The Different Types of Rockets That NASA Uses to Get to Space

The Different Types of Rockets That NASA Uses to Get to Space
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WorldExecutivesDigest | The Different Types of Rockets That NASA Uses to Get to Space | Did you know that Scott Kelly currently holds the record for the longest spaceflight ever? He spent 340 days in a row in space! Astronauts are some of the most highly trained and accomplished professionals on the planet (and off the planet). 

But, just as important as the astronauts themselves are the rockets they use to get to space. NASA alone has created hundreds of prototypes of several different types of rockets to create the perfect vehicles to take humans to space.

Not only is each model a breakthrough in rocket science, but they are fascinating to learn about! If you want to learn about some of the incredible things that mankind is capable of achieving, you’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn about the many rockets that got us to the moon!

Types of Engines

Before going into specific types of rockets, it’s important to touch on the different kinds of engines and fuels. This will give us a way to categorize each rocket.

In each type of engine, there are three components required: fuel, heat, and oxygen. The heat kickstarts the reaction and the oxygen helps sustain the burning of the fuel. Each of the following types of engines has a different type of fuel, which is what sets them apart from each other.

Liquid Motors

In a liquid rocket motor, the fuel and oxidizer are both liquids. They are each stored in different tanks which lead into a central combustion chamber. In small liquid motors, helium or another type of inert gas forces the fuel and oxidizer into the chamber.

This is one of the most compact types of engines because it only needs three tanks, a combustion chamber, and some plumbing and valves. That said, it doesn’t scale well. The bigger the rocket, the bigger the tanks have to be.

So, small liquid motors are reserved for small rockets.

Adding a turbopump can make the liquid motor system suitable for larger rockets. The pump uses a small amount of fuel to sustain itself and uses a turbofan to push fuel and the oxidizer into the combustion chamber.

This system scales better for larger rockets because it eliminates the need for an inert gas tank. However, this system can get very hot and sometimes needs a cooling agent. 

Solid Motors

In a solid rocket motor, the fuel and oxidizer are both in solid states. The fuel is usually fine aluminum powder and hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB). This is combined with an ammonium perchlorate oxidizer. 

They are actually fused together and solidified into one solid piece of propellant. This solid piece of fuel is heated and melted into a gas, which then powers the rocket. 

Solid motors provide huge amounts of rocket propulsion, which means the rocket can reach a high initial velocity. A high velocity allows the rocket to break through dense parts of the atmosphere.

Most rockets use a combination of both solid and liquid motors. A solid motor provides propulsion for blast off and will carry the rocket past the dense atmosphere around the earth. Then, the rocket will switch to a liquid motor for sustained thrust. 

Unlike a liquid motor, a solid motor cannot be throttled and is very reliable despite being slightly less efficient. 

Hybrid Motors

Hybrid motors try to combine the best of both solid and liquid motors. One of the propellants is kept in solid form and another is in liquid form.

Most frequently, the fuel is solid and the oxidizer is liquid. Hybrid motors with liquid fuel and solid oxidizers also exist but are far less practical.

In the combustion chamber, a solid chunk of metallic fuel waits for ignition. A catalyst is used to help break down the oxidizer and force it into the combustion chamber. 

Hybrid motors are not very popular because they are difficult to make practical. They are gradually becoming slightly more practical due to breakthroughs in rocket science, but still remain the least common type of motor. However, they are one of the safest types of motors because the fuel and oxidizer are kept separate.

Similar to liquid motors, hybrid motors have a low burn rate, and can throttle. This makes them best for sustained thrust.

Electrical Thrusters

The least common type of thruster is the electrical thruster. They have extremely low thrust but can run for long periods of time on low amounts of fuel. 

This means that it’s almost impossible to use them in a rocket, as they won’t be able to generate enough boost. But, these thrusters sustain satellites and other space stations. 

For comparison, the other types of propulsion can provide power for a few days, while electrical thrusters can provide power for several months. This makes them suitable for longer stays in space. 

The Types of Rockets Used by NASA

NASA uses all of these types of motors to power their engines. We’ll discuss some of the biggest achievements and best rockets that NASA has come up with! 

Explorer I

Although the Soviet Union won the first round of the space race with Sputnik I, the United States was quick to follow with Explorer I. The Explorer I was launched using a Juno I booster, the first US launch vehicle.

The Juno I is a four-stage booster, with four different types of solid fuel. The Explorer I itself was a relatively simple satellite, but it marked the first spacecraft ever launched by the US. Just a few months after its launch, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was officially founded.

X-15 Aircraft

The X-15 is not a proper rocket, but it is a rocket-powered aircraft. NASA’s goal with the X-15 was not to reach the moon, but just to touch the edge of space and experiment with flight paths and angles for reentry. 

The X-15 used liquid motors and broke several flight records for speed and altitude using this type of propulsion. NASA ran several X-15 experiments as precursors for the moon landing. In fact, astronaut Neil Armstrong was among the pilots running these experiments! 

Saturn V

When President John F. Kennedy challenged NASA to send an American to the moon and return safely in 1961, it was a bold claim. At this point, NASA had yet to even send an American into orbit! 

But, they were already developing the Saturn V and the Apollo program, which would be the rockets used for the upcoming moon landing. The Saturn V was more than 350 feet tall, making it a giant compared to any other rocket created up to that point.

The Saturn V launched in three liquid-fueled stages that would allow it to break through Earth’s orbit. After each phase, parts of the Saturn V launcher were jettisoned into space.

After passing through orbit, the Saturn V launched the Apollo XI. The Apollo XI was a smaller rocket, powered by electrical thrusters. Because it had already broken through the earth’s atmosphere, it didn’t need the thrust provided by a liquid or a solid engine.

The Apollo XI then entered lunar orbit and launched the lightweight lunar lander that put a man on the moon. The lander then ascended and docked with Apollo XI to transfer the astronauts before being jettisoned into space. Apollo XI propelled itself back to earth’s orbit, re-entered the atmosphere, and landed in the Pacific Ocean. 

Rockets of the Future

While NASA used to be the only organization striving to reach the moon, space has now become a frontier for the ultra-wealthy. Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk both dream of going further into space than ever before.

Virgin Galactic recently launched the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, with the intention of allowing for space tourism.

In addition, if you plan on visiting NASA you can see some of their new rockets designed to bring the final frontier closer.

And, to keep up to date on how the space industry is growing and evolving, you can’t beat a Space Symposium 365 membership! You can find out more here:

Learn More About the Achievements in Rocket Science

This article has only scratched the surface of the different types of rockets that have taken humans to space. NASA and other space foundations have come up with hundreds of different kinds of rockets aimed to take us deeper into space and to allow us to stay there longer. Given the innovations that have taken place over the last 100 years, imagine where the next 100 will take us!

To stay up to date on science and tech news, keep an eye on our blog! We post new articles every day so you can stay informed!