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Payload Systems

Pictures of various rocket payloads.

The study of rockets is an excellent way for students to learn the basics of forces and the response of an object to external forces. There are four major components to any full-scale rocket: the structural system, or frame, the payload system, the guidance system, and the propulsion system. On this page we show some types of payloads that are carried on rockets.

Payload of a Rocket

The payload of a rocket depends on the rocket’s mission. The earliest payloads on rockets were fireworks for celebrating holidays. Some of the early ideas for booster staging were developed in an effort to loft fireworks as high as possible. During World War II, the fireworks were replaced by several thousand pounds of explosives on the German V2 rocket. Following World War II, many countries developed guided ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads for payloads. The same rockets were modified to launch satellites with a wide range of missions; communication, weather monitoring, spying, planetary exploration, and observation.

On the figure above we show a picture of the Hubble Space Telescope which has been used to explore deep space from low Earth orbit.

Picture of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
Picture of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

Human Payloads

The most important payload carried by a rocket into space is a human being. In the early 1960’s, U.S. military rockets like the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan missiles were “man-rated” to carry the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft into orbit. In the Soviet Union, an intercontinental ballistic missile was likewise modified to launch their Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz manned spacecraft.

On the top figure, we show a Gemini spacecraft which was first flown in the mid-1960’s. The Gemini carried two astronauts and was used to develop the techniques of rendezvous, docking, and spacewalking, and to study the effects of space flights of up to two weeks duration. During the Apollo moon program, a family of large boosters called Saturn were developed in the U.S. The Saturns were strictly civilian launchers and were not used for military purposes. The next American crewed launcher was the Space Shuttle which has been used to place and service both military and civilian satellites in orbit, to provide a medium duration on-orbit capability, and to carry material and crews to and from space stations.

Picture of Shuttle docked to Mir.
Mir-19 Crew/NASA Atlantis, the space shuttle, connected to the Mir Space Station in 1995.
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