Robert Goddard

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and His Rockets
Dr. Robert H. Goddard and His Rockets. NASA

Robert Goddard was America's first rocketry expert, leading the way to the development of the vehicles on which countless space missions have launched. He was born on October 5, 1882. Goddard was an avid reader, devouring Cassell's Popular Educator as well as science-fiction novels. H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds sparked his interest in space exploration.

In 1907, while a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he experimented on a rocket powered by gunpowder in the basement of the physics building.

Clouds of smoke caused a lot of commotion and the faculty, rather than expel him, took an interest in his work.

He received his degree in physics in 1908 and was made a Fellow in the physics department at Clark University. There, he received his master's degree in 1910 and in 1911 he earned a doctorate.

By 1914, Goddard already had received two U.S. patents (#1,103,503 and #1,102,653) for a rocket using liquid fuel and for a two- or three-stage rocket using solid fuel. Until that time, propulsion was provided by various types of gunpowder.

Building Rockets

 In 1915, Goddard theorized that a rocket would work in a vacuum and didn't need to push against air in order to fly. This meant that in the vacuum of space, rocket engines would be able to produce thrust. He began experiments on the efficiency of rockets and bought some commercial rockets to measure their thrust.

He wrote a document in 1916 requesting funds of the Smithsonian Institution so that he could continue his research.

This was published in 1920 along with his subsequent research and Navy work in  "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes". There, he detailed his search for methods of raising weather recording instruments higher than sounding balloons. This is where he developed the mathematical theories of rocket propulsion.

Goddard's discoveries were given little attention by the U.S. government for many year, although Smithsonian funding kept his work going. In 1920, his original paper, "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes" appeared, in which he included stressed that rockets could be used to send payloads to the Moon, exploding a load of flash powder to mark their arrival.

The press picked up Goddard's scientific proposal about such a rocket flight, causing people to ridicule him for the idea. He continued to work on developing better rockets, and his expertise was used during both World Wars. After World War II, he joined the American Rocket Society as a director and showed interest in working in the aerospace industry. He died in August 1945, owner of many patents and technological processes relating to rocketry, and is often cited as an influence by scientists and astronauts who went on to work at NASA. 

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, is named for this pioneer of American rocketry. 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen

In 1922 Goddard went back to his alternative idea, proposed independently by Hermann Oberth in Germany and also noted by Tsiolkovsky: a liquid-fuel rocket. It would have two lines running into its combustion chamber, one feeding fuel, the other oxygen, similar to the way a steel-cutting blowtorch operated, except here both lines carried liquids, not gases--in Goddard's design, gasoline and liquid oxygen.

Goddard was named director of the Physical Laboratory in 1923.

On March 16, 1926, Goddard flight-tested his first liquid-fuel rocket. He thought stable flight could be obtained by mounting the rocket ahead of the fuel tank, with the tank shielded from the flame by a metal cone and the lines for fuel and oxygen pulling it behind the rocket: the design worked, but did not produce the hoped-for stability. The rocket burned about 20 seconds before reaching sufficient thrust (or sufficiently lightening the fuel tank) for taking off. During that time it melted part of the nozzle, while the camera with which Mrs. Esther Goddard was trying to record the flight ran out of film, so that no photographic record of that flight remains. Then it took off to a height of 41 feet, leveled off and later hit the ground, all within 2. 5 seconds, averaging about 60 mph.

During this time, several copies of the 1920 Smithsonian report had reached Europe.

The German Rocket Society was formed in 1927, and the German Army began its rocket program in 1931. 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.

In 1930, Goddard and a small crew of workers moved to New Mexico to continue his research in seclusion. He had 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.

Goddard died on Aug. 10, 1945, holding 214 patents in rocketry but having received little attention for his propulsion research. When American rocket scientists began to earnestly prepare for space exploration, they discovered it was almost impossible to build a rocket or launch a satellite without acknowledging the work of Goddard.

Now known as the father of modern rocketry, Goddard's significant achievements in rocket propulsion have contributed immensely to the scientific exploration of space. Goddard didn't live to see the age of space flight, but his foundation of rocket research became the fundamental principles of rocket propulsion.

A day after Apollo 11 set off for the Moon, in July of 1969, the New York Times printed a correction to its 1920 editorial section, stating that "it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere.

The Times regrets the error."

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., a major space science laboratory, was named in his honor.