Space Pioneers Series – Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard

The Father of modern rocketry, Robert H. Goddard

They are the dreamers, the deep-thinkers, the “what if-ers”, the folks who have peppered our history with those tiny nuggets of brilliance which, with much blood, sweat, tears, and perseverance, have been successfully mined to launch the greatest technological developments our world has ever known. But sheer brilliance often brings on harsh criticism and negativity from others who won’t or simply can’t dare to dream.

One aspect of our technological development that has suffered at the hands of such criticism is that of space exploration. Thankfully, our world has known dreamers too tenacious to fail, even in the face of naysayers who would keep their dreams at bay—boxed up in some dark corner, never to prosper or flourish.

KnowledgeOrb will be periodically featuring some of these space pioneers, to celebrate their tenacity and capacity to dream up innovations that were far ahead of their time. We owe them our gratitude for forging ahead even in the face of ridicule and contempt, in order to bring us closer to the many incredible wonders that our beautiful, limitless universe holds.

Today, we honor the man widely considered to be the “father of modern rocketry”, Robert H. Goddard.

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

 — Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard

Born in Massachusetts in 1882 to parents who fostered his early interest in science, Dr. Goddard seemed destined to play a role in our nation’s exploration of space. Early on, his parents invested in a microscope, telescope, and even a subscription to Scientific American for the budding scientist, but it wasn’t until he read H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds at the age of sixteen that his fascination with space turned into a full-blown obsession. Goddard studied the work of Sir Isaac Newton, and after having a self-described “epiphany” on October 19, 1899, while trimming cherry tree branches, he began to think about how the laws of physics might be applied to potential space flight.

On this day I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn… and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet…I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended. Existence at last seemed very purposive.”

— Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard

After earning his B.S. in Physics at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1904, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from neighboring Clark University, he sought funding for his research from the Smithsonian Institute, and was given a grant of $5000. In 1919, after publishing a detailed manuscript titled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, in which he thoughtfully and scientifically described his assertion that travel to the moon might one day be possible, Goddard became the subject of widespread derision, and was unceremoniously dubbed the “Moon Man” by several newspaper who sought to mock him. One headline described his work as a “Severe Strain on Credulity”.

Despite the ridicule, Goddard quietly and steadily plugged away at his work, saying, “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it. Once realized, it becomes commonplace.” And he was about to accomplish that very vision.

1925 cabbage field launch of "Neil"

Cabbage field launch of “Neil”

It was March 26, 1921, in a cabbage field at his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts, when Goddard successfully launched “Nell”, the first ever liquid-propelled rocket. The 2.5 second, 41 feet altitude, 185 feet distance launch seems meager by today’s standards, but was a pinnacle moment in Goddard’s career, and validation of his life’s work.

Goddard wrote about the event in his diary: “The rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate. It looked almost magical as it rose, without any appreciably greater nose or flame, as if it said, ‘I’ve been here long enough; I think I’ll be going somewhere else, if you don’t mind.’ ”

It wasn’t long before Dr. Goddard was sparking the interest of others interested in flight and rocketry. Charles Lindbergh soon took notice of his work, and played an integral role in securing funding for Dr. Goddard’s work. Although the stock market crash of 1929 made disposable income scarce, in 1930, Lindbergh was able to convince the Guggenheim family to invest in the rising young star that was Goddard, and they gave him a 4-year research grant worth $100,000, a not-so-small fortune at the time.

And yet Goddard still endured criticism. After one of his 1929 experiments, a local Worcester newspaper carried the mocking headline “Moon rocket misses target by 238,79912 miles.” And still he continued to press on.

Roswell New Mexico, 1939. Robert Goddard lovingly cradles one of the rocket

Roswell, New Mexico, 1938. Robert Goddard lovingly cradles one of the rockets he developed between 1926 and 1941

In 1930, he moved his team to Roswell, New Mexico. Isolated from the outside world in a desolate environment, for years he worked in secret, free from the reproach of the media and his colleagues. In the decade that followed, he successfully launched 31 rockets. He is also credited with 214 patents, 131 of which were awarded posthumously.

There can be no thought of finishing, for aiming at the stars, both literally and figuratively, is the work of generations, but no matter how much progress one makes there is always the thrill of just beginning.”

— Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard

During the Roswell years. Dr. Goddard developed plans for weaponry as well. The German military eventually bought his designs for the much-feared V2 rocket, a weapon which would later level much of London during World War II. Seeing this devastation prompted Goddard to share his fears with his wife Esther saying, “We may be able to get off this planet just in time.” But tragically, Dr. Goddard died of throat cancer on August 10, 1945, at the age of 62, never to see the ground breaking fruits of his labor.

Some of the highlights of Dr. Goddard’s countless contributions to science include:

  • Explored the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high altitudes, even the moon (1912)
  • Proved that a rocket will work in a vacuum, that it needs no air to push against
  • Developed and fired a liquid fuel rocket (March 16, 1926, Auburn, Mass.
  • Shot a scientific payload in a rocket flight (1929, Auburn, Mass.
  • Used vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance (1932, New Mexico)
  • Developed gyro control apparatus for rocket flight (1932, New Mexico)
  • Received U.S. patent for of multi-stage rocket (1914)
  • Developed pumps suitable for rocket fuels

His critics would eventually be silenced as well, and he was vindicated on that front after his death. One of the harshest criticisms came from a 1920 New York Times editorial, who scathingly noted that, “Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

It took almost 50 years, the day after 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing to be exact, for the paper to retract the statement, when they sheepishly admitted 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.”

Just remember, when you think all is lost, the future remains.

— Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard

On Sept. 16, 1959, the 86th Congress authorized the issuance of a gold medal in the honor of Professor Robert H. Goddard. That same year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), named the Goddard Space Flight Center, Md., in his honor. In 1960 the government awarded his estate $1 million for the use of his many rocket patents.

About the author

Writer for many journals and publications. Professional in the aerospace industry.