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Real research: This is rocket science

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Most people have heard the expression, “this is not rocket science.” The phrase’s origin dates back to the mid-20th century when the United States was experiencing a surge in rocketry research and development, particularly as part of its space program. It is often used to convey that a task or concept is not difficult to comprehend, and it has become a common phrase in everyday language.

Who said what

One famous example of the phrase is from former U.S. President Barack Obama, who used it in his 2008 campaign to criticize the Bush administration’s handling of the economy. Another example comes from former NFL coach and commentator John Madden, who said, “This is not rocket science. We are just trying to win a game here,” during a broadcast in the 1990s.

One notable instance of the phrase used was during the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial. Simpson’s defense team claimed that the bloody gloves found at the crime scene did not fit him, leading defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to utter the famous words, “if it does not fit, you must acquit.” Prosecutor Christopher Darden later attempted to demonstrate that the gloves fit Simpson but were unsuccessful. In his closing argument, Darden stated, “this is not rocket science; it is gloves. They either fit or they do not.”

Another memorable instance of the phrase was during the 2000 United States presidential election. In the aftermath of the election, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, many people criticized the confusing nature of the ballot used in Palm Beach County, Florida. One commentator remarked that “designing a ballot is not rocket science.”

Actual rocket science

Now, let us turn our attention to actual rocket science. Rocket science is concerned with designing, developing, testing, and operating rockets and other spacecraft. It is a field of study encompassing a range of scientific disciplines, including physics, materials science, electrical engineering, and computer science.

The Soviet Union conducted humans’ earliest successful rocket into space on October 4, 1957. Sputnik 1 rocket was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in present-day Kazakhstan. Sputnik 1 was a small, spherical satellite weighing only 184 pounds and measuring about 23 inches in diameter. The rocket used to launch Sputnik 1 was an R-7 Semyorka, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) modified for use as a launch vehicle.

Sputnik 1 orbited the Earth every 96.2 minutes and transmitted a simple radio signal back to Earth, which amateur radio operators could detect. The successful launch of Sputnik 1 shocked the world and marked the beginning of the Space Age.

Following the launch of Sputnik 1, the Soviet Union continued to make rapid progress in space exploration. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft. The United States responded with its space program, and on May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft.

The Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union fueled rapid advancements in space technology throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. The first human-crewed lunar landing was achieved by the United States on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the Moon aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft. The Soviet Union also achieved several firsts in space exploration, including the first spacewalk, woman in space, and space station.

One of the most critical materials used in rockets is aluminum. This lightweight metal is used for various components, including the rocket’s body, fuel tanks, and structural supports. Another commonly used material is titanium, valued for its strength, durability, and ability to withstand high temperatures.

Carbon fiber is another important material in rocket construction. This lightweight and robust material is used for various applications, including rocket fairings, nose cones, and heat shields. In addition, ceramics are often used for the heat shield itself, as they have excellent thermal resistance and can withstand extremely high temperatures.

Other materials used in rockets include high-performance polymers, such as polyimides and polyetherimides, which are valued for their strength and resistance to high temperatures. In addition, special metals, such as Inconel and Hastelloy, are used for engine parts and other high-stress components.

Fundamentally, rockets propel themselves through the air or space by releasing gases from the back. This propulsion is Newton’s third law of motion, which states an equal and opposite reaction for every action. In rocket science, this principle uses a fuel source, such as liquid hydrogen or kerosene, and an oxidizer, such as liquid oxygen, to create a controlled explosion that propels the rocket forward.

Nevertheless, rocket science involves much more than just launching rockets into space. Many challenges are associated with designing and building rockets, including issues with aerodynamics, materials science, and the extreme conditions that rockets must endure during launch and operation. For example, rockets must withstand the intense heat and pressure of launch and the extreme cold and space radiation. They must also be able to navigate precisely and communicate with ground control, often over great distances.

Rockets use specialized insulation materials to withstand extreme cold and space radiation once they reach orbit. These materials protect the rocket and its contents from the harsh space environment. The insulation materials used in rocket construction include multi-layer insulation, reflective coatings, and specialty films. Multi-layer insulation consists of alternating layers of metallic and non-metallic materials designed to reflect heat and radiation. Reflective coatings like aluminum are also commonly used to reflect solar radiation. Finally, specialty films like Kapton are used for their excellent thermal properties and radiation resistance.

Take-home message

In recent years, rocket science has become increasingly important as governments and private companies worldwide continue to invest in space exploration and development. Some significant projects currently underway include NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon by 2024, and SpaceX’s Starship project, which is developing a reusable spacecraft that could potentially transport humans to Mars. At a later stage, to planets even further away.

The design, development, and operation of rockets and other spacecraft pose significant challenges. In conclusion, while the phrase “this is not rocket science” may be used to downplay the difficulty of a task or concept, the actual field of rocket science is a complex and multidisciplinary area of study that requires expertise in various scientific fields. The work being done in this field is critical to advancing our understanding of the universe and expanding the boundaries of human knowledge and exploration.

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"Real research: This is rocket science" in Space Expert, 2024
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