How Rocket Engines Work

A remote camera captures a close-up view of a Space Shuttle Main Engine during a test firing at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss.

Photo courtesy NASA

Action and Reaction: The Space Baseball Scenario

Imagine the following situation: You are wearing a space suit and you are floating in space beside the space shuttle; you happen to have a baseball in your hand.

If you throw the baseball, your body will react by moving in the opposite direction of the ball. The thing that controls the speed at which your body moves away is the weight of the baseball that you throw and the amount of acceleration that you apply to it. Mass multiplied by acceleration is force (f = m * a). Whatever force you apply to the baseball will be equalized by an identical reaction force applied to your body (m * a = m * a). So let's say that the baseball weighs 1 pound, and your body plus the space suit weighs 100 pounds. You throw the baseball away at a speed of 32 feet per second (21 mph). That is to say, you accelerate the 1-pound baseball with your arm so that it obtains a velocity of 21 mph. Your body reacts, but it weighs 100 times more than the baseball. Therefore, it moves away at one-hundredth the velocity of the baseball, or 0.32 feet per second (0.21 mph).

If you want to generate more thrust from your baseball, you have two options: increase the mass or increase the acceleration. You can throw a heavier baseball or throw a number of baseballs one after another (increasing the mass), or you can throw the baseball faster (increasing the acceleration on it). But that is all that you can do.

A rocket engine is generally throwing mass in the form of a high-pressure gas. The engine throws the mass of gas out in one direction in order to get a reaction in the opposite direction. The mass comes from the weight of the fuel that the rocket engine burns. The burning process accelerates the mass of fuel so that it comes out of the rocket nozzle at high speed. The fact that the fuel turns from a solid or liquid into a gas when it burns does not change its mass. If you burn a pound of rocket fuel, a pound of exhaust comes out the nozzle in the form of a high-temperature, high-velocity gas. The form changes, but the mass does not. The burning process accelerates the mass.

Let's learn more about thrust next.