What is a Rocket Ship

earth from space

This is a question that people have been trying to answer since the first primitive attempts at space travel. The reality is, there’s never been a single definition. No one has ever managed to say what a rocket ship should be and mean for all time. There are as many definitions as there are flights into space, and those numbers run between a handful and thousands depending on how you count it up. As of this writing (August 2011) we’re just over seven decades into the space age but already hundreds of distinct vehicles have left their marks in some fashion or other on our songs about shooting for the stars!

That makes it hard to define – but that doesn’t mean we can’t try! We don’t aim to cover every possible vehicle that ever took to the sky (hoax or otherwise, seriously) but we do want you to be able to recognize what makes a rocket ship when you see it!

A Rocket Ship is

A clock on a table

The simplest definition of a rocket ship any one can come up with is of course: “a rocket”. A rocket needs no other explanation and can always be considered a true ‘ship’ on its own. Of course, most rockets of today aren’t designed for space travel at all! They’re more like extremely powerful bombs ejected from some great conflict in human history; weapons capable of flattening cities and killing thousands if not millions on impact. These are the types of rockets that fill our news feeds every day. We thought it best to save them for another day and focus on something a bit more peaceful today.

So what makes the rocket ships we all love so special? Well, it’s really quite simple when you break it down: A rocket ship is somewhere in between a regular plane and a spacecraft. It has wings, but not too many. It can do barrel rolls and loop-de-loops, but they aren’t its main purpose. In fact it doesn’t fly particularly fast! But when you need it to travel up – way up – into space, that’s when things get exciting! …well they would if there was any sound in space 😛

The Birth of a Rocket Ship

A close up of a half moon in the night sky

Humans have been wrestling with the concept of the ‘space rocket’ since the beginning of the space age, but there was a time before that when things were much simpler. And for this reason we must turn our eyes back to the dawn of flight itself!

In 1904 a young man by the name of Orville Wright took his first self-propelled flight in a powered aircraft. It didn’t go very far and it wasn’t particularly fast – but he did manage to make history with his efforts! He proved that an uncontrolled takeoff from level ground could be achieved with relative ease provided you had enough power stored up in your engines.

This feat would come to define what should become known as an airplane or ‘aeroplane’. This new form of transport was limited in its ability however as anyone who’s studied a bit of physics knows that an airplane makes for a very poor rocket, being as it has its center of gravity located behind the point where thrust is created. This makes it inherently unstable; the slightest wrong move will cause the plane to flip over and go into an unrecoverable tailspin.

This fact alone puts airplanes at something of a disadvantage when compared with true rockets which are balanced exactly in this way by design. That could simply be chalked up to coincidence (after all, there were no rockets flying around in 1904!), but there was another issue facing early flight enthusiasts too! When crossing large bodies of water like oceans or lakes, conventional aircraft found themselves stranded once their ran out – only boats or dirigibles were capable of carrying them the rest of the way, if those craft were even available at all!

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