Invention and History of Rockets

Robert Goddard (1882-1945)

Robert Goddard
Robert Goddard. NASA

The father of modern rocket propulsion was the American scientist, Doctor Robert Hutchings Goddard.

Robert Goddard - Introduction

According to Britannica, Robert Goddard conducted theoretical and experimental research on rocket motors using a steel motor with a tapered nozzle and achieved greatly improved thrust and efficiency for the rockets of his times. During World War One, Robert Goddard developed a number of small military rockets for use as weapons that were launched from lightweight hand launchers.
Robert Goddard switched from using black powder (gunpowder) to double-base powder (40 percent nitroglycerin, 60 percent nitrocellulose) inventing a more potent propulsion charge for his rockets. Goddard's rocket weapon became the forerunner of the bazooka, developed during World War Two.

Robert Goddard - Biography

Robert Goddard was one of the three most prominent pioneers of rocketry and spaceflight theory. He earned his Ph.D. in physics at Clark University in 1911 and went on to become head of the Clark physics department and director of its physical laboratories.

He began to work seriously on rocket development in 1909 and is credited with launching the world's first liquid-propellant rocket in 1926. On March 16, 1926, Goddard successfully tested the first liquid fuel rocket, at Auburn Massachusetts.

He continued his rocket development work with the help of a few technical assistants throughout the remainder of his life.

He developed and patented many of the technologies later used on large rockets and missiles, including: film cooling, gyroscopically controlled vanes, and a variable-thrust rocket motor. He was granted about 70 patents altogether.

Robert Goddard kept most of the technical details of his inventions a secret and thus missed the chance to demonstrate his full genius.

In memory of the brilliant scientist, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., was established on May 1, 1959.

Robert Goddard's Historic Firsts

Robert Goddard's basic contribution to missilery and space flight is a lengthy list. His lifetime of work in establishing and demonstrating the fundamental principles of rocket propulsion included the following highlights:
  • First explored mathematically the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high & altitudes and even the moon (1912);
  • First proved, by actual static test, that a rocket will work in a vacuum, that it needs no air to push against;
  • First developed and shot a liquid fuel rocket, March 16,1926;
  • First shot a scientific payload (barometer and camera) in a rocket flight (1929, Auburn, Massachusetts);
  • First used vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance (1932, New Mexico);
  • First developed gyro control apparatus for rocket flight (1932, New Mexico);
  • First received U.S. patent in idea of multi-stage rocket (1914);
  • First developed pumps suitable for rocket fuels;
  • First launched successfully a rocket with a motor pivoted on gimbals under the influence of a gyro mechanism (1937).

Continue > Indepth Biography of Robert Goddard

Robert Hutchings Goddard, along with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky of Russia and Hermann Oberth of Germany, envisioned the exploration of space. A physicist of great insight, Robert Goddard also had an unique genius for invention.

Liquid Fueled Rocket

By 1926, Robert Goddard had constructed and tested successfully the first rocket using liquid fuel. The flight of Robert 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. Yet, it was just one of Goddard's "firsts" in the now booming significance of rocket propulsion in the fields of military missilery and the scientific exploration of space.

Lack of Support

Primitive in their day as the achievement of the Wrights, Goddard's rockets made little impression upon government officials. Only through the modest subsidies of the Smithsonian Institution and the Daniel Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the leaves of absence granted him by Worcester Polytechnic Institute of Clark University, was Goddard able to sustain his lifetime of devoted research and testing. He worked for the U.S. Navy in both World Wars. Eighteen years after his successful demonstration at Auburn, Goddard's pioneering achievements came to life in the German V-2 ballistic missile.

Robert Goddard first obtained public notice in 1907 in a cloud of smoke from a powder rocket fired in the basement of the physics building in Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

School officials took an immediate interest in the work of student Goddard. They, to their credit, did not expel him. He thus began his lifetime of dedicated work.

U.S. Patents

In 1914, Robert Goddard received two U.S. patents. One was for a rocket using liquid fuel. The other was for a two or three stage rocket using solid fuel. At his own expense, he began to make systematic studies about propulsion provided by various types of gunpowder. His classic document was a study that he wrote in 1916 requesting funds of the Smithsonian Institution so that he could continue his research. This was later published along with his subsequent research and Navy work in a Smithsonian Miscellaneous Publication No. 2540 (January 1920). It was entitled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." In this treatise, he detailed his search for methods of raising weather recording instruments higher than sounding balloons. In this search, as he related, he developed the mathematical theories of rocket propulsion.

A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes

Towards the end of his 1920 report, Robert Goddard outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching the moon and exploding a load of flash powder there to mark its arrival. The bulk of his scientific report to the Smithsonian was a dry explanation of how he used the $5000 grant in his research. Yet, the press picked up Goddard' s scientific proposal about a rocket flight to the moon and erected a journalistic controversy concerning the feasibility of such a thing. Much ridicule came Goddard's way. And he reached firm convictions about the virtues of the press corps which he held for the rest of his life. Yet, several score of the 1750 copies of the 1920 Smithsonian report reached Europe. The German Rocket Society was formed in 1927, and the German Army began its rocket program in 1931. Goddard's greatest engineering contributions were made during his work in the 1920's and 1930's (see list of historic firsts). He received a total of $10,000 from the Smithsonian by 1927, and through the personal efforts of Charles A. Lindbergh, he subsequently received financial support from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation. Progress on all of his work was published in "Liquid Propellant Rocket Development," which was published by the Smithsonian in 1936.

Prototype for Bazooka

Goddard's work largely anticipated in technical detail the later German V-2 missiles, including gyroscopic control, steering by means of vanes in the jet stream of the rocket motor, gimbalsteering, power-driven fuel pumps and other devices. His rocket flight in 1929 carried the first scientific payload, a barometer, and a camera. Goddard developed and demonstrated the basic idea of the "bazooka" two days before the Armistice in 1918 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. His launching platform was a music rack. Dr. Clarence N. Hickman, a young Ph.D. from Clark University, worked with Goddard in 1918 provided continuity to the research that produced the World War II bazooka. In World War II, Goddard again offered his services and was assigned by the U.S. Navy to the development of practical jet assisted takeoff NATO) and liquid propellant rocket motors capable of variable thrust. In both areas, he was successful. He died on August 10,1945, four days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

Dawn of the Space Age

Robert Goddard was the first scientist who not only realized the potentialities of missiles and space flight but also contributed directly in bringing them to practical realization. This rare talent in both creative science and practical engineering places Goddard well above the opposite numbers among the European rocket pioneers. The dedicated labors of this modest man went largely unrecognized in the United States until the dawn of what is now called the "space age." High honors and wide acclaim, belated but richly deserved, now come to the name of Robert H. Goddard.

On September 16, 1959, the 86th Congress authorized the issuance of a gold meal in the honor of Professor Robert H. Goddard.

In memory of the brilliant scientist, a major space science laboratory, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, was established on May 1, 1959.