Robert Goddard: A Man and His Rocket
On March 16, 1926, Robert Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Mass. The first-of-its-kind rocket reached an altitude of 41 feet, lasted 2 seconds and averaged about 60 miles per hour.
Goddard wrote in his autobiography about an inspiration that came to him as a boy while up in a cherry tree pruning branches: "I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive."
Image to right shows Dr. Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945) and his earlier rockets. He was the first scientist to realize the potential of missiles and space flight and contributed in bringing them to realization. Credit: NASA
In 1907, while a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Goddard experimented on a rocket powered by gunpowder in the basement of the physics building. Clouds of smoke caused a lot of commotion and the faculty, rather than expel him, took an interest in his work.
By 1914, Goddard already had received two U.S. patents: one for a rocket using liquid fuel and the other for a two- or three-stage rocket using solid fuel. Until that time, propulsion was provided by various types of gunpowder.
Goddard began teaching physics in 1914 at Clark University in Worcester and was named director of the Physical Laboratory in 1923.
His thoughts on space flight started to emerge in 1915, when he theorized that a rocket would work in a vacuum, and didn't need to push against air in order to fly. This meant that in the vacuum of space, rocket engines would be able to produce thrust.
Goddard's discoveries were given little attention by the U.S. government. A modest man, Goddard paid for the
rocket experiments from his own paycheck. Funding from the Smithsonian Institution allowed Goddard to continue his rocket research and develop the mathematical theories of rocket propulsion.
In 1920, the Smithsonian published his original paper, "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes," in which he included a small section stressing that rockets could be used to send payloads to the Moon.
Unfortunately, the press got wind of this and the next day, the New York Times wrote a scathing editorial denouncing his theories as folly. Goddard was ridiculed and made to look like a fool. He responded to a reporter's question by stating, "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace."
In 1930, Goddard and a small crew of workers moved to New Mexico to continue his research in seclusion. Goddard died on Aug. 10, 1945, holding 214 patents in rocketry but having received little attention for his propulsion research.
Image to left shows a launch in New Mexico. By the mid 1930s, Goddard's rockets had broken the sound barrier at 741 mph and flown to heights of up to 1.7 miles. Credit: NASA
When American rocket scientists began to earnestly prepare for space exploration, they discovered it was almost impossible to build a rocket or launch a satellite without acknowledging the work of Goddard.
Now known as the father of modern rocketry, Goddard's significant achievements in rocket propulsion have contributed immensely to
the scientific exploration of space. Goddard didn't live to see the age of space flight, but his foundation of rocket research became the fundamental principles of rocket propulsion.
A day after Apollo 11 set off for the Moon, in July of 1969, the New York Times printed a correction to its 1920 editorial section, stating that "it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a major space science laboratory, was named in his honor.
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Elaine M. Marconi: KSC Staff Writer
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center