rocket history
Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy
Hermann Oberth
Robert H. Goddard
Wernher von Braun
Sergei P. Korolev
principles of rocketry
early U.S. rocketry
Nazi Germany’s Space Bomber
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Thor, Agena, and Delta
the Titan Launch Vehicle
upper stages of rockets
solid rocket propellants
Orion Project
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Space Shuttle history
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Scaled Composites
space flight chronology

Robert H. Goddard

Robert Goddard's launch of the first liquid-propelled rocket, 1926.

Robert Hutchings Goddard pioneered modern rocketry in the United States and founded a whole field of science and engineering. The son of a machine shop owner, he was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1882. Goddard graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908 and then became a physics instructor at Worcester Technical University, where he received an M.A. in 1910 and a Ph.D. in 1911. Goddard was a research fellow at Princeton in 1912 and 1913 and then joined the faculty at Clark University, where he became a full professor in 1919.

Motivated by reading science fiction as a boy, Goddard became excited by the possibility of exploring space. As a youth in 1901 he wrote a short paper, "The Navigation of Space," that argued that movement could take place by firing several cannons, "arranged like a 'nest' of beakers." At his high school oration in 1904, he summarized his life's perspective: "It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow." In 1907, he wrote another paper on the possibility of using radioactive materials to propel a rocket through interplanetary space. He sent this article to several magazines, but all rejected it.

Goddard had an especially inquisitive mind that became curious about spaceflight by reading and writing science fiction. For instance, as an undergraduate, he described in a short story a railroad system between Boston and New York in which the trains travelled in a vacuum under the pull of an electromagnetic field and completed their trip in 10 minutes.

As a young physics graduate student he conducted static tests with small solid-fuel rockets at Worcester Tech, and in 1912 he developed the detailed mathematical theory of rocket propulsion. He continued these efforts and actually received two patents in 1914. One was the first for a rocket using solid and liquid fuel, and the other for a multistage rocket. In 1915 he proved that rocket engines could produce thrust in a vacuum and therefore make space flight possible. In 1916 the Smithsonian Institution provided funds for Goddard to continue his work on solid-propellant rockets and to begin development of liquid-fuel rockets as well.

During World War I, Goddard further explored the military possibilities of rockets. He succeeded in developing several types of solid-fuel rockets to be fired from handheld or tripod-mounted launching tubes, which formed the basis of the bazooka and other powerful rocket weapons of World War II.

After his stint in World War I, Goddard became a professor of physics at Clark College (later renamed Clark University) in Worcester, Massachusetts. There he turned his attention to liquid rocket propulsion, theorizing that liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen were the best fuels, but learning that oxygen and gasoline were less volatile and therefore more practical. To support his investigations, Goddard applied to the Smithsonian Institution for assistance in 1916 and received a $5,000 grant from its Hodgkins Fund. His research was ultimately published by the Smithsonian as the classic study, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, in 1919. There, Goddard argued from a firm theoretical base that rockets could be used to explore the upper atmosphere. Moreover, he suggested that with a velocity of 6.95 miles per second (11.2 kilometres per second), without air resistance, an object could escape Earth's gravity and head into infinity, or toward other celestial bodies. This became known as the Earth's "escape velocity." He also argued that humans could reach the Moon using these his techniques.

These ideas became the great joke for those who believed space flight was either impossible or impractical. Some ridiculed Goddard's ideas in the popular press, which caused the already shy Goddard to become even more so. Soon after the appearance of his publication, he commented that he had been "interviewed a number of times, and on each occasion have been as uncommunicative as possible." The New York Times was especially harsh in its criticisms, referring to him as a dreamer whose ideas had no scientific validity. It also compared his theories to those advanced by novelist Jules Verne, indicating that such musing is "pardonable enough in him as a romancer, but its like is not so easily explained when made by a savant who isn't writing a novel of adventure." The New York Times questioned both Goddard's credentials as a scientist and the Smithsonian's rationale for funding his research and publishing his results in an editorial on January 18, 1920.

Such negative publicity prompted Goddard to become even more secretive and reclusive. It did not, however, stop his work, and he eventually registered 214 patents on various components of rockets. He concentrated on the design of a liquid-fuelled rocket (the first such design), and the related fuel pumps, motors, and control components. On March 16, 1926, near Auburn, Massachusetts, Goddard launched his first rocket, a liquid oxygen and gasoline vehicle that rose 184 feet in 2.5 seconds. This event heralded the modern age of rocketry. He continued to experiment with rockets and fuels for the next several years. A spectacular launch took place on July 17, 1929, when he flew the first instrumented payload—an aneroid barometer, a thermometer, and a camera (to record the readings). It was the first instrument-carrying rocket. The launch failed; after rising about 90 feet the rocket turned and struck the ground 171 feet away. It caused such a fire that neighbours complained to the state fire marshal and Goddard was prohibited from making further tests in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, Charles A. Lindbergh, fresh from his transatlantic solo flight, became interested in Goddard's work. He visited Goddard and was sufficiently impressed to persuade Daniel Guggenheim, a philanthropist, to award Goddard a grant of $50,000. With this, Goddard set up an experiment station in a lonely spot near Roswell, New Mexico. There he built larger rockets and developed many of his ideas that are now standard in rocketry. He designed combustion chambers of the appropriate shape, and he burned gasoline with oxygen in such a way that the rapid combustion could be used to cool the chamber walls.

From 1930 to 1941, he launched rockets of increasing complexity and capability. He developed systems for steering a rocket in flight by using a rudder-like device to deflect the gaseous exhaust, with gyroscopes to keep the rocket headed in the proper direction. Goddard described many of his results in 1936, in a classic study, Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development. The culmination of this effort was a successful launch of a rocket to an altitude of 9,000 feet in 1941. In late 1941, Goddard entered naval service and spent the duration of World War II developing a jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) rocket to shorten the distance required for heavy aircraft launches. Some of this work led to the development of the “throttlable” Curtiss-Wright XLR25-CW-1 rocket engine, which later powered the Bell X-2 research airplane and helped overcome the transonic barrier in 1947. Goddard did not live to see this; he died in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 10, 1945.

Goddard accomplished a great deal but because of his modesty, most people did not know about his achievements during his lifetime. These included theorizing on the possibilities of jet-powered aircraft, rocket-borne mail and express, passenger travel in space, nuclear-powered rockets, and journeys to the Moon and other planets. He also made the first mathematical exploration of the practicality of using rockets to reach high altitudes and achieve escape velocity. He patented numerous inventions associated with space flight.

When German rocket experts were brought to America after the war and were questioned about rocketry, they suggested talking to Goddard, the pioneer in the field. American officials could not do so because Goddard had already died and his achievements had been overlooked. In 1960 the U.S. government recognized Goddard's work when the Department of Defence and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded his estate $1 million for the use of his 214 rocketry patents. Although he did not live to see the space age begin, if any one man had a central role in its creation, it was Goddard.