Since the automobile came into existence towards the end of the 19th century AD, motive technology has evolved rapidly

  • Multiple Stroke Engines
  • Rotary engines
  • Square block
  • Vee engines
  • Hybrid engines
  • Electric motors
  • Fuel type

Space technology has seen almost 60 years since 1957. It dates back still further ; Goddard's patents for Solid/Liquid fuel rocket technology, Multi-stage launch ...

What are the milestones in the evolution of space launch engine/process technology for achieving LEO from 1957 till 2013?

  • $\begingroup$ Not clear whether you are interested in launcher manufacturing ("process") or launcher design ("product"). There have been advances in materials, propellants, engines (!), guidance, separation, attitude control (aerofins, gas vanes, miniengines, thrust vectoring). The basic idea (multi-stage rockets) remains the same from the times of Tsiolkovky, Goddard, Oberth... $\endgroup$ – Deer Hunter Nov 11 '13 at 18:58

In one sense, rocket engine technology is easy. You have a simple process (burn fuel), only a few moving parts and very few concessions to longevity (you're throwing the engine away after a couple minutes' use). This means there are very few parts you can optimise.
On the other hand, the engine will run at the ragged edge of what's technologically possible. Advances in rocket engine technology have been limited by materials science: you need materials that won't melt at very high temperatures, and won't react to pure oxygen, and can stand tremendous forces, etc.
As new materials became available, new rocket fuels became usable. New materials also enabled the shift from open-cycle engines (which waste some of their fuel to run the pumps) to closed-cycle engines (which reuse the pump fuel so they're more efficient).
The first successful closed-cycle engine was the RD-253 for the Proton. The first closed-cycle engine in the West was the SSME.


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