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Robert Hutchings Goddard
Pioneer of Modern Rocketry
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti

 

 

“I feel we are going to enter an era comparable in its progress to that in which the airplane advanced... It’s just a matter of imagination how far we go with rockets and jet planes... I think it’s fair to say you haven’t seen anything yet.”

Robert Hutchings Goddard


No one knew better than Robert Hutchings Goddard how far the journey was, or how fast one had to travel. His were the first footsteps in the human quest for unknown worlds. His memory soars with every rocket; his spirit mingles with the stars.

Suzanne M. Coil in Robert Hutchings Goddard : Pioneer of Rocketry and Space Flight (1992)

The earth is the cradle of mankind—one cannot remain in the cradle forever.

Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky


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 lunar landing.

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 properly.

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 it.”

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 work.

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

  1. Liquid–Propellant Rocket Development, Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution, 1936.
  2. A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution, 1919.
  3. Rockets. New York : American Rocket Society, 1946.
  4. Rocket Development : Liquid Fuel Rocket Research 1929-1941 (Eds.) Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1948
  5. The Papers of Robert H. Goddard. 3 Vols (Ed) Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray, New York : McGraw Hill. 1970.

For Further Reading

  1. Robert Goddard : Trail Blazer to the Stars by Charles Deutherty. New York. Macmillan. 1964.
  2. This High Man by Milton Lehman. New York : Farrar, Straus and Company. 1963.
  3. Dreamers and Doers : Inventors who Changed the World by Narman Richards. New York : Atheneum, 1984.
  4. Robert Goddard : Father of the Space Age by Charles S. Verral. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1963.
  5. The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science (Vol.1) by Isaac Asimov. New York: Basic Books. 1960.
  6. The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke New York : Harper & Brothers, 1951.
  7. History of Rocket Technology by Eugen Emme. Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1964.
  8. Beyond the Solar System by Willy Ley. New York : Viking Press. 1964.
  9. Missiles and Space Travel by Willy Ley. New York : Viking Press, 1954.
  10. Decision to Go to the Moon by John Logsdon. Cambridge MIT Press, 1970.
  11. Rockets into Space by Frank H. Winter Cambridge, Massachusetts and London : Harvard University Press, 1990
  12. Robert Hutchings Goddard: Pioneer of Rocketry and Space Flight by Suzanne M. Coil. Hyderabad: Universities Press (India) Limited.
  13. Robert H. Goddard—Pioneer of Space Research by Milton Lehman. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.