Biography of Robert H. Goddard, American Rocket Scientist

robert h. goddard
Dr. Robert H. Goddard at the blackboard at Clark University. Colorized image courtesy NASA and Clark University.

 NASA/Clark University

Robert Hutchings Goddard (October 5, 1882–August 10, 1945) was an influential American rocket scientist whose work shaped the history of space exploration. Yet, as far-reaching as Goddard's work became, it was not acknowledged as important by the government or military for much of his life. Nevertheless, Goddard persevered, and today all rocket technologies owe him an intellectual debt.

Early Life

Robert Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on October 5, 1882, to farmer Nahum Goddard and Fannie Louise Hoyt. He was sickly as a child, but had a telescope and often spent time studying the sky. He eventually became interested in science, particularly the mechanics of flight. His discovery of Smithsonian magazine and articles by flight expert Samuel Pierpont Langley ignited a lifelong interest in aerodynamics.

As an undergraduate, Goddard attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he studied physics. He earned his physics Ph.D. at Clark University in 1911, then took a research fellowship at Princeton University the following year. He ultimately joined the faculty at Clark University as a professor of aerospace engineering and physics, a post he held much of his life.

Research With Rockets

Robert Goddard began writing about rockets while he was still an undergraduate. After getting his Ph.D., he focused on studying the atmosphere using rockets to lift instruments high enough to take temperature and pressure readings. His desire to study the upper atmosphere drove him to experiment with rockets as a possible delivery technology.

Goddard had a hard time getting funding to pursue the work, but he eventually persuaded the Smithsonian Institution to support his research. In 1919, he wrote his first major treatise (published by the Smithsonian) called "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," outlining the challenges of lifting mass high to the atmosphere and exploring how rockets could solve the problems of high-altitude studies. 

Dr. Robert H. Goddard and His Rockets
Dr. Robert H. Goddard and His Rockets. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC)

Goddard experimented with a number of different rocket configurations and fuel loads, beginning with solid-rocket propellant fuel mixes in 1915. Eventually, he switched to liquid fuels, which required a redesign of the rockets he was using. He had to engineer fuel tanks, turbines, and combustion chambers that hadn't been fashioned for this kind of work. On March 16, 1926, Goddard's first rocket soared up from a hill near Worcester, MA, on a 2.5-minute flight that went up just over 12 meters. 

That gasoline-powered rocket led to further developments in rocket flight. Goddard began working on newer and more powerful designs using bigger rockets. He had to solve problems controlling the angle and attitude of rocket flight, and also had to engineer rocket nozzles that would help to create greater thrust for the vehicle. Goddard also worked on a gyroscope system to control the stability of the rocket and devised a payload compartment to carry scientific instruments. Eventually, he created a parachute recovery system to return the rockets and payload safely to the ground. He also patented the multi-stage rocket in common use today. His 1919 paper, plus his other investigations into rocket design, are considered classics in the field.

Dr. Goddard at his Launch Control Shack
Dr. Goddard at his Launch Control Shack. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Goddard and the Press

Although Goddard's groundbreaking work garnered scientific interest, his early experiments were criticized by the press as being too fanciful. Notably, however, much of this press coverage contained scientific inaccuracies. The most famous example appeared on January 20, 1920, in The New York Times. The article mocked Goddard's predictions that rockets might someday be able to circle the Moon and transport humans and instruments to other worlds.

The Times retracted the article 49 years later. The retraction was published on July 16, 1969—the day after three astronauts landed on the Moon: "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."

Later Career

Goddard continued his work on rockets throughout the 1920s and 30s, still fighting for recognition of the potential of his work by the U.S. government. Eventually, he moved his operations to Roswell, NM, and with financial backing from the Guggenheim family, he was able to carry out more rocket research.

In 1942, Goddard and his team moved to Annapolis, Maryland, to work on jet-assisted take-off (JATO) technology. He continually refined his designs throughout World War II, although not sharing his work with other scientists. Goddard preferred secrecy due to his concerns about patent infringement and intellectual property theft. (He repeatedly offered his services and technology, only to be rebuffed by the military and government.) Near the end of World War II and not long before his death, Goddard had a chance to see a captured German V-2 rocket and realized just how much the Germans had copied his work, despite the patents he had gained. 

Death and Legacy

Throughout his life, Robert H. Goddard remained on the research faculty at Clark University. After World War II, he joined the American Rocket Society and its board of directors. However, his health was deteriorating, and he died on August 10, 1945. He was buried in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Goddard's wife, Esther Christine Kisk, gathered his papers after his death and worked on securing patents after Goddard's death. Many of Goddard's original papers containing his seminal work on rockets can be seen of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Goddard's influence and impact continues to be felt throughout our current space exploration efforts, plus those in the future.

Honors

Robert H. Goddard may not have been honored fully during his lifetime, but his legacy lives on in many places. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is named after him, as are several schools across the U.S. He amassed 214 patents for his work during his lifetime, with 131 being awarded after he died. There are streets and park that bear his name, and the Blue Origin makers have named a reusable launch vehicle for him.

Robert H. Goddard Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Robert Hutchings Goddard
  • Occupation: Engineer and rocket developer
  • Born: October 5, 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
  • Parents' Names: Nahum Goddard, Fannie L. Hoyt
  • Died: August 10, 1945 in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
  • Education: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (B.S. Physics, 1908). Clark University (M.A. and Ph.D. Physics, 1911).
  • Key Achievements: First successful rocket launch on American soil in 1926 in Worcester, MA. 
  • Key Publications: "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" (1919)
  • Spouse's Name: Esther Christine Kisk
  • Research Area: Rocket propulsion and engineering

Sources

  • “Robert Hutchings Goddard Biographical Note." Archives and Special Collections, Clark University. www2.clarku.edu/research/archives/goddard/bio_note.cfm.
  • Garner, Rob. “Dr. Robert H. Goddard, American Rocketry Pioneer.” NASA, NASA, 11 Feb. 2015,www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/history/dr_goddard.html.
  • "Lemelson-MIT Program.” Edmund Cartwright | Lemelson-MIT Program, lemelson.mit.edu/resources/robert-h-goddard.
  • Petersen, Carolyn Collins. Space Exploration: Past, Present, Future. Amberley, 2017.
  • Sean M. “March 1920 - ‘Report Concerning Further Developments’ in Space Travel.” Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution, 17 Sept. 2012, siarchives.si.edu/history/featured-topics/stories/march-1920-report-concerning-further-developments-space-travel.