laika. There was no provision for recovery and Laika died in space when her air ran out. In the figure, Laika's capsule and spherical air tank are outlined in red.

The First U.S. Satellites

Explorer 1 and Vanguard 1


Frederick Ordway, Wernher von Braun and Dave Dooling, 1985; Space Travel: A History, New York, Harper and Row, 308 p.

Illustrations of Important Rockets and Spacecraft

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Created 23 February 1998, Last Update 13 January 2020