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Dr. Robert H. Goddard – Father of American Rocketry

Updated on November 10, 2017

Dr. Robert Goddard was an American physicist, engineer, inventor, and professor, mostly known for being the creator of the first liquid-fueled rocket. As a theorist and engineer, Goddard was one of the pioneers of spaceflight, and he is regarded as one of the leading figures of the Space Age. He is the author of one the classic texts of rocket science, A method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Although he received little support for his work during his life, he is now acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of modern rocket science. His role in establishing the realistic potential of ballistic missiles or space travel was tremendous as he studied, designed, and built rockets that successfully proved these possibilities.

Early Life

Robert Hutchings Goddard was born on October 5, 1882, in Worcester, Massachusetts. His parents were Nahum Danford Goddard and Fannie Louise Hoyt. As a boy, Robert had an unusual curiosity about nature and all its phenomena. He always found enjoyment in studying the sky with a telescope or observing the birds flying. Living in the countryside, he developed an affinity for the outdoors, which he explored passionately.

When the electric power was introduced in American cities in the 1880s, Goddard started to develop a keen interest in engineering and technology. As a child, he was inspired by his father to attempt simple experiments, such as generating static electricity on the family’s carpet. This triggered his imagination and led him to try other types of experiments, such as creating a cloud of smoke in the house by the use of chemicals. To encourage his interest in science, Goddard’s father bought him a telescope and a microscope. The family also subscribed to Scientific American, a popular science magazine. Robert’s interests became more specific as he grew up. He developed a particular fascination with flight, by observing kites or playing with balloons. His approach was professional and scientific from an early age since he was always documenting his work in a special diary. At the age of 16, he was already attempting more complicated experiments such as constructing a balloon out of aluminum in his home workshop. He thoroughly documented his efforts in a methodical and detailed manner, despite the failure of his experiment.

A Young Man on a Mission

After reading the science fiction novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells when he was 16 years old, Goddard shifted his entire focus towards space flight. On October 19, 1899, Goddard climbed a cherry tree and as he observed the sky from there, he had a vision of the possibility to conquer the sky and the space by ascending to planets such as Mars on a special device. He celebrated October 19 as “Anniversary Day” from then on, considering that it was the day when life became for him full of meaning and purpose.

Despite his great ambitions and dreams, as a young man, Goddard was very frail. He suffered from several health conditions such as stomach problems, bronchitis, and pleurisy, which forced him to pause his studies for a period of two years. During this time, however, he satisfied his insatiable curiosity by becoming a voracious reader. He often visited the local public library to find new books on science and technology. Goddard became captivated by the works of Samuel Langley’s papers on aerodynamics and motion, which were published in Smithsonian. Inspired by Langley’s articles, Goddard would spend his time testing theories by observing the flight of birds on his own. He tried to publish his conclusions on St. Nicholas magazine, but his article was rejected by the editor with the observation that flight requires an intelligence that machines could never possess as naturally as birds. Goddard was, however, certain that man will one day be able to control a flying machine. Another source of inspiration for him was Newton’s Principia Mathematica. He was convinced that Newton’s Third Law of Motion was applicable to motion in space, not just to motion on Earth.

Formal Education

Goddard resumed his formal education at Worcester in 1901, at South High Community School. He was elected class president and proved to be an excellent student, highly interested in mathematics, mechanics, and astronomy. He graduated valedictorian in 1904. In the same year, he enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he quickly impressed everyone with his thirst for knowledge. The head of the physics department took him as a laboratory assistant. Goddard also had an active social life as he joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. During his college years, he developed a close relationship with a former high school classmate, Miriam Olmstead. After a long courtship, they got engaged. For unknown reasons, the couple gradually drifted apart and they broke off the engagement in 1909.

In 1908, Goddard graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic, where he also served as an instructor in physics during his last year of studies. After graduation, he decided to continue his studies at Clark University in Worcester, where he completed a M.A. degree and a Ph.D. After ending his studies, he remained for another year at Clark University as an honorary fellow in physics. Eventually, he accepted an invitation to join Princeton University’s Palmer Physical Laboratory as a research fellow.

Princeton Univeristy

Goddard started to write scientific papers while still an undergraduate. His first paper was submitted to Scientific American and it was published in 1907. Two years later, he wrote for the first time about his greatest and most private goal, which was building liquid-fueled rockets. He wanted to focus on alternative methods, outside of the traditional path of solid-fuel rockets because he considered that liquid propellants would increase significantly the efficiency of the rockets.

In 1912, when Goddard was already working at Princeton University, he began to study elements of radio technology, as the medium was still a novelty and presented many opportunities for innovation. He developed a vacuum tube able to operate as a cathode-ray oscillator tube and on November 2, 1915, his first patent was issued. In the same period, he used his spare time to focus on studying and developing mathematics that he could use in determining the velocity and position of a rocket in space using parameters easy to calculate, such as the weight of the propellant, the weight of the rocket, and the velocity of the exhaust gas. Above all, Goddard was firstly interested in building a rocket with which it would have become possible to study the atmosphere. His primary goal was to develop a vehicle for space flights, yet he preferred to keep his ambitions to himself, as most scientists considered this goal an unrealistic pursuit which could not be put to practice. Both the scientific world and the public were reluctant to take seriously the idea of space flight.

In early 1913, Goddard’s health deteriorated quickly as he had tuberculosis. His health problems compromised his position at Princeton and he was forced to resign. Back in Worcester, Goddard began a long process of recovery and even though the doctors gave him little hope, he gradually improved by spending time outdoors and taking long walks in the fresh air. Despite his weakened health, Goddard was very prolific with his work during this period of recuperation, working just an hour per day. During this time, he also became aware of the importance of protecting his work through patents that secured his intellectual property. In May 1913, he submitted his first rocket patent application at a patent firm in Worcester. The first two rocket patents were registered in 1914, but made history years later, when they were acknowledged as major milestones in the development of rocketry. In total, Goddard has 214 patents registered to his name.

Podcast Biography of Robert Goddard

Clark University

When his health improved, Goddard took a part-time position as an instructor and research fellow at Clark University, where he could freely pursue his rocketry research. He spent almost a year gathering supplies to build prototypes and preparing for his first launch tests. In 1915, Goddard initiated his first test launch of a powder rocket in the campus at the university. After many tests of optimization that took him months, Goddard managed to achieve an engine efficiency of more than 63%. The experiment made him even more confident that rockets could be built powerful enough to travel into space. This first engine and the experiments that followed marked the beginning of modern rocketry and space exploration. Confident of being on the right track, Goddard designed a complex experiment at the Clark physics lab, trying to prove that a rocket could operate with the same performance in a vacuum as that in space. His experiment, however, did not offer convincing arguments.

By 1916, Goddard’s modest financial means were insufficient for covering his rocket research. He decided to solicit financial help from organizations that could offer sponsorship, such as the Smithsonian Institution or the National Geographic Society. Upon request, he sent a detailed manuscript, entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes to the Smithsonian, to explain his plans. Eventually, Goddard received a five-year grant from the Smithsonian and was allowed to use an abandoned laboratory from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute for safe testing.

Excerpt from Goddard's: "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitude"
Excerpt from Goddard's: "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitude"

World War I

When the United States entered World War I, Goddard realized that his rocket research had the potential of helping in the war efforts. Even though he made proposals to the Navy and Army, where he discussed developments for military applications such as mobile artillery or field weapons, the Navy ignored his inquiry. When businessmen and corporations contacted him for manufacturing rockets for the military, Goddard proved rather suspicious and was afraid of having his work appropriated in harmful ways, which compelled him to secure patents and protect his intellectual work. Goddard began, however, a collaboration with the Army, which led to the development of different light infantry weapons and a tube-fired rocket prototype which impressed the Army but wasn’t fully implemented because the war ended and Goddard’s health problems became an issue again. After the war, he remained a consultant to the U.S. Government in Maryland but returned to his research in liquid-fueled rocket and rocket propulsion. His weapon prototypes were developed further by other scientists and Army officers, leading to many powerful rocket weapons used in World War II.

At the end of 1919, the Smithsonian Institute published Goddard’s A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Almost two thousand copies were distributed worldwide and the work presented groundbreaking theories and conclusions of thorough experiments. It is now regarded as a pioneering work in the field of rocketry. At the time of publication, the document gained Goddard a lot of unwanted attention from newspapers. A paragraph from Goddard’s report mentioning the possibility to target the moon became a reason for ridicule. The media turned what was meant as an illustration of a possibility as a declaration of intent to give it a sensationalist touch. Goddard became victims of numerous violent attacks in the press.

After an editorial in the New York Times, Goddard’ research turned into a sensational story, arousing a wide range of reactions in the United States. Despite his attempts to prove his theories by experimental work and the positive results of his experiments, Goddard was not understood and the mockery in the press continued. The harsh criticism compelled him to continue his work alone. The lack of support from the academia, military, and government limited, however, his pursuits. Almost half a century after the editorial that ridiculed Goddard’s ambitions, the launch of Apollo 11 made the New York Times publish a short article in which the publication confessed regret for its error.

Goddard married Esther Christine Kisk on June 21, 1924. She was a secretary at Clark University and was very enthusiastic about Goddard’s work in rocketry. She assisted him in his experiments, paperwork, and was the photographer for his research. The couple did not have children.

Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts.
Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Rocket Research

During the next couple of years, Goddard’s experiments became increasingly more sophisticated. Despite the lack of funding, after numerous attempts, he finally launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926, in Massachusetts. The rocket used gasoline and liquid oxygen as fuel and it was the important demonstration that Goddard needed for proving that liquid propellant rockets were indeed possible. By 1929, Goddard’s work gained national notoriety again, with each rocket launch bringing him more attention from the public. Goddard disliked attention and thought it interfered negatively in his research, but the popularity of his work finally brought him a generous sponsor. Financier Daniel Guggenheim showed his willingness to fund Goddard’s research for a period of four years. However, the Guggenheim family continued to support Goddard in his work for many more years.

Having secured his financial means, Goddard moved to Roswell, New Mexico in 1930, where he worked in isolation with a team of technicians for years. The area had ideal weather for their type of work and provided a safe and private environment for the team. Very few were able to locate Goddard’s facilities and even the locals were unwilling to disclose information to curious visitors. In New Mexico, Goddard finally ran a flight test. After a short ascent, the rocket crashed, but he considered it a success in his diary. From 1932 to 1934, he was forced to return to Clark University since the Great Depression had caused a loss of funding from the Guggenheim family. However, Goddard continued to work on the rockets undisturbed and his tests progressively became more successful. He ran flight tests for many of his rockets and was satisfied to learn from mistakes in cases of failure.

The 1940 Goddard rocket on its assembly frame, with the combustion chamber on the left and oxygen and gasoline tanks ton the right. In the photo: Dr. Goddard (left) with assistants N.T. Ljungquist, A.W. Kisk, and C.W. Manjur.
The 1940 Goddard rocket on its assembly frame, with the combustion chamber on the left and oxygen and gasoline tanks ton the right. In the photo: Dr. Goddard (left) with assistants N.T. Ljungquist, A.W. Kisk, and C.W. Manjur.

Final Days

During the World War II, the Navy became interested in Goddard’s services and he built liquid-fueled rockets, which would later be developed into large rocket engines.

In 1945, Goddard was diagnosed with throat cancer. Despite his condition, he continued to work. He died the same year, in August, in Baltimore, Maryland. Even though there hadn’t been a serious interest in rocketry in the United States during the years of Goddard’s struggles, his merits are now acknowledged by the entire world of science and technology.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Aerial view of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Founded in 1959 and named after Robert Goddard.
Aerial view of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Founded in 1959 and named after Robert Goddard.

List of References:

A SALUTE TO LONG NEGLECTED 'FATHER OF AMERICAN ROCKETRY'. October 5, 1982. The New York Times. Accessed May 6, 2017

Goddard launches space age with historic first 85 years ago today. Clark University. Accessed May 6, 2017

Robert H. Goddard: American Rocket Pioneer. March 17, 2001. NASA: 1–3. Accessed May 6, 2017

Robert H. Goddard — American Rocket Pioneer. March 1920. The Smithsonian Institution. Accessed May 6, 2017

Clary, David A. Rocket Man – Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age. Hyperion. 2003.

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 6 months ago from Oklahoma

      Fascinating historical overview.