The force acting on a rocket, called its thrust, is equal to the mass ejected per second times the velocity of the expelled gases. This force can be understood in terms of Newton's third law of motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of a rocket, the action is the backward-streaming flow of gas and the reaction is the forward motion of the rocket. Another way of understanding rocket propulsion is to realize that tremendous pressure is exerted on the walls of the combustion chamber except where the gas exits at the rear; the resulting unbalanced force on the front interior wall of the chamber pushes the rocket forward. A common misconception, before space exploration pointed up its obvious fallacy, holds that a rocket accelerates by pushing on the atmosphere behind it. Actually, a rocket operates more efficiently in outer space, since there is no atmospheric friction to impede its motion.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.