Great Men You’ve Never Heard Of: Robert Goddard

Throughout history, for every great man in public knowledge, there is at least one more, of equal importance, forgotten. Today we celebrate Robert Goddard, pioneer of the liquid fueled rocket.

After a brief hiatus, ‘Great men' is back, and back with a bang. Well, not so much a bang, more like a controlled explosion capable of lighting up the night sky like it was noon. An explosion so forceful it can propel 4.5 million pounds of metal and fuel to speeds of 18,000 miles per hour, or in excess of Mach 23. That's right, in honor of the Space Shuttle Discovery's final launch, we are heading back to space. Only this time instead of talking about someone who climbs aboard a rocket and gets shot into space, we are talking about the man whose work and research enabled man to begin to explore the solar system and beyond. I am talking about Robert Goddard, pioneer of the liquid fueled rocket.

Robert Hutchings Goddard was born on October 5, 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts to Nahum Danford Goddard and Fannie Louise Hoyt. He was their only child to survive. Goddard became fascinated with science when his father first showed him how to generate static electricity on the family carpet. His father encouraged Robert's curiosity by providing him with a telescope, a microscope, and a subscription to Scientific American. At the age of 16, he became interested in space after reading H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds. He dedicated himself to the pursuit of rocketry on October 19,1899, when he climbed a cherry tree and was transfixed by the sky. He later wrote, “I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended. Existence at last seemed purposive.”

Goddard was a sickly child and as a result, fell two years behind his classmates. As his health improved, he continued schooling as an eighteen year old sophomore at South High School in Worcester in 1901. He was twice elected class president and was the valedictorian at his graduation in 1904. After graduation, Goddard enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall of 1904. He received his B.S. In Physics in 1908. In 1909, he began his graduate work at Clark University. Goddard received his M.A. In Physics in 1910 and his Ph.D in 1911.

Goddard's first writings about liquid fueled rockets came on February 2 1909. He was looking for a way to increase a rocket's efficiency from the traditional powder fuel. In his journal he wrote about using liquid Hydrogen as the fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Such fuel, he believed, could increase efficiency by 50%. Even though he had thought about using liquid fuel, he still focused on improving the efficiency of powder fuel.

Robert Goddard was awarded  214 patents throughout the course of his life. (Including 131 patents after his death, filed by his wife) In 1914 he filed two patents. The first, U.S. Patent 1,102,653, was for a multi-stage rocket. The second, U.S. Patent 1,103,503, was for a rocket fueled with gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide.

In the fall of 1914, Goddard became an instructor at Clark University. This was where he really started experimenting with rockets. By 1916, his experiments had become too expensive for his modest salary. Robert Goddard needed sponsors. He solicited financial assistance from the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic Society, and the Aero Club of America, among others. In January of 1917, The Smithsonian agreed to provide a five-year grant totaling $5,000. Following this, Clark University was able to contribute an additional $3,500 and the use of their physics lab. Worcester Polytechnic Institute let Goddard use their abandoned magnetics laboratory as a safe testing ground.

Robert H. Goddard wearing a suit and tieIn 1919, the Smithsonian Institution Published his work, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Today, it is considered one of the pioneering works on rocketry. Most of the work dealt with theoretical and experimental relationships between propellant, rocket mass, thrust, and velocity. However, the final section was titled, “Calculation of minimum mass required to raise one pound to an ‘infinite altitude.’” This was a thought experiment about launching a rocket to the moon and igniting flash powder on the surface that would be visible from a telescope. He wisely kept his ideas about space travel to himself.

The publication of his work gained Goddard national attention from the newspapers. Unfortunately, most of it was negative. Even though sending a  rocket to the moon was only a small part of his published work, it was supposed to illustrate the potential rather than his intent. The papers sensationalized his ideas to the point of misrepresentation and ridicule.

On January 12, 1920, a front page article in the New York Times headlined “Believes Rocket can Reach Moon,” reported on a Smithsonian press release about “A multiple charge high efficiency rocket” whose main purpose was “the possibility of sending recording apparatus to moderate and extreme altitudes within the Earth's atmosphere. “ The article also mentioned a proposal to send a rocket to the moon and ignite flash powder.

The following day, January 13, an unsigned editorial scoffed at the proposal,

[A]fter the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey it will neither be accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

The Times jumped on the bandwagon as well and questioned Goddard's understanding of Newton's laws.

That Professor Goddard with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

What the times didn't know was that Goddard had already successfully tested Newtonian Laws. In 1901, he performed a test that verified that propulsion was possible with a floating object, and in 1915, he did laboratory experiments at Clark that confirmed that thrust was possible in a vacuum. Goddard tried to restore reason with regard to his work, but to no avail. As a result of the harsh criticism from the media and other scientists, he often worked alone.

On July 17, 1969, a day after the launch of Apollo 11 and 49 years after the mocking editorial, The New York Times published under the headline “A Correction” a three paragraph summary of the 1920 editorial and concluded with:

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

Goddard began experimenting with liquid fueled rockets in September of 1921, and tested the first liquid fueled rocket engine in November of 1923. On November 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid fueled (gasoline and liquid oxygen) rocket. Those present at the launch were Henry Sachs, Esther Goddard, and Perry Roope.

Excerpts from Goddard's diary:

March 16. Went to Auburn with S[achs] in am. E[sther] 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. . .

March 17, 1926. The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn. . . .Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate

The rocket, named ‘Nell', rose 41 feet during the 2.5 second flight and ended up 184 away in a cabbage patch. The launch site is now a National Historic Landmark, The Goddard Rocket Launching Site.

One of his launches in July 1929 not only gained the attention of the newspapers, but also of Charles Lindbergh. He met Goddard in his office at Clark in late 1929. They formed an alliance that would last for the rest of Goddard's life. Lindbergh used his famous name to try and gain financial support for Goddard's work, but that was all but impossible following the stock market crash in October 1929. However, in the spring of 1930, Danial Guggenheim agreed to fund Goddard's research over the next four years for a total of $100,000. The Guggenheim family continued to support Goddard's work for years to come.

Goddard relocated to Roswell, New Mexico in 1930. Here he could work in isolation, not endanger anyone, nor be bothered by the curious. By September 1931, his rockets had taken on the now familiar smooth casing and tail fins. He also began experimenting with gyroscopic guidance. On March 28, 1935, his A-5 rocket successfully flew to an altitude of 4,800 feet (1.46 km for those in metricland) using a gyroscopic guidance system. Additionally, this rocket achieved supersonic velocity. March 26, 1937, his L-13 rocket reached an altitude of 8,900 feet (2.7 km). This was the highest of any of his rockets. Between 1930 and 1945, Goddard launched 31 rockets.

While many of his flights ended in what could be called ‘failure', Goddard did not consider them as such because he always learned something from each test. Even though the Germans were launching rockets higher than Goddard (they had far more funding than he did), he focused more on guidance and control to provide a stable vehicle for the equipment that they would one day carry.

Robert Goddard was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1945 and died that August in Baltimore, Maryland. He is buried at Hope Cemetery in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Goddard's life wasn't all rockets and science. On June 21,1924, he married Esther Christine Kisk, whom he met in 1919. She photographed some of his work as well as aided him in his experiments and paper work. After his death, she secured an additional 131 patents on his work. Sadly, the couple did not have any children.

So the next time you are in the pub, the cafeteria, or even by yourself, call for some quiet and raise a glass of your preferred beverage to Robert Goddard, the pioneer of the liquid-fueled rocket.

Sources: (great video of one of Goddard's launch)
Andy Luscombe

Andy calls Boston home. He spends his working days with kids and his evenings on the town. Fun fact: he has a very hardcore Boston accent.