Robert Hutchings Goddard (October 5, 1882 – August 10, 1945) was an American professor, physicist and inventor who is credited with creating and building the world's first liquid-fueled rocket, which he successfully launched on March 16, 1926. Goddard and his team launched 34 rockets between 1926 and 1941, achieving altitudes as high as 2.6 km (1.6 mi) and speeds as high as 885 km/h (550 mph).
As both theorist and engineer, Goddard's work anticipated many of the developments that made spaceflight possible. Two of Goddard's 214 patents — one for a multi-stage rocket design (1914), and another for a liquid-fuel rocket design (1914) — are regarded as important milestones toward spaceflight. His 1919 monograph, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, is considered one of the classic texts of 20th century rocket science. Goddard successfully applied three-axis control, gyroscopes and steerable thrust to rockets, all of which allow rockets to be controlled effectively in flight.
Goddard received little public support for his research during his lifetime. Though his work in the field was revolutionary, he was sometimes ridiculed in the press for his theories concerning spaceflight. As a result, he became protective of his privacy and his work. Years after his death, at the dawn of the Space Age, he came to be recognized as one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry. He was the first not only to recognize the scientific potential of missiles and space travel but also to bring about the design and construction of the rockets needed to implement those ideas.
Early life and inspiration
Goddard was born in 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to Nahum Danford Goddard (1859–1928) and Fannie Louise Hoyt (1864–1920). Robert was their only child to survive; a younger son, Richard Henry, was born with a spinal deformity, and died before his first birthday.
With the introduction of electric power in American cities in the 1880s, the young Goddard became interested in science. When his father showed him how to generate static electricity on the family's carpet, the five-year-old's imagination was inspired. Robert experimented, believing he could jump higher if the zinc in batteries could somehow be charged with static electricity. Goddard halted the experiments after a warning from his mother that if he succeeded, he could "go sailing away and might not be able to come back."
Goddard's father further encouraged Robert's scientific interest by providing him with a telescope, a microscope, and a subscription to Scientific American. Robert developed a fascination with flight, first with kites and then with balloons. He became a thorough diarist and documenter of his work, a skill that would greatly benefit his later career. These interests merged at age 16, when Goddard attempted to construct a balloon out of aluminum, shaping the raw metal in his home workshop. After nearly five weeks of methodical, documented efforts, he finally abandoned the project, remarking, "Failior crowns enterprise." However, the lesson of this failure did not restrain Goddard's growing determination and confidence in his work.
The cherry tree dream
He became interested in space when he read H. G. Wells' science fiction classic The War of the Worlds when he was 16 years old. His dedication to pursuing rocketry became fixed on October 19, 1899. The 17-year-old Goddard climbed a cherry tree to cut off dead limbs. He was transfixed by the sky, and his imagination grew. He later wrote:
On this day I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn… and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet. I have several photographs of the tree, taken since, with the little ladder I made to climb it, leaning against it.
It seemed to me then that a weight whirling around a horizontal shaft, moving more rapidly above than below, could furnish lift by virtue of the greater centrifugal force at the top of the path.
I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended. Existence at last seemed very purposive.
For the rest of his life he observed October 19 as "Anniversary Day", a private commemoration of the day of his greatest inspiration.
Education and early studies
The young Goddard was a thin and frail boy, almost always in fragile health. He suffered from stomach problems, colds and bronchitis, and fell two years behind his classmates. He became a voracious reader, regularly visiting the local public library to borrow books on the physical sciences.
Aerodynamics and motion
Goddard's interest in aerodynamics led him to study some of Samuel Langley's scientific papers in the periodical Smithsonian. In these papers, Langley wrote that birds flap their wings with different force on each side to turn in the air. Inspired by these articles, the teenage Goddard watched swallows and chimney swifts from the porch of his home, noting how subtly the birds moved their wings to control their flight. He noted how remarkably the birds controlled their flight with their tail feathers — Goddard called these the birds' equivalent of 'ailerons.' He took exception to some of Langley's conclusions, and in 1901 wrote a letter to St. Nicholas magazine with his own ideas. The editor of St. Nicholas declined to publish Goddard's letter, remarking that birds fly with a certain amount of intelligence and that "machines will not act with such intelligence." Goddard disagreed, believing that a man could control a flying machine with his own intelligence.
Around this time, Goddard read Newton's Principia Mathematica, and found that Newton's Third Law of Motion applied to motion in space. He wrote later about his own tests of the Law:
I began to realize that there might be something after all to Newton's Laws. The Third Law was accordingly tested, both with devices suspended by rubber bands and by devices on floats, in the little brook back of the barn, and the said law was verified conclusively. It made me realize that if a way to navigate space were to be discovered, or invented, it would be the result of a knowledge of physics and mathematics."
As his health improved, Goddard continued his formal schooling as an 18-year-old sophomore at South High School in Worcester in 1901. He excelled in his coursework, and his peers twice elected him class president. At his graduation ceremony in 1904, he gave his class oration as valedictorian. In his speech, titled On Taking Things for Granted, Goddard included a section that would become emblematic of his life:
Just as in the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant safely to pronounce anything impossible, so for the individual, since we cannot know just what are his limitations, we can hardly say with certainty that anything is necessarily within or beyond his grasp. Each must remember that no one can predict to what heights of wealth, fame, or usefulness he may rise until he has honestly endeavored, and he should derive courage from the fact that all sciences have been, at some time, in the same condition as he, and that it has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.
Goddard enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1904. He quickly impressed the head of the physics department, A. Wilmer Duff, with his thirst for knowledge, and Professor Duff took him on as a laboratory assistant and tutor. At WPI, Goddard joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and began a long courtship with high school classmate Miriam Olmstead, an honor student who had graduated with Goddard as salutatorian. Eventually, she and Goddard were engaged, but they drifted apart and ended the engagement around 1909.
Goddard received his B.S. degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic in 1908, and after serving there for a year as an instructor in physics, he began his graduate studies at Clark University in Worcester in the fall of 1909. Goddard received his M.A. degree in physics from Clark University in 1910, and then stayed at Clark to complete his Ph.D. degree in physics in 1911. He spent another year at Clark as an honorary fellow in physics, and in 1912, he accepted a research fellowship at Princeton University's Palmer Physical Laboratory.
First scientific writings
While still an undergraduate, Goddard wrote a paper proposing a method for "balancing aeroplanes." He submitted the idea to Scientific American, which published the paper in 1907. Goddard later wrote in his diaries that he believed his paper was the first proposal of a way to automatically stabilize aircraft in flight. His proposal came around the same time as other scientists were making breakthroughs in developing functional gyroscopes.
His first writing on the possibility of a liquid-fueled rocket came on February 2, 1909. Goddard had begun to study ways of increasing a rocket's efficiency using methods differing from conventional, powder rockets. He wrote in his journal about using liquid hydrogen as a fuel with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. He believed a 50 percent efficiency could be achieved with liquid fuel.
In the decades around 1910, radio was a new technology, a fertile field for innovation. In 1911, while working at Clark University, Goddard investigated the effects of radio waves on insulators. In order to generate radio-frequency power, he invented a vacuum tube that operated like a cathode-ray tube. U.S. Patent 1,159,209 was issued on November 2, 1915. This was the first use of a vacuum tube to amplify a signal, preceding even Lee de Forest's claim.
By 1913 he had in his spare time, using calculus, developed the mathematics which allowed him to calculate the position and velocity of a rocket in vertical flight, given the weight of the rocket and weight of the propellant and the velocity of the exhaust gases. His first goal was to build a sounding rocket with which to study the atmosphere. He was very reluctant to admit that his ultimate goal was in fact to develop a vehicle for flights into space since most scientists, in the United States especially, did not consider such a goal to be a realistic or practical scientific pursuit, and the public was not yet ready to seriously consider such ideas as well.
Unfortunately, in early 1913, Goddard became seriously ill with tuberculosis and had to leave his position at Princeton. He then returned to Worcester, where he began a prolonged process of recovery.
It was during this period of recuperation, however, that Goddard began to produce his most important work. As his symptoms subsided, he allowed himself to work an hour per day with his notes. He began to see the importance of his ideas as intellectual property, and thus began working to secure those ideas. In May 1913, he wrote concerning his first rocket applications. His father brought them to a patent firm in Worcester, who helped him to refine his ideas for patent consideration. Goddard's first patent application was submitted in October 1913.
In 1914, his first two landmark patents were accepted and registered. The first, U.S. Patent 1,102,653, described a multi-stage rocket. The second, U.S. Patent 1,103,503, described a rocket fueled with gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide. The two patents would eventually become important milestones in the history of rocketry.
Mid to late 1910s
In the fall of 1914, Goddard's health had improved, and he accepted a part-time position as an instructor and research fellow at Clark University.
His position at Clark allowed him to further his rocketry research. He ordered numerous supplies that could be used to build rocket prototypes for launch, and spent much of 1915 in preparation for his first tests.
Goddard's first test launch of a powder rocket came on an early evening in 1915 following his daytime classes at Clark. The launch was loud and bright enough to arouse the alarm of the campus janitor, and Goddard had to reassure him that his experiments, while being serious study, were also quite harmless. After this incident, Goddard took his experiments inside the physics lab to limit any disturbance.
At the Clark physics lab, Goddard conducted static tests of powder rockets to measure their thrust efficiency. He found his earlier estimates to be verified; powder rockets were only converting about 2 percent of their fuel into thrust. At this point he applied de Laval nozzles, which were generally used with steam turbine engines, and the de Laval nozzles greatly improved thrust efficiency. By mid summer of 1915, Goddard had obtained an average thrust efficiency of 40 percent with nozzle velocities up to 2051 meter per second.
Later that year, Goddard designed an elaborate experiment at the Clark physics lab to prove that a rocket would perform in a vacuum such as that in space. He believed it would, but the other scientists were not convinced. His experiment in fact demonstrated that a rocket's performance was actually decreased under atmospheric pressure.
From 1916 to 1917, Goddard built and tested experimental ion thrusters, which he thought might be used for propulsion in the near vacuum conditions of outer space. The small glass engines he built were tested at atmospheric pressure, where they generated a stream of ionized air.
Smithsonian Institution sponsorship
By 1916, the cost of Goddard's rocket research had become too much for his modest teaching salary to bear. He began to solicit potential sponsors for financial assistance, beginning with the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the Aero Club of America.
In his letter to the Smithsonian in September 1916, Goddard claimed he had achieved a 63% thrust efficiency and a nozzle velocity of almost 2438 meter per second. With these performance standards, he believed a rocket could lift a weight of 0.45 kg to a height of 373 km with an initial launch weight of only 40.64 kg.
The Smithsonian was interested, and asked Goddard to elaborate upon his initial inquiry. Goddard responded with a detailed manuscript he had already prepared, titled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.
In January 1917, the Smithsonian agreed to provide Goddard with a five-year grant totaling 5000 USD. Afterward, Clark was able to contribute 3500 USD and the use of their physics lab to the project. Worcester Polytechnic Institute also allowed him to use its abandoned Magnetics Laboratory on the edge of campus during this time as a safe place for testing.
It wasn't until two years later, at the insistence of Arthur G. Webster, head of Clark's physics department, that Goddard arranged for the Smithsonian to publish his work.
While at Clark University, Goddard did research into solar power using a dish to concentrate the sun's rays on a machined piece of quartz that was sprayed with mercury which then heated water and drove a generator at the dish. Goddard believed his invention had overcome all the obstacles that had previously defeated other scientists and inventors and had his findings published in the November 1929 issue of Popular Science.
The 'Goddard rocket'
Not all of Goddard's early work was geared towards space travel. As the United States entered World War I in 1917, the country's universities began to lend their services to the war effort. Goddard believed his rocket research could be applied to many different military applications, including mobile artillery, field weapons and naval torpedoes. He made proposals to the Navy and Army. No record exists of any interest by the Navy to Goddard's inquiry. However, Army Ordnance was quite interested, and Goddard met several times with Army personnel.
During this time, Goddard was also contacted by a civilian industrialist in Worcester about the possibility of manufacturing rockets for the military. However, as the businessman's enthusiasm grew, so did Goddard's suspicion. Talks eventually broke down as Goddard began to fear his work might be appropriated by the business.
Goddard proposed to the Army an idea for a tube rocket launcher as a light infantry weapon. The launcher concept became the precursor to the bazooka. The Rocket-Powered Recoil-free Weapon was the brainchild of Dr. Goddard as a side project (under Army contract) of his work on rocket propulsion. Goddard, during his tenure at Clark University, and working at Mount Wilson Observatory for security reasons, designed a tube-fired rocket for military use during World War I. He and his co-worker, Dr. Clarence Hickman, successfully demonstrated his rocket to the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, on November 6, 1918 using a music rack for a launch platform, but the Compiègne Armistice was signed only five days later, further development was discontinued as World War I ended.
The delay in the development of the bazooka was as a result of Goddard's serious bout with tuberculosis. Goddard continued to be a part-time consultant to the U.S. Government at Indian Head, Maryland, until 1923, but soon turned his focus to other projects involving rocket propulsion.
Later, a former Clark University researcher, Dr. C. N. Hickman, continued Goddard's work on the bazooka, leading to the weapon used in World War II and to many other powerful rocket weapons.
First liquid-fueled flight
Goddard began experimenting with liquid oxygen and liquid-fueled rockets in September 1921, and tested the first liquid-fueled engine in November 1923. It had a cylindrical combustion chamber, using impinging jets to mix and atomize liquid oxygen and gasoline.
In 1924–25, Goddard had problems developing a high-pressure piston pump to send fuel to the combustion chamber. He wanted to scale up the experiments, but his funding would not allow such growth. He decided to forgo the pumps and use a system applying back pressure from an inert gas.
On December 6, 1925, he tested the simpler back-pressure system. Goddard conducted a static test on the firing stand at the Clark University physics laboratory. The engine successfully lifted its own weight in a 27 second test in the static rack. It was a major success for Goddard, proving that a liquid fuel rocket was possible. The test moved Goddard an important step closer to launching a rocket with liquid fuel.
Goddard conducted an additional test in December, and two more in January 1926. After that, Goddard began preparing for a possible launch of the rocket system.
Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled (gasoline and liquid oxygen) rocket on March 16, 1926, in Auburn, Massachusetts. Present at the launch were Goddard's crew chief Henry Sachs, Esther Goddard, and Percy Roope, who was Clark's assistant professor in the physics department. Goddard's diary entry of the event was notable for its understatement:
March 16. Went to Auburn with Sachs in am. Esther and Mr. Roope came out at 1 p.m. Tried rocket at 2.30. It rose 41 feet & went 184 feet, in 2.5 secs., after the lower half of the nozzle burned off. Brought materials to lab. . . .
His diary entry the next day elaborated:
March 17, 1926. The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn. . . .
Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate.
The rocket, which was dubbed "Nell", rose just 41 feet during a 2.5-second flight that ended 184 feet away in a cabbage field, but it was an important demonstration that liquid propellants were possible. The launch site is now a National Historic Landmark, the Goddard Rocket Launching Site.
Viewers familiar with more modern rocket designs may find it difficult to distinguish the rocket from its launching apparatus in the well-known picture of "Nell". The complete rocket is significantly taller than Goddard, but does not include the pyramidal support structure which he is grasping. The rocket's combustion chamber is the small cylinder at the top; the nozzle is visible beneath it. The fuel tank, which is also part of the rocket, is the larger cylinder opposite Goddard's torso. The fuel tank is directly beneath the nozzle, and is protected from the motor's exhaust by an asbestos cone. Asbestos-wrapped aluminum tubes connect the motor to the tanks, providing both support and fuel transport. This layout is no longer used, since the experiment showed that this was no more stable than placing the rocket engine at the base. By May, after a series of modifications to simplify the plumbing, the engine was placed in the now classic position, at the lower end of the rocket. This was just ten years after colonel Ivan Platonovich Grave's first launch in 1916 (patent in 1924).
Lindbergh and Goddard
After a launch of one of Goddard's rockets in July 1929 again gained the attention of the newspapers, Charles Lindbergh learned of his work. At the time, Lindbergh had begun to wonder what would become of aviation in the distant future, and had settled on rocket flight as a probable next step. He contacted Goddard in November 1929. The professor met the aviator soon after in Goddard's office at Clark University. Upon meeting Goddard, Lindbergh was immediately impressed by his research, and Goddard was similarly impressed by the flier's interest. He discussed his work openly with Lindbergh, forming an alliance that would last for the rest of his life. This is an example, when many wanted to take advantage of him or deemed him a "nut", of Goddard's complete openness with those who shared his dream and that he felt he could trust.
By late 1929, Goddard had been attracting additional notoriety with each rocket launch. He was finding it increasingly difficult to conduct his research without unwanted distractions. Lindbergh discussed finding additional financing for Goddard's work, and put his famous name to work for Goddard. Into 1930, Lindbergh made several proposals to industry and private investors for funding, which proved all but impossible to find following the recent U.S. stock market crash in October 1929.
In the spring of 1930, Lindbergh finally found an ally in the Guggenheim family. Financier Daniel Guggenheim agreed to fund Goddard's research over the next four years for a total of $100,000 (~$1.7 million today). The Guggenheim family, especially Harry Guggenheim, would continue to support Goddard's work in the years to come. The Goddards soon moved to Roswell, New Mexico.
Because of the military potential of the rocket, Goddard, Lindbergh, Harry Guggenheim, the Smithsonian Institution and others tried before World War II to convince the Army and Navy of its value. Goddard's services were offered, but there was no interest, initially. Two young imaginative officers eventually got the services to attempt to contract with Goddard just prior to the war. The Navy beat the Army and secured his services to build liquid-fueled rockets for jet assisted take-off of aircraft. These rockets were the precursors to some of the large rocket engines that launched the space age.
Goddard avoided sharing details of his work with other scientists, and preferred to work alone with his technicians. Frank Malina, who was then studying rocketry at the California Institute of Technology, visited Goddard in August 1936. Goddard refused to discuss any of his research, other than that which had already been published in Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development. Theodore von Kármán, Malina's mentor at the time, was unhappy with Goddard's attitude and later wrote, "Naturally we at Caltech wanted as much information as we could get from Goddard for our mutual benefit. But Goddard believed in secrecy.... The trouble with secrecy is that one can easily go in the wrong direction and never know it." Goddard's concerns about secrecy led to criticism for failure to cooperate with other scientists and engineers.
By 1939, von Kármán's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech had received Army Air Corps funding to develop rockets to assist in aircraft take-off. Goddard learned of this in 1940, and openly expressed his displeasure. Malina could not understand why the Army did not arrange for an exchange of information between Goddard and Caltech, since both were under government contract at the same time. Goddard did not think he could be of that much help to Caltech because they were designing rockets with solid fuel and Goddard was using liquid fuels.
Goddard was concerned with avoiding the public criticism and ridicule he had faced in the 1920s, which he believed had harmed his professional reputation. Goddard also lacked interest in discussions with people who had less understanding of rocketry than he did, feeling that his time was extremely constrained. Goddard's health was frequently poor, as a result of his earlier bout of tuberculosis, and he was uncertain about how long he had to live. He felt, therefore, that he hadn't the time to spare arguing with other scientists and the press about his new field of research or helping all the amateur rocketeers who wrote to him.
Goddard spoke to professional groups, published articles and papers and patented his ideas; but while he discussed basic principles, he was unwilling to reveal the details of his designs until he had flown rockets to high altitudes and thus proven his theory. Goddard tended to avoid any mention of space flight, and spoke only of high altitude research, since he believed that other scientists regarded the subject as unscientific.
During the First and Second World Wars, Goddard offered his services, patents and technology to the military and made some significant contributions. Several young Army officers and some higher ranking ones believed Goddard's research was important, but were unable to generate funds for his work.
Toward the end of his life, Goddard, realizing he was no longer going to be able to make significant progress alone in his field, joined the American Rocket Society, became a director, and made plans to work in the budding aerospace industry.
Goddard was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1945, and died in August of that year in Baltimore, Maryland. He was buried in Hope Cemetery in his home town of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Photograph was Hand Oil Tinted by artist, Margaret A. Rogers.