Robert H. Goddard was a rocket science pioneer whose innovations were crucial to the development of the U.S. space program.
American physicist Robert H. Goddard almost singlehandedly created the field of rocket science. His research was crucial to the development of the U.S. space program and provided the American military with the technology to produce a new generation of extremely powerful and precise armaments (all the weapons of war).
Dreams of space travel
Robert Hutchings Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1882. When he was still young, his family moved to Boston, where his father became part-owner of a machine shop. His mother suffered from tuberculosis, a debilitating lung disease that kept her bedridden much of the time. A thin and sickly child, Goddard missed so much school because of illness that he eventually fell years behind in his education. He spent his days alone at home playing with kites, slingshots, and rifles. Thus began a lifelong interest in flying projectiles, objects that are shot into the air by force.
In 1898, the Goddard family returned to rural Worcester. Around this time Goddard became a devoted fan of the science fiction genre after reading War of the Worlds, the classic tale by H. G. Wells about a Martian invasion of Earth. According to biographical accounts, Goddard became fascinated with the idea of space travel one day when he was well enough to do yard work. He reportedly climbed the cherry tree behind his house to trim it. Looking out into the meadow, he starting daydreaming about spaceships and the possibility of traveling to Mars. The feeling it gave him was so powerful that he never forgot the date--October 19, 1899.
Experiments with rockets
That same year Goddard entered Worcester South High School as a sophomore at the age of nineteen. He finished at the top of his class in 1904, being the oldest graduate in the history of the school at the age of twenty-two. A few months later he enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic, a small college where he studied physics. By his senior year, Goddard was experimenting with rockets in the small basement laboratory at the college.
At that time the only rockets available were powder rockets, which were little more than fireworks. Goddard devoted himself to testing the amount of energy they released, eventually deciding that manned rockets would require a different source of propulsion (a force that causes forward motion). In 1908, he graduated from Worcester Polytechnic with a bachelor's degree in physics, then became a physics instructor at the college. He also embarked on graduate studies at nearby Clark University, where he met Arthur Gordon Webster, a professor with whom he would develop the background he needed for advanced rocket research. Goddard went on to earn a doctoral degree from Clark in 1911. After suffering a near-fatal case of tuberculosis, he returned to Clark two years later to teach part-time and to conduct research.
For the next few years Goddard tried various ways to improve rocket design. He changed the shape of the exhaust nozzle to a tapered cone and used a more efficient explosive powder. In 1914, he applied for his first two patents, including a design for a two-stage rocket (a rocket that would fire once to begin motion and, later, fire again to keep moving or move faster). The patented designs, the first of their kind, featured combustion chambers suited for liquid propellants, demonstrating that Goddard was already thinking of liquid fuel.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Goddard wrote to the Smithsonian Institution about the possible military applications of the rocket. Convinced of Goddard's vision, the Smithsonian asked the U.S. Department of War to contribute up to $50,000--a considerable sum of money at the time--toward his research. Soon Goddard had his own well-equipped laboratory and shop at Clark, with seven men working for him full time. By the time the shop was relocated to Pasadena, California, in the summer of 1918, Goddard's team had already developed two military rocket launchers.
The following November, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Goddard demonstrated the launcher, which could propel a rocket through a hand-held tube. Intended as a portable weapon for foot soldiers, the rocket launcher amazed military observers, who requested immediate production. But the weapon in question--which was the first bazooka (a light weapon that launches armor-piercing rockets and is fired from the shoulder)--was never used in combat; World War I ended five days after the demonstration.
After the war Goddard returned to Clark to teach physics and continue his research on high-altitude rockets. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian had published his paper titled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitude," in which he suggested the feasibility of manned space travel. But his prediction was met with ridicule in the press and by the public--some called him the "Moon Man"--causing him to be more secretive about his theories in the future.
Builds liquid rocket
In the summer of 1924, Goddard married Esther Kisk. A secretary at Clark, she became his assistant, keeping notes and photographic records of his work for the rest of his life. On March 16, 1926, Goddard launched the world's first liquid propellant rocket, which traveled 184 feet in 2.5 seconds. Because of his previous negative experience with the press, he did not immediately announce his success, waiting several months to notify even the Smithsonian Institution of his achievement.
Receives support for testing
For the next three years Goddard experimented with rockets of different sizes and shapes. He also wrote several reports that elaborated on the principles of manned space flight and lunar exploration. Among those who read Goddard's articles was the wife of philanthropist Harry F. Guggenheim. She mentioned the pioneering scientist's work to her husband, who was a friend of the aviator Charles Lindbergh. Within days Lindbergh was dazzled with a tour of Goddard's laboratory. In 1930, the Guggenheims awarded Goddard a $50,000 grant, which enabled him to begin a full-scale rocket-testing program.
Starts rocket center
Goddard later moved his laboratory to Roswell, New Mexico, which became the world center of rocket science. Hundreds of tests were performed and forty-eight launches were attempted at the desert site. Meanwhile, the rockets grew progressively larger and more sophisticated, approaching twenty-two feet in length and weighing up to a quarter ton. Goddard also invented a gyroscopic system, which permitted a rocket to "correct" its flight path as it flew. By mid-1935, his prototypes were achieving unprecedented speeds and altitudes with gyroscopically controlled rockets. In March 1936, he reported his spectacular results in "Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development," which was published by the Smithsonian Institution.
Lacks military backing
In 1937, Goddard heard rumors that the Germans were working on secret military rockets. He had been frustrated by the refusal of the U.S. military to fund further research in rockets, which the navy had misguidedly dismissed as impractical and expensive. Toward the end of World War II (1939-45), Germany would in fact unleash its V-2 rockets on Europe; German engineers who developed the V-2 later openly credited Goddard as the source of their inspiration.
Goddard stayed at the New Mexico testing center until the United States entered the war. He then relocated to the Naval Engineering Experimental Station at Annapolis, Maryland, where he worked until dying of cancer on August 10, 1945.
- Coil, Suzanne M., Robert Hutchings Goddard: Pioneer of Rocketry and Space Flight, Facts on File, 1992.
- Farley, Karin Clafford, Robert H. Goddard, Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
- Maurer, Richard, Rocket!: How a Toy Launched the Space Age, Crown, 1995.
- Pursell, C., ed., Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, MIT Press, 1981.
- Stoiko, Michael, Pioneers of Rocketry, Hawthorn Books, 1974.
- Streissguth, Thomas, Rocket Man: The Story of Robert Goddard, Carolrhoda Books, 1995.
- Yost, Edna, Modern Americans in Science and Technology, Dodd, Mead, 1962.