Launch Vehicles and Their Role
Eric J. Novotny
Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes.
—Johannes Kepler, in a letter to Galileo (1610)
Each and every one of the hundreds of communications satellites that provide their services around the globe today were launched into orbit atop a rocket or, as it is known in the industry, a launch vehicle. Although there are highly imaginative concepts emerging about how we might lift satellites into orbit by different means—such as tethers, transmitted radio frequency power, or even more exotic techniques—the reliance on expendable launch vehicles to lift communications satellites into orbit will remain at the core of the industry for at least the next few decades. Thus, the story of launch vehicles and how they evolved is a critical part of the communications satellite story as well. Launch systems have always been a key enabling technology of satellite communications advancements, and they will remain so as long as there are requirements to deliver payloads into space.
Serious speculation about reaching space—sending a vehicle outside the earth's atmosphere and into orbit or to another celestial body—began with several imaginative mid-19th-century writers and inventors. Those who led the way included Jules Verne, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and, in the 20th century, Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, and Wernher von Braun. Experiments with rocketry in the mid-20th century culminated in the first space vehicle to leave the earth's atmosphere—the A-4 single-stage rocket known during World War II as the V-2. This was accomplished on October 3, 1942, from Peenemunde, Germany.