Curricula [the Rocketry Project]

Teach, January/February 2000 | Go to article overview

Curricula [the Rocketry Project]


In the year 2000, it is perfectly acceptable to focus on the future rather than the past. There are few technologies, however, that date back 1000 years that will affect lives more dramatically in the future. Rocketry or rocket science is one. And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand why. What is just as interesting, however, is the history behind the development of the space-going vehicles we see today and may use for mass transport in the not to distant future. Like the technology we covered in the November/December'99 issue, the automobile, rocketry has a double-edged legacy. The first use of this technology appeared in religious ritual but was quickly adapted to military applications and warfare. And that is consistent throughout its history. It is only in the last fortyfive years that we have seen the evolution to space and space exploration become more fully realized.

The Chinese are credited with inventing the earliest form of solid rocket fuel, a type of gunpowder and that they likely were using gunpowder as early as 300 B.C. They employed bamboo tubes filled with saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal that were tossed into ceremonial fires during religious rites. It was hoped that the explosion would frighten off evil spirits. Speculation has it, that some of these bamboo tubes went shooting out of the fire which may have then sparked experiments to duplicate that effect. It is thought that by the year 1045 A.D., the use of gunpowder and rockets were commonly used in Chinese military tactics.

Toward the beginning of the 13th century, the Chinese Sung dynasty came to rely on rocketry to help repel the aggressive Mongolian hordes and developed a variety of rockets and other projectiles including grenades and cannon fire. In 1232, the Chinese used rockets to beat off some Mongol invaders in the battle of Kai-fung-fu. These rockets were purported to be very large and powerful making a noise that could be heard for some 15 miles and made an impact that affected an area of some 2000 feet in all directions. The rockets were alleged to contain incendiary material and shrapnel. Not to be outdone, the Mongols appeared to have brought rocket technology with them on their sweep through Europe circa 1241 and in particular in a battle with the Magyars prior to the capture of what is modern day Budapest, then known as Buda. Capitalizing on that victory, the Mongols went on to use rockets against the Arabs when they captured Baghdad in 1258. Quick on the uptake, the Arabs adopted rocketry and employed them against the French army of Louis IX during the Seventh Crusade.

As such, these may be viewed as ignoble beginnings but when some contemplation of the technical and logistical aspects come into play, then the aforementioned might be viewed as remarkable achievements despite the havoc and destruction wreaked upon the opposing armies in question. Understanding the chemical balance required to set the charge properly without blowing them all up, calculating the trajectory factoring in resistance, wind and air currents and distance, not to mention the sheer logistics of practical transport, all seem like very sophisticated accomplishments for those we think of as being primitive. Those being the Mongols and Magyars and subsequently, Italians, Germans, French and English in the 14th and 15th centuries and beyond.

The rocket has left a legacy of despair and triumph in its vapour trail as humankind has used this technology for both destructive and productive purposes. Like the automobile, you will have the opportunity to explore the yin and yang of rocketry as you and your students work your way through this teaching unit.

The following curriculum areas are applicable: History, Geography, Language Arts, Visual Arts, Space Science, Design and Technology, Social Studies, and Media. This teaching unit is most appropriate for Grades 5-12.

Research Tools: Encyclopedias, hardcopy and CD-ROM, library/resource centre, books, radio archives, video and the Internet (check the Resources section on Page 8). …

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