Robert Goddard

On March 16, 1926, Robert Hutchings Goddard launched the world’s first liquid fuel rocket from a cabbage patch on his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. The flight itself was modest, just reaching an altitude of around 40 feet and covering a distance of 184 feet, but it represents the birth of modern rocketry.

In 1899, when he was 17, Goddard read H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. After finishing the book, Goddard climbed a cherry tree on his family’s farm and imagined the Martian war machines below him. This sparked a lifelong passion for rocketry, for he knew rockets were the only way to travel between planets. Goddard subsequently earned a Ph.D. in Physics from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he became a Professor.  Supported by a grant from the Smithsonian Institution, Goddard began a series of experiments with solid-fuel rockets.

In 1919, the Smithsonian published Dr. Goddard’s monograph A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. While most of this slim volume comprised mathematical formulae, it contained a paragraph stating it was possible to build a rocket capable of reaching the moon. Upon striking the moon, a charge of flash powder in the vehicle’s nose would signal its arrival. Goddard even conducted experiments to gauge how much of a charge would be necessary to be seen from earth. The press labeled him “the loony moon man” and The New York Times ridiculed him for failing to realize a rocket could not work in space because there was nothing for the exhaust to push against.

Of course, Goddard understood Newton’s Laws of Motion better than the editors at The New York Times, and knew that a rocket’s exhaust did not need anything “to react against” to produce thrust. In fact, Goddard performed experiments in 1915 that proved a rocket would generate thrust in a vacuum.

Despite such uninformed criticism, Goddard continued his research and launched the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket on March 16, 1926. Goddard’s rocket burned liquid oxygen and gasoline. The rocket was a spindly-looking contraption, with the motor at the top of the rocket, ahead of the propellant tanks. He mistakenly assumed that by placing the motor near the top of the rocket, the craft would swing like a pendulum from the mouth of the nozzle and automatically stabilize itself. Dr. Goddard soon found this was not the case, and his rocket proved unstable. Prior to launch, the rocket stood in a pipe framework to support it.

A length or pipe extended above the combustion chamber. Goddard filled the pipe with match heads. To ignite the rocket, Goddard held a blowtorch (fastened to the end of a length of pipe) near the match head filled pipe while an assistant pulled on lengths of rope to open the liquid oxygen and gasoline valves. Pressure from vaporizing liquid oxygen forced the propellants into the combustion chamber. The rocket motor generated about nine pounds of thrust, which was less than the rocket weighed at ignition, so it remained in the launch frame for a while before it finally lifted off. As Goddard reported to Charles Abbot, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, on May 5, 1926:

In a test made March 16, out of doors, with a model of this lighter type, weighing 5 ¾ lb empty and 10 ¼ lb loaded with liquids, the lower part of the nozzle burned through and dropped off, leaving, however, the upper part intact. After about 20 sec the rocket rose without perceptible jar, with no smoke and with no apparent increase in the rather small flame, increased rapidly in speed, and after describing a semicircle, landed 184 feet from the starting point – the curved path being due to the fact that the nozzle had burned through unevenly, and one side was longer than the other. The average speed, from the start of the flight measured by a stopwatch was 60 miles per hour. This test was very significant, as it was the first time that a rocket operated by liquid propellants traveled under its own power.

Encouraged by this success, Dr. Goddard continued building rockets. In April 1926, he modified his original design and placed the motor at the base of the rocket, behind the propellant tanks. Goddard’s rockets grew larger and noisier until 1929 when several people called the fire department, thinking one was a crashing airplane. The Fire Marshal asked Dr. Goddard to move his experiments out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Charles Lindbergh saw a newspaper article about the 1929 rocket that piqued his interest, so he contacted Goddard and offered to help him find funding to continue his work in a more suitable location. Lindbergh arranged a meeting with philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim and helped arrange a grant to advance his work. Goddard sought a sparsely populated area with clear skies. A friend at Clark University recommended New Mexico, and he found a suitable site outside Roswell. Supported by the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation, Goddard spent most of the 1930s developing many of the basic techniques rocket engineers take for granted today. Sadly, Goddard’s impact was not as great as it might have been because he was very secretive about his work. Goddard sought to develop the basic techniques for rocketry and patent his designs, so he did not wish to share his work.

The Guggenheims also supported Professor Theodore von Kármán’s rocket experiments at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). They believed Goddard and von Kármán should collaborate. In August 1936, Goddard visited Caltech at the behest of the Guggenheims, but was reluctant to share any technical data with von Kármán.

Goddard worked with a staff of just four people. (Five, counting his wife Esther, who sewed parachutes and was the group’s photographer.) He eventually received 214 patents, including one for multi-stage rockets and another for liquid-fuel rockets.

Dr. Goddard offered his services to the government during both World Wars but received meager notice from the military. During World War I he developed a tube-launched rocket, a technique later adapted for the tank-killing bazooka. Goddard didn’t fare much better in the 1940s, when the Navy asked him to build a liquid-fuel rocket to help heavy seaplanes take off. In sharp contrast to the lack of enthusiasm shown by the United States government for rockets, the Germans made the development of a large ballistic missile a priority, which resulted in the V-2.

Robert Hutchings Goddard died from throat cancer on August 10, 1945. During the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, The New York Times published a correction to their earlier criticism of Goddard.

Written by Greg Kennedy on March 15th, 2014 , Space History

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    Thomas Morris commented

    I am 1000% suew that the Germans and their Spies throughout the US before WWII got hold of Charles Goddard information and developed the V2. Von Braun knowledge was not even close until he got Goddards information.

    April 22, 2015 at 1:43 pm