As the US aviator Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902-74) said, “We
live in a world where dreams and reality interchange.” Yesterday’s
dream becomes today’s hope and tomorrow’s reality. If
this has been possible in the past and it will be in the future
it is because of such visionaries and dreamers like Robert Hutchings
Goddard. In 1920 Goddard was ridiculed by the New York Times for
his impossible vision of launching a rocket that could travel through
the vaccum of space. On March 16, 1926 Goddard launched the world’s
first liquid fuel rocket. The New York Times issued a public apology
to the late Goddard after Apollo astronauts took off for the first
Goddard was a great physicist. He had a unique
genius for invention. Goddard was the first scientist to realize
the potentialities of missiles and space flight and also to contribute
directly in bringing them to practical realization. Alongwith Konstantin
Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky of Russia and Hermann Oberth of Germany,
Goddard envisioned the exploration of space. Goddard designed and
built the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, early high-altitude
rockets and the first practical automatic steering device for rockets
and to prove experimentally the efficiency of rocket propulsion
in a vacuum. Goddard was among the first to develop a general theory
of rocket action. Goddard laid the technical foundations for today’s
long-range rockets, missiles, Earth satellites and space flight.
Goddard was the first to receive a US patent on
the idea of multistage rockets in 1914. The same year he also received
a patent for a rocket using liquid fuel. During his life time he
received 88 patents on his rockets and space travel ideas. Even
after his death 131 patents were granted for his rocket-related
ideas documented in his research notes and diaries. During the lifetime
of Goddard, the US Government showed little interest in his work.
It was after his death that Goddard was given due recognition for
his pioneering work which led directly to National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA) and the US space exploration programme.
It was Goddard who first developed and launched
a liquid fuel rocket on March 16, 1926. In 1929, Goddard first launched
a scientific payload consisting of a camera and a barometer in a
rocket flight. Many things related to rocketry and space flight
were first invented by Goddard viz. pumps suitable for rocket fuels,
self-cooling rocket motor, variable thrusts rocket motors and practical
rocket-launching devices. For developing rocket for space flight
Goddard had to be specialist in metallurgy, aerodynamics, thermodynamics,
structural engineering, mechanical engineering and hydraulic engineering.
He almost single-handedly translated his ideas, which seemed mere
fantasies, into reality. For him experimental failures were ‘valuable
negative information’. He sought results and not recognition.
Goddard was born on October 5, 1882 in Worcester,
Massachussetts. In 1883, Goddard’s parents Nahum Danford Goddard
and Fannie Hoyt Goddard moved to Boston where they were offered
a partnership in a machine knife shop. Because of recurring illness
(bouts of bronchitis and pleurisy - an inflammation of the lungs)
Goddard could not attend school regularly. Inspite of this Goddard
did quite well in school. As his frail health did not permit him
to take part in games and sports Goddard turned his attention to
books. From his school days he developed a passion for space travel.
This also reflected in his reading. Some of the books which influenced
him were : Allan Poe’s Lunar Discoveries; Joseph Atterlay’s
A Voyage to the Moon; Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac; Edward
Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon; Jules Verne’s From the
Earth to the Moon; H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Garrett
P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Goddard also
read about the celebrated “Moon Hoax” of 1853, when
a series of newspaper articles reported that lunar creatures had
been seen through the telescope of Sir John Frederick Herschel (1792-1871).
This episode demonstrated people’s vulnerability in believing
the existence of extraterrestrial life.
From his early readings Goddard concluded that
space travel could be a reality if by some means one could propel
a spacecraft far enough and fast enough to escape Earth’s
gravitational pull and with all sincerity he started experimenting
with ways of launching objects into space. Goddard set up a laboratory
in the attic of his house and started experimenting with ways of
launching objects into space. At times his experiments created unwanted
problems for him. For example once when he was testing his well-reasoned
theory that a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen might produce a force
strong enough to lift an object in the air he ended up shattering
his attic windows. Thus he learnt that while his reasoning was correct
but a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen could be dangerous if not handled
He tried to repeat Montgolfier brothers’
hot-air balloon flight of 1783 by building a balloon of aluminium.
He did not succeed in his early experiments. But his early failure
or his well-wishers’ advice against wasting time on haphazard
experiments did not deter him from pursuing his goal. Goddard in
his later years said that on October 19, 1899, he firmly decided
to devote himself to the exploration of space while sitting on a
high limb of a cherry tree. To quote Goddard : “It was one
of those quite colourful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have
in October in New England and as I looked forward the fields at
the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device
which has 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...
It seems to me that a weight whirling around a horizontal shelf,
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 where I ascended,
for existence at last seemed very purposive.” And since then
the dream of space flight never left Goddard till he made it a reality.
In 1901 Goddard joined the South High School in
Worcester where he found to his delight well-equipped science laboratories
and enthusiastic teachers. While following his dream of building
rockets and travelling in space, Goddard was also engaged in many
other activities. He studied French, edited the school newspaper,
acted in school plays, sang in a quartet at school shows, became
class pianist and attended concert whenever he got the opportunity.
For Goddard every branch of science was important and every phenomenon
of nature was of interest for him. He developed a habit of writing
detailed daily records of what he thought and planned. As early
in 1901 he wrote an article entitled “The Navigation of Space”
which he sent to a science magazine but it was rejected. He wrote
more articles though none was ever published. For Goddard there
was none who would take his dreams of space flight seriously and
encourage him to go ahead with his ideas. His teachers thought the
whole notion of rocketing was silly and impractical and there was
no future for rocket inventors. Goddard was not discouraged. He
later wrote, “The dream would not down... for even though
I reasoned with myself that the thing was impossible, there was
something inside which simply would not stop working”.
In 1904 Goddard joined the Worcester Polytechnic
Institute. Though he was enrolled in the general science programme,
he was mainly interested in physics - which he thought held the
key to space travel. His first article on space flight entitled
“The Use of the Gyroscope in the Balancing and Steering of
Airplanes” was published in 1907 in Scientific American. The
same year his paper entitled “On the Possibility of Navigating
Interplanetary Space” was rejected by Popular Astronomy. While
citing the reason for its rejection the editor wrote : “The
speculation about it is interesting but the impossibility of ever
doing it is so certain that it is not practically useful. You have
written well and clearly, but not helpfully to science as I see
In 1908 Goddard graduated from Worcester Polytechnic
Institute with high grades. He wanted to join the Clark University,
also located in Worcester. But his parents were not in a position
to finance his education at the Clark University and so Goddard
accepted a teaching job at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute with
an annual salary of US$ 850.
At the Polytechnic Institute Goddard’s activities
were not confined to teaching only. He pursued his ideas about space
flights vigorously. During this time he realised that Newton’s
reaction principle (or Newton’s Third Law) held the key to
launch rocket into the space. He tried to work out the basic mathematics
of rocket propulsion. He developed a skeleton plan for a multiple-stage
or step rocket. He also formulated a theory for using explosive
jets fueled with hydrogen and oxygen to obtain lift.
In 1909 he joined the Clark University. At that
time among the teachers at the Clark were A.A. Michelson, Ernest
Rutherford, Vito Volterra and Robert Williams Wood. Goddard obtained
his Master’s degree in 1910 and one year later he took his
Doctorate in physics. His PhD supervisor was Arthur G Webster, a
famous mathematical physicist and his thesis was titled, ‘On
some Peculiarities of Electrical Conductivity Exhibited by Powder,
and a few Solid Substances.” The subject of his PhD thesis
was not of his liking. Otherwise on the basis of his work he could
have made a career in the new field of radio as suggested by his
teachers. After his PhD he spent another year at Clark though he
had obtained lucrative job offer from Columbia University in New
York and the University of Missouri. In September 1912 Goddard joined
Princeton University in New Jersey, where he was offered a one year
research fellowship for working on `electricity, magnetism, infrared
and electron theory’.
At Princeton while during day-time he worked on
displacement-current experiment, in the night he continued to work
on his theory of rocket propulsion. He was so excited and engrossed
in his work that often he spent the whole night working. His frail
health could not withstand such long hours and hard work. He developed
tuberculosis in both the lungs and that was the end of his work
at Princeton University. He was forced to take complete bed rest
for several weeks. But when he was allowed to work for only one
hour a day Goddard produced, within a month, material for two US
patents covering the essential of rocket propulsion — plans
for multi-charge solid-propellant rocket, liquid propellant rocket,
multi-stage rocket, technique for sending fuel into a rocket’s
combustion chamber and an exhaust nozzle to control the ejection
of gases. In fact, these patents gave, as Goddard had observed,
“as nearly as possible an answer to the question as to what
the `Goddard Rocket is.”
On September 1914 Goddard joined Clark University
as part-time physics instructor. After the classes Goddard spent
all his spare time experimenting to test his thesis on rocket propulsion.
Goddard was working on his own. He built his own
equipment with the help of the mechanics at his father’s company.
A local industrial laboratory, the owner of which found ‘it
was almost impossible to turn him (Goddard) down,’ tested
gunpowder mixture for him. But there was a limit of stretching Goddard’s
own limited funds to support his research. He had to find financial
support from elsewhere. The first outside financial support he got
was from one of the most unlikely places - the Smithsonian Institution
in Washington, D.C., established in 1846 ‘for the increase
and diffusion of knowledge among men.’ On being asked by Charles
D. Wolcott, the then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution that
how much a high-altitude rocket might cost, Goddard wrote : ‘I
do not think that the work I have outlined could possibly be done
within the time as short as one year for less than $5,000.”
His proposal for developing ‘A method of Reaching Extreme
Altitudes” was accepted and on January 8, 1917 Goddard got
an acceptance letter alongwith a cheque for US $1,000 as an advance
for starting his work.
When the USA entered the First World War the US
Army Signal Corps asked Goddard (who was recommended to them by
the Smithsonian Institution) to develop rocket for using in battle.
Goddard moved his laboratory to Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena,
California. On November 7, 1918, Goddard demonstrated two rockets
- a long-range bombardment-rocket and another rocket that was fired
from a light-weight recoiless launcher, a forerunner to modern bazooka.
But four days after Goddard’s successful demonstration the
first World War ended and US Army did not find it necessary to go
ahead with the production of Goddard’s war rockets. And so
Goddard came back to Worcester to resume his work in the laboratories
at Clark University.
Goddard’s proposal submitted to Smithsonian
Institution in 1916 requesting funds for continuing research became
a classic of rocketry. This document alongwith his subsequent research
and Navy work was published in January 1920 by the Smithsonian Institution.
It was titled ‘A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes’
. The document is now considered as one of the fundamental classics
of rocketry. However, at the time of its publication it resulted
in public embarrassment for Goddard. This was because the media
picked up Goddard’s scientific proposal about a rocket flight
to the moon described in the last section of Goddard’s book
titled “Calculation of Minimum Mass required to Raise one
Pound to an ‘Infinite’ Altitude”. In this section
Goddard speculated that one day it would be possible to send a rocket
to the moon. He even outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching
the moon and exploding a load of flash powder to mark its arrival.
In the 1920s such an idea surely looked crazy and ridiculous.
On March 16, 1936, the Smithsonian Institution
brought out Goddard’s report titled Liquid-Propellant Rocket
Development. The report which briefly described Goddard’s
experiment since 1919 clearly established that Goddard was the first
man who construct and launched the world’s liquid fuel rocket
(16 March 1926). Goddard had constructed and tested successfully
the first rocket using liquid fuel. The original rocket flew from
Goddard’s aunt Effie’s farm at Auburn, Massachusetts,
to an altitude of 41 ft and landed 184 ft away, crashing into the
snow. The flight took 2.5 seconds. Though the experiment was primitive
but the flight of Goddard’s rocket on March 16, 1926 at Auburn
Massachusetts was a feat as epochal in history as that of the Wright
brothers at Kitty Hawk. However, like in the case of Wright brothers,
Goddard’s rocket failed to impress upon Government officials.
He did not receive any Government support for his research and testing.
He received only very modest support from the Smithsonian Institution
and the Daniel Guggenheim Foundation. He was also granted the leaves
of absence by Worcester Polytechnic Institute of Clark University.
It may be noted here that Goddard first attracted
public attention in 1907 because of the cloud of smoke from a powder
rocket fired in the basement of the physics building in Worcester
Polytechnic Institute. Fortunately school officials did not expel
Goddard. This was the beginning of Goddard’s lifetime of dedicated
Goddard’s historic flight of March 16, 1926
was not reported immediately. In fact it was not known to general
public for a decade. Goddard was reluctant to make his results public
until he had achieved more substantial results. Accordingly Goddard’s
flight of March 16, 1926 did not immediately open up the way to
the development of modern rocketry. Unware of detailed knowledge
of Goddard’s work, other rocket theorists and experimenters
independently developed their own rockets. In fact, it is believed
that Tsiolkovsky, a Russian school teacher, had understood the reaction
principle as early as 1883. He had no means to test his theories.
However, by 1919 he had thoroughly worked out the theoretical aspects
of rocket propulsion and interplanetary flights. In his writings
he described both the multistage rocket and the use of liquid nitrogen
and liquid oxygen as fuel. Tsiolkovsky continued his theoretical
research until his death in 1935. Another scientist who is acknowledged
as one of the great pioneers of rocketry and astronautics was Hermann
Oberth, a Hungarian-born German physicist. Oberth became Germany’s
foremost rocket expert. Among Oberth’s students and followers
were such scientists as Werner von Braun and Willey Ley.
Goddard died on 10 August 1945.
In 1951 the US National Aeronautics and Space
Administration (NASA) announced “Dr. Robert H. Goddard’s
work as a universally recognised pioneer in rocketry has recently
found the basis of a settlement of $1,000,000 for right to use of
over 200 of Dr. Goddard’s patents, which cover basic inventions
in the field of rockets, guided missiles and space exploration”.
In memory of Goddard, a major science laboratory, NASA’s Goddard
Space Flight Centre was established on May 1, 1959 at Greenbelt,
Maryland. In USA, following a bill passed by the House of Representatives,
March 16 is regarded as a day of national tribute to Goddard.
The Books written by Robert H. Goddard
- Liquid–Propellant Rocket Development, Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Institution, 1936.
- A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian
- Rockets. New York : American Rocket Society, 1946.
- Rocket Development : Liquid Fuel Rocket Research 1929-1941
(Eds.) Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray. Englewood Cliffs,
N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1948
- The Papers of Robert H. Goddard. 3 Vols (Ed) Esther C. Goddard
and G. Edward Pendray, New York : McGraw Hill. 1970.
For Further Reading
- Robert Goddard : Trail Blazer to the Stars by Charles Deutherty.
New York. Macmillan. 1964.
- This High Man by Milton Lehman. New York : Farrar, Straus and
- Dreamers and Doers : Inventors who Changed the World by Narman
Richards. New York : Atheneum, 1984.
- Robert Goddard : Father of the Space Age by Charles S. Verral.
Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1963.
- The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science (Vol.1) by Isaac
Asimov. New York: Basic Books. 1960.
- The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke New York : Harper
& Brothers, 1951.
- History of Rocket Technology by Eugen Emme. Detroit : Wayne
State University Press, 1964.
- Beyond the Solar System by Willy Ley. New York : Viking Press.
- Missiles and Space Travel by Willy Ley. New York : Viking Press,
- Decision to Go to the Moon by John Logsdon. Cambridge MIT Press,
- Rockets into Space by Frank H. Winter Cambridge, Massachusetts
and London : Harvard University Press, 1990
- Robert Hutchings Goddard: Pioneer of Rocketry and Space Flight
by Suzanne M. Coil. Hyderabad: Universities Press (India) Limited.
- Robert H. Goddard—Pioneer of Space Research by Milton
Lehman. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.