One of the most amazing endeavors man has ever undertaken is the exploration of space. A big part of the amazement is the complexity. Space exploration is complicated because there are so many problems to solve and obstacles to overcome. You have things like:

  • The vacuum of space
  • Heat management problems
  • The difficulty of re-entry
  • Orbital mechanics
  • Micrometeorites and space debris
  • Cosmic and solar radiation
  • The logistics of having restroom facilities in a weightless environment

But the biggest problem of all is harnessing enough energy simply to get a spaceship off the ground. That is where rocket engines come in.

Rocket engines are, on the one hand, so simple that you can build and fly your own model rockets very inexpensively (see the links on the last page of the article for details). On the other hand, rocket engines (and their fuel systems) are so complicated that only two countries have actually ever put people in orbit. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will look at rocket engines to understand how they work, as well as to understand some of the complexity surrounding them.