Robert Hutchings Goddard¬†(October¬†5, 1882 ‚Äď August¬†10, 1945)


‚ú™ Robert Hutchings Goddard¬†was an American¬†engineer,¬†professor,¬†physicist, and¬†inventor¬†credited with creating and building the world’s first¬†liquid-fueled rocket.¬†Goddard successfully launched his rocket on March 16, 1926 ushering in a new era of space flight and innovation. Between 1926 and 1941, he and his team launched 34 rockets which achieved altitudes as high as 1.6¬†mile and speeds as fast as 550¬†mph.

Goddard was born in¬†Worcester, Massachusetts to Nahum Danford Goddard and Fannie Louise Hoyt. Robert was their only child to survive; a younger son, Richard Henry, was born with a spinal deformity and died before his first birthday. Nahum was employed by local manufacturers and he invented several useful tools. Goddard had¬†English¬†paternal family roots in New England with William Goddard (1628‚Äď91) a London¬†grocer¬†who settled in¬†Watertown, Massachusetts in 1666.

Essentially a country boy, Goddard loved the outdoors and hiking with his father on trips to Worcester. He became an excellent marksman with a rifle.  In 1898, his mother contracted tuberculosis and they moved back to Worcester for the clear air. On Sundays, the family attended the Episcopal church and Robert sang in the choir. Although he was raised as an Episcopalian, Goddard was not outwardly religious.

The young Goddard was a thin and frail boy, almost always in fragile health. He suffered from stomach problems, pleurisy, colds, and bronchitis and eventually fell two years behind his classmates. He became a voracious reader, regularly visiting the local public library to borrow books on the physical sciences.

With the¬†electrification¬†of American cities in the 1880s, the young Goddard became increasingly interested in science; specifically, engineering and technology. When his father showed him how to generate static electricity on the family’s carpet, the five-year-old’s imagination was immediately sparked. Robert experimented for himself believing he could jump higher if the¬†zinc¬†from a battery could be charged by scuffing his feet on the gravel walk.

Goddard halted those childhood experiments after a warning from his mother that if he succeeded, he might “go sailing away and might not be able to come back.”¬†He also experimented with chemicals; creating a cloud of smoke and an explosion in the house.‚ÄäGoddard’s father further encouraged Robert’s scientific interest by providing him with a telescope, microscope and a subscription to¬†Scientific American.

Robert developed his first fascination with flight with¬†kites¬†and then later with¬†balloons. He became a thorough diarist and documenter of his work; a skill that would greatly benefit his career in adult life. These interests merged at age 16 when Goddard attempted to construct a balloon out of¬†aluminum by shaping the raw metal in his home workshop and filling it with hydrogen. After nearly five weeks of methodical, documented efforts, he finally gave up and abandoned the project, remarking, “… balloon will not go up. … Aluminum is too heavy.”

At sixteen years old, Goddard developed an interest in space after reading¬†H. G. Wells’ science fiction classic¬†The War of the Worlds. His dedication to pursuing space flight became fixed on October 19, 1899, when while climbing a cherry tree to cut off dead limbs he became transfixed by the sky and his imagination grew. He later wrote:

“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 have several photographs of the tree, taken since, with the little ladder I made to climb it, leaning against it. It seemed to me then that a weight whirling around a horizontal shaft, moving more rapidly above than below, could furnish lift by virtue of the greater centrifugal force at the top of the path.I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended. Existence at last seemed very purposive.”

For the remainder of his life, he observed October 19 as his “Anniversary Day;” a private commemoration of the day of his greatest inspiration.

Goddard’s interest in aerodynamics led him to study some of¬†Samuel Langley‘s scientific papers in the periodical¬†Smithsonian. In these papers, Langley wrote about how birds flap their wings with different force on each side to turn in the air. Inspired by these articles, the teenage Goddard began to watch swallows and chimney swifts from the porch of his home; noting how subtly the birds moved their wings to control their flight.

Around this time, Goddard also read¬†Newton’s¬†Principia Mathematica and discovered Newton’s Third Law of Motion¬†applied to motion in space. He wrote later about his own tests of the Law:

“I began to realize that there might be something after all to Newton’s Laws. The Third Law was accordingly tested, both with devices suspended by rubber bands and by devices on floats, in the little brook back of the barn, and the said law was verified conclusively. It made me realize that if a way to navigate space were to be discovered, or invented, it would be the result of a knowledge of physics and mathematics.”

At his graduation ceremony in 1904, he gave his class oration as¬†valedictorian. In his speech, entitled “On Taking Things for Granted,” Goddard included a section that would become emblematic of his life:

“Just as in the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant to safely pronounce anything impossible, so for the individual, since we cannot know just what are his limitations, we can hardly say with certainty that anything is necessarily within or beyond his grasp. Each must remember that no one can predict to what heights of wealth, fame, or usefulness he may rise until he has honestly endeavored, and he should derive courage from the fact that all sciences have been, at some time, in the same condition as he, and that it has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

In 1904, Goddard enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. At WPI, Goddard joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and began a long courtship with high school classmate Miriam Olmstead, an honor student who had graduated with him as salutatorian. Eventually, she and Goddard were engaged, but they drifted apart and ended the engagement around 1909.

On June 21, 1924, Goddard married Esther Christine Kisk (March 31, 1901 ‚Äď June 4, 1982),¬†a secretary in Clark University’s President’s Office, whom he had met in 1919. She became enthusiastic about rocketry and photographed some of his work as well as aided him in his experiments and paperwork.

While studying physics at WPI, ideas often came to Goddard’s mind which sometimes seemed impossible and he was compelled to record them for future investigation. He wrote that “there was something inside me which simply would not stop working.” He purchased some cloth-covered notebooks and began filling them with a variety of thoughts, mostly concerning his dream of space travel. In 1908, Goddard received his¬†B.S.¬†degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic¬†and after serving there for a year as an instructor in physics, he began his graduate studies at¬†Clark University¬†in Worcester in the fall of 1909.

By 1912 he had in his spare time and using calculus, developed the mathematics which allowed him to calculate the position and velocity of a rocket in vertical flight; given the weight of the rocket, propellant and velocity (with respect to the rocket frame) of the exhaust gases.

His first goal was to build a sounding rocket with which to study the atmosphere. Not only would such an invention aid meteorology, but was also necessary to determine temperature, density and wind speed as functions of altitude in order to design efficient space launch vehicles.

In early 1913, Goddard became seriously ill with¬†tuberculosis¬†and had to leave his position at Princeton. He then returned to Worcester to began a prolonged process of recovery at home. His doctors did not expect him to live. He decided he should spend time outside in the fresh air and walk for exercise. He gradually improved. When his nurse discovered some of his notes in his bed, he argued, “I have to live to do this work.”

Goddard’s serious bout with tuberculosis severely weakened his lungs, affecting his ability to work; and was one reason he liked to work alone in order to avoid argument and confrontation with others and use his time fruitfully. He labored under the constant prospect of a shorter than average life span.

His first two landmark patents were accepted and registered in 1914. The first,¬†U.S. Patent 1,102,653, described a multi-stage rocket fueled with a solid “explosive material.” The second,¬†U.S. Patent 1,103,503, described a rocket fueled with a¬†solid fuel¬†(explosive material) or with¬†liquid propellants¬†(gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide). These two patents would eventually become important milestones in the history of rocketry.

By 1916, the cost of Goddard’s rocket research had become too great for his modest teaching salary to bear.¬†He began to solicit potential sponsors for financial assistance, beginning with the¬†Smithsonian Institution, the¬†National Geographic Society, and the¬†Aero Club of America. In January 1917, the Smithsonian agreed to provide Goddard with a five-year grant totaling¬†US$5000.

Not all of Goddard’s early work was geared toward space travel. As the United States entered World War I in 1917. During this time, Goddard was also contacted, in early 1918, by a civilian industrialist in Worcester about the possibility of manufacturing rockets for the military. These events led to the Signal Corps sponsoring Goddard’s work during World War I. Goddard proposed to the Army an idea for a tube-based rocket launcher as a light infantry weapon. The launcher concept became the precursor to the¬†bazooka.

In late 1919, the Smithsonian published Goddard’s groundbreaking work,¬†A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. The report describes Goddard’s mathematical theories of rocket flight, his experiments with¬†solid-fuel rockets, and the possibilities he saw of exploring Earth’s atmosphere and beyond. Though most of this work dealt with the theoretical and experimental relations between propellant, rocket mass, thrust, and velocity, a final section, entitled “Calculation of minimum mass required to raise one pound to an ‘infinite’ altitude,” discussed the possible uses of rockets, not only to reach the upper atmosphere but to¬†escape from Earth’s gravitation altogether. Included as a¬†thought experiment¬†was the idea of launching a rocket to the Moon and igniting a mass of flash powder on its surface, so as to be visible through a telescope.

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Goddard began experimenting with liquid oxidizer, liquid fuel rockets in September 1921. He successfully tested the first liquid propellant engine in November 1923. It had a cylindrical combustion chamber, using impinging jets to mix and atomize liquid oxygen and gasoline. On December 6, 1925, he tested a much simpler pressure feed system. He conducted a static test on the firing stand at the Clark University physics laboratory. The engine successfully lifted its own weight in a 27-second test in the static rack.

Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled (gasoline and liquid oxygen) rocket on March 16, 1926 in¬†Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket, which would later later dubbed “Nell,” rose just 41¬†feet during a 2.5-second flight that ended 184 feet away in a cabbage field,¬†but it was an important demonstration that liquid fuels and oxidizers were possible propellants for larger rockets.¬†

Goddard’s diary entry of the event was notable for its understatement:

March 16. Went to Auburn with Sachs in am. Esther and Mr. Roope came out at 1 p.m. Tried rocket at 2.30. It rose 41 feet & went 184 feet, in 2.5 secs., after the lower half of the nozzle burned off. Brought materials to lab. ..

In the spring of 1930, Goddard finally found an ally in the¬†Guggenheim family. Financier¬†Daniel Guggenheim¬†agreed to fund Goddard’s research over the next four years for a total of $100,000 (equivalent $2¬†million today)

With new financial backing, Goddard eventually relocated to Roswell, New Mexico in summer of 1930  where he worked with his team of technicians in near-isolation and relative secrecy for years. By September 1931, his rockets had the now familiar appearance of a smooth casing with tail-fins. He began experimenting with gyroscopic guidance and made a flight test of such a system in April 1932.

Goddard experimented with many of the features of today’s large rockets, such as multiple combustion chambers and nozzles. In November 1936, he flew the world’s first rocket (L-7) with multiple chambers, hoping to increase thrust without increasing the size of a single chamber. It had four combustion chambers, reached a height of 200 feet, and corrected its vertical path using blast vanes until one chamber burned through. This flight demonstrated that a rocket with multiple combustion chambers could fly stably and be easily guided.

Goddard was able to flight-test many of his rockets and many resulted in what the uninitiated would call failures, usually resulting from engine malfunction or loss of control. Goddard did not consider them failures, however, because he felt that he always learned something from a test.

In the spring of 1945, Goddard saw a captured German¬†V-2 ballistic missile, in the naval laboratory in Annapolis, Maryland, where he had been working under contract. After a thorough inspection, Goddard was convinced that the Germans had “stolen” his work. Though the design details were not exactly the same, the basic design of the V-2 was similar to one of Goddard’s rockets.The Germans had been watching Goddard’s progress before the war and became convinced that large, liquid fuel rockets were feasible.

Nevertheless, in 1963, von Braun, reflecting on the history of rocketry, said of Goddard:

“His rockets … may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles”.¬†He once recalled that “Goddard’s experiments in liquid fuel saved us years of work, and enabled us to perfect the V-2 years before it would have been possible.”

Goddard was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1945. He continued to work, able to speak only in a whisper until surgery was required. He died on August 10th of that year in Baltimore, Maryland. He was buried in Hope Cemetery in his home town of Worcester, Massachusetts.✪

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