Eighty-five years ago today, pioneer Robert Goddard launched the first liquid fueled rocket. We take a look back at the man ridiculed for his belief that rockets would one day reach the moon.
Born in 1882 in Massachusetts, Robert Goddard was interested in science from an early age. His parents fueled his interest, buying him a microscope, a telescope and a subscription to Scientific American. Goddard first became fascinated by space when as a 16-year-old he read H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds (years later, Goddard would correspond with Wells). But he didn’t just indulge in speculative works of fiction – Goddard also studied the writings of Sir Isaac Newton and began to ponder how the laws of physics might be applied to the problem of space flight. Like Newton and his apple, Goddard drew inspiration from the mundane, experiencing an epiphany about the possibility of space travel one October while trimming dead limbs from a cherry tree. For the rest of his life, he privately celebrated October 19th as the anniversary of his greatest inspiration.
Goddard enrolled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1904. Four years later he graduated with a degree in physics, and he spent a year teaching before enrolling at nearby Clark University, where he received both his M.A. and Ph.D degrees. As early as his sophomore year in college he’d begun to study the idea of liquid rather than powder propelled rockets, and while still an undergraduate had a paper related to aeronautics published by Scientific American. At Clark University, he also invented a vacuum tube that could amplify a radio signal, earning him the first of his eventual 214 patents.
In 1913, he was sidelined with tuberculosis. After a prolonged recovery, he would register two of his most groundbreaking patents. One was for a multistage rocket, the second for a rocket fueled by liquid nitrous oxide and gasoline.
But the road from theory to blueprint to reality would be a long one. Needing to fund his research, Goddard sought the aid of the Smithsonian Institute, sending them a detailed manuscript titled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. The Smithsonian granted Goddard $5,000 and in 1919 published his manuscript. Though a highly sober and theoretically sound scientific document, the work become a media sensation for its assertion that travel to the surface of the moon might be possible, an idea that earned Goddard widespread ridicule. Newspapers nicknamed him the ‘Moon Man' and a New York Times editorial even accused him of fundamentally misunderstanding the laws of Newtonian physics.
“Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it,” responded Goddard. “Once realized, it becomes commonplace.”
His research had by then already found practical applications. As the U.S. entered WWI, Goddard approached all branches of the military about using rocket technology to propel their weapons. Only the Army was interested, and worked with Goddard on what would eventually evolve into the bazooka.
And on March 26, 1921, in a cabbage field at his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts, Goddard took a huge step in proving all his doubters wrong – he successfully launched “Nell,” the world’s first liquid-fuel-propelled rocket. Though it rose only 41 feet and was airborne a mere 2.5 seconds, it was a watershed moment, the culmination of his life’s work thus far.
His experiments would gain the attention of world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who met the scientist in 1929 and came away convinced the ‘Moon Man’ was onto something big. Lindbergh used his reputation to try to get commercial funding for Goddard’s rocket research, but his timing could not have been worse – funding had dried up after the stock market crash of October, 1929.
But in 1930, Lindbergh was able to get Goddard the help he needed. The Guggenheim family stepped in with huge investment, giving Goddard a $100,000, four-year research grant. His days of scraping by and teaching part-time were over – he could now concentrate fully on developing his rockets.
Goddard and his three technicians moved to Roswell, New Mexico and worked in near total secrecy for the next dozen years, launching more than 30 rockets as he worked on perfecting his designs. While the U.S. military was still largely uninterested in his work, the German military bought his designs directly from the U.S. patent office and used them as the basis for the dreaded V2 rocket, a weapon which would level much of London during WWII.
Seeing the devastation the weapon wrought only fueled Goddard’s vision of reaching outer space, as he commented to his wife Esther, “We may be able to get off this planet just in time.” Robert Goddard was still working on making his dream a reality when he died of throat cancer on August 10, 1945 at the age of 62.
Decades later, a day after the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, The New York Times ran a correction to its 1920 anti-Goddard editorial, stating “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."