A physically frail child, Robert Goddard spent two years bedridden during high school and did not graduate until he was 21. Using his time to read H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, Goddard imagined the possibility of sending a rocket to space. In 1907, the public became aware of Goddard’s rocket ideas. From the basement of Worcester Polytechnic Institutes, a cloud of smoke emerged; Goddard launched a powder rocket. To the credit of the school, they did not expel him.
- He is regarded as the “father of modern rocketry.” Much of his work was ignored by the US government until after World War II, but his work was used in Germany by von Braun.
- Was the first to develop a rocket motor using liquid fuels which he tested in 1926.
- Patented the first practical automatic steering apparatus for rockets, developed step rockets designed to gain great altitudes and other components for an engine designed for space exploration.
- Developed parachute recovery systems.
- Developed a jet assisted take off system for airplanes.
He would some day be known as the “Father of the Space Age.”
His lifelong interest in rocketry began on October 19th, 1899, when as a 17-year-old boy he placed a ladder against a cherry tree in the family orchard and climbed into its foliage to contemplate. He had already read and re-read H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Now he “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, from the meadow at my feet.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Worcester Polytechnic his Ph.D. from Clark University, where he would later become head of the physics department. He was not only a theoretician and experimenter of high order, but also a practical inventor. In 1914 he was granted the first of his many rocket patents. These basic patents, in a virgin field of endeavor defined the broad principles of rocket functions: “The feeding of successive amounts of propellant into the combustion chambers” giving a steady propulsive force, the use of multiple rockets, each being dropped as their propellant was exhausted and the tapered nozzles to take full advantage of the force of the expanding gases.”
Now he set about to prove experimentally that a rocket could operate in space. Building a large closed loop evacuated test chamber, he fired more than 50 small rockets in it which readily lifted themselves in the vacuum. This was the experimental proof of his theories that he needed. By 1916 he had reached the point where he needed financial help. He sent a paper which summarized his works entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” to the Smithsonian Institution and soon received a grant of $5,000. Now he concluded his work on solid fuels and began the development of liquid propellants. During World War I he developed the basic concept of the “Bazooka” rocket launcher but the war ended before it could be used.
In 1919 his classical paper was published by the Smithsonian and the press seized upon a few paragraphs in which he discussed the idea of exploding a charge of flash powder on the moon which could be observed from the Earth. Overnight he became the “Moon Rocket Man.” Even dignified newspapers chided him for imitating Jules Verne in writing such fantastic gibberish. A sensitive, dedicated person, he learned a painful lesson and from then on continued his work in reticent silence.
In June of 1924 he married Esther Kisk, who was to also later become his secretary, photographer, lab assistant and confidante, a bulwark of strength in the days ahead. By 1925 he had successfully test fired a rocket motor which lifted itself in its test frame. Now it was time to take his rocket out into the open. He moved his laboratory to the farm of his “Aunt Effie” Ward near Auburn, Massachusetts, and on March 16th, 1926, he fired his liquid fuel rocket into the air. Supported by portable frameworks which served as a launching pad, the small rocket lifted itself 41 feet into the air and in 2.5 seconds traveled a distance of 184 feet. It reached a velocity of 60 miles an hour, before smashing into the ground. Marked now by a monument erected by the American Rocket Society, this site is the “Kitty Hawk” of rocketry.
Four times at Auburn his rockets lifted themselves into the air, and each time they traveled a little farther and a little higher. Then on July 17th, 1929, his liquid fueled rocket carried aloft a camera, a thermometer and a barometer which were recovered intact; but the rocket raised so much noise that it brought a police car, ambulances, newspaper men, and a convoy of cars. The result was a permanent injunction from the Massachusetts State Fire Marshall forbidding any further launchings in the Commonwealth.
It was time to move to less populated areas. The publicity drew the attention of Charles A. Lindbergh, who came to visit. “Lindy” was so impressed by his work that he helped secure financial aid to support his efforts from the Guggenheim family. Now he took a leave of absence from Clark University and moved to Roswell, New Mexico, not far from today’s White Sands Missile Range. For the next twelve years, “the desert years,” he labored devotedly, patiently and successfully to breathe life into the dream that drove him. At Roswell he constructed and flight-tested rocket after rockets learning from each. He solved the complex problems of extremely high pressures and temperatures generated by the rocket motor. Almost single-handed he had to solve a nightmare of complicated technical problems that would later challenge the abilities of large scientific teams.
A typical launching, as his wife Esther filmed it, would start with the rocket being towed to the launching site, covered to protect its delicate apparatus from the desert’s dust. By now, his complex and sophisticated rockets required a team effort for the detailed check-out procedures and launching. When all was ready, it was a race to the waiting car that would transport them to the safety of the first blockhouse in history. Now the countdown began–three, two, one, ignition! The rocket began to accelerate, gathering speed as it arched into the heavens. Reaching a speed of 500 miles an hour at an altitude of 2,000 feet, it then plunged earthward, slamming into the desert floors sending skyward a mushroom cloud of dust. Now it was out across the desert to collect the shattered remains. Each twisted scrap of metal furnished clues to success and failure. From each failure they learned, and there were many, and after each success, which was rare, they toasted to future success.
The rockets grew in complexity, and an assistant said, “There was never so much invention with so little manpower.” In March 1935, his rocket, standing over 22 feet tall, was launched by remote control. It was the first rocket that had gyroscopic controls and it climbed to more than 4,800 feet, attaining a speed greater than that of sound. Its instrument package then floated earthward by parachute. At Roswell, his benefactors Harry Guggenheim and Lindbergh visited Goddard. They were among the few rare visitors to his laboratories and among the few who believed in his work. But there was another for by 1940 his work had emerged enough that he answered a letter from a young Army Air Corps pilot and invited him to visit him. Eagerly, Lieutenant Homer Boushey flew his pursuit plane to Roswell to meet this man whose ideas fascinated him so. At that point, as they sat talking on one warm New Mexico evening that the professor revealed for the first time to an outsider that he dreamed of a rocket capable of journeying into space. He spoke freely of space travel in the future. He said his challenge was like that of a man who plants the seed of a tree, so that others may one day sit in its shade.
When war came, Goddard closed his laboratory at Roswell and moved to Annapolis to design a rocket unit to assist the take-off of heavily loaded air-planes, a critical problem at the moment. Here he developed the first liquid-fueled rocket-assisted take-off, which a Navy patrol plane demonstrated successfully in September of 1942. Also, the Bazooka, which Goddard had developed during World War I was perfected and became a vital now anti-tank weapon.
Now he completed his design for a variable thrust rocket and successfully demonstrated its controllable actions but the nation had tarried too long. On June 13th, 1944, from out of the skies over London came the pilotless V-1 jet bombs. Launched from France, they exploded recklessly upon England. But this was just the beginnings for soon the dreadful V-2 rockets were launched against Paris and London. The Germans had used his technology against his own allies! But now the importance of his work was to be acknowledged. The White Sands Proving Grounds was established in New Mexico, where a missile reached a height of 43.5 miles in September 1945.
As the war drew to a close, his health began to fail and on August 14th, 1945, he was laid to rest. Before he died, Goddard said, “I feel we are going to enter a new era, it is just a matter of imagination how far we can go with rockets. I think it is fair to say you haven’t seen anything yet.”
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