George Pendle, author of Strange Angel, New York
Part of the show Fireworks, Explosions and Chemistry
Chris - You've written this book Strange Angel. It traces the history of rocketry, but where did rocketry actually come from in the first place?
George - It's really interesting, because when we think of rocket scientists today we think of men in white lab coats pressing buttons at Mission Control with brains the size of small planets, but this hasn't always been the case. Up until the middle of the 20th century, rocket scientists, or at least those dabbled in rockets were seen as lunatics and crazy men dealing with things that were ludicrously dangerous. Many of the people working with rockets in the early days blew themselves up in the process.
Chris - So when did it become a really serious science?
George - It became a serious science in around the 1930s. To trace it back, we really have to go back 1000 years. Rocketry is an old science, even though it hasn't been treated as one. If we go back to ancient China, some of the earliest writings about rockets describe them being used as weapons. They could be launched a thousand feet, and caused great terror among the ranks. But this is a thousand years ago, and for a thousand years after that there were no real breakthroughs in rocketry.
Chris - So when did things begin to change?
George - Well in about the 1930s, rocketry was really at its lowest ebb. Rocketry wasn't being taught at any of the universities and it wasn't being funded by governments. In fact, the only place it existed was in the science fiction pages of science fiction magazines. It really began to change when young enthusiasts, around twenty years old, were fuelled by the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and wanted to make the tales a reality.
Chris - And this is when Jack Parsons comes in I guess.
George - That's correct. He was a self-trained young guy who was fanatical about science fiction. He lived in Los Angeles in the United States in the 1930s. He went to the California Institute of Technology, and said that he wanted to build rockets. No-one took him seriously apart from one man who thought that there might be something in this rocket business.
Chris - And did he actually succeed?
George - He did. If you look at Jack Parsons, he's on the very first step of the road towards walking on the moon. He got the US government interested in rocketry, and if you look at a similar young man in Germany at the time called Wernher von Braun, he came up with the idea for the V2 and also allowed it to become a reality.