Robert Goddard: The Father of Modern Rocketry

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December 31, 2001THE FATHER OF MODERN ROCKETRYRobert Hutchings Goddard was a futurist. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on October 5, 1882. He was the son of a machinist and his father was known for his brilliance with machinery and tools. The Goddards moved from Worcester to Boston while Robert was just an infant, because his father went in half and half on a local machine tools shop. In Boston, is where the young Robert Goddard spent his youth as an only child, and most of his younger years were spent alone at home due to his mothers illness with tuberculosis. Robert would not see his familys hometown of Worcester again until he was seventeen in 1899. Much of his life was spent as an ill child (Spangenburg, 10), and he was an average student with an aversion to mathematics. Illness kept him out of school entirely in that autumn of 1899, and by this time Robert had only completed his freshman year of high school. Although he was unable to spend a lot of time within institutional walls, the young Goddard was not without a strong yearning to learn–at least to learn science. Much of the time he spent sick at home sick was consumed reading the Scientific American, or books from the library both science and science fiction novels-especially H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, a novel he would re-examine often in later years (Burrows, 32).

Robert Goddard found happiness while doing his chores and often used found this time for relaxing. Like many young seventeen year olds, the time was spent daydreaming and this was the case on the 19th day of October 1899. Little did the young man know that this entry in his diary would change his entire life: As I looked toward the fields in 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. . .It seemed to me 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, for existence at last seemed very purposive. (Yost, 145)This new idea was known as the linear-force-from-eccentric-rotation, and although it was only a daydream of the young man, it was the spark that would ignite Goddards unending dream of space travel. The only thing that stood in his way was his lack of education, and in order to make his dream a reality he would have to return to high school and finish his education facing his dreaded mathematics courses. When Robert finally got over his sickness, two years had gone by but, he now was ready to enroll in his sophomore year at South High School in Worcester. With the help of his physics instructor, Calvin C. Andrews, and his mathematics instructor, Miss Hill, the aspiring scientist graduated in 1904 with honors. He remains the oldest student to receive a diploma from South High.

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The next step of education for Robert Goddard was attending the local school, Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Although a lot of his time was spent caring after his still sickly mother, he continued to excel in his studies under the direction of his physics professor, A. Wilmer Duff. During his secondary education the now scholarly student used his previous troubling experiences with mathematics to help others in need of tutoring. He also worked on the college yearbook staff and was elected to the student body president in his senior year. Upon completion of his degree, he immediately started working on his doctorate studies at another hometown school, Clark University.

It was during his time at Clark University that Robert Goddard started working on his life-long dream of rocketry. He started to develop his idea around a multi-stage hydrogen and oxygen rocket. He received his Ph.D. from Clark University in 1911, and stayed there for about a year to continue his work on his multi-stage rocket until he received a fellowship to work at Princeton University on a project involving measurement of forces and currents. During his time at Princeton, he worked after hours to prefect his mathematics on his multi-stage rocket, and much of this time was spent from dusk to dawn after his assigned research with forces and currents was finished.

It was this all hours of the night research that finally caught up with him in the spring of 1913 when he was diagnosed with the final stages of tuberculosis. Although he was put on bed rest, Goddard continued to work on his dream of rocketry and in October of 1913 he applied for his first patent and then another application was followed, filed in May of 1914. As his health improved, Goddard went back to work part-time for Clark University in the fall of 1914. By the time of his return to Clark University, his two patents; one was for a rocket nozzle and the other was for the multi-stage rocket (Spangenburg, 25), had been approved; these would be the first of some 214 that the scientist would receive for his lifes work, the last one received eleven years after his death. This time while working at Clark University, Goddard was working with solid-fuel rockets, but his hopes of using liquid-fuel compelled him to write A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, in order to attract funding (Stockton 83-84). Today this writing is recognized as the foundation of astronautics, but in 1916 it was not paid much attention to, except for the Smithsonians Assistant Secretary Dr. Charles Abbot, an astrophysicist, and an expert at the National Bureau of Standards both recommending approval. Soon, Goddard received a check from the Smithsonian for $1,000 to begin the development of his liquid-fueled rocket. The Smithsonian also contributed in Goddards work by other means as well. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, they advised the Army Signal Corps to enlist Dr. Goddards help in producing rockets useful in battle. The Army requested Goddard to build some weapons; Goddard did, and a demonstration in 1918 was a huge success, but a truce was signed a few days later, and no production was started. Goddard would not be doing any work for the military for some time, but his work would be remembered as the forerunner of the bazooka (Levine, 2). After the military demonstration and the end of World War I, Goddard returned to Clark University as full professor in the physics department continuing work on the solid-fueled rocket.

The only type of solid fuel that could be used for rocketry at the time of Goddards research was a type of smokeless powder (Spangenburg, 10). He worked extensively on trying to get a more efficient motor and did succeed in this, but could not succeed in getting a multi-staged design. For a number of years, he even attempted to get a device to shoot the powder into a firing chamber. The solid-fueled motors were far to complicated and were not as controllable as the liquid-fuel. By 1923, Goddards machine shop was building the pieces for a miniature liquid-fuel motor. After the little motors pushed up into flight, Robert Goddard was ready to move on. A larger motor was built and the first liquid-fueled rocket lifted up 41 feet and landed 184 feet from its launch point with a total flight time of two and a half seconds at his Aunt Effies farm on the Pakachoag Hill near Auburn, Massachusetts on 16 March 1926 (Burrows, 53-54).

Still funded by the Smithsonian, Robert Goddard continued to work on his liquid-fueled motors, striving to reach higher altitudes. His work was sometimes a little noisy, and after a test flight in July of 1926 crashed, the locals called for emergency services, thinking that an airplane had crashed. Police cars and an ambulance showed up to the crash site along with a couple of reporters, only to find Goddard and his crew rummaging through the crashed rocket for salvageable pieces. The press had a field day with the rocket man story, and soon an unsolicited crowd would show up for every test flight. Soon after the State Fire Marshall ordered Goddard to move his test flights away from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Time-Life, 22).

A new location out of state had to be found. This presented somewhat of a problem for Dr. Goddard, as his teaching load was a little heavy; but nevertheless, in 1929 a sight was found at Camp Devens, an abandoned military range. Although the new site was only 25 miles away, which would not be a long trip today, the travel time back and forth after work did not allow conducting one test per day. The terrain was also very rough and was putting way to much wear and tear on the rockets, and around this time, Goddards Smithsonian money was almost gone as well. The inventor needed three things: more money, more room for flights, and less responsibility from teaching. In November 1929, Dr. Goddard received an unanticipated visit from Charles Lindbergh, who was at the peak of his career after making a solo flight over the Atlantic (Burrows, 83). Lindbergh was looking for a new achievement, which led him to Dr. Goddard and his rockets. Lindbergh turned out to be a liberator of the rocketry work; the aviator had many contacts and eventually got Goddards foot in the door with an old aviator buddy, Harry Guggenheim, a Navy flyer in World War I. Guggenheim got his father interested enough to finance Dr. Goddards work through the new Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. This was a two-year $50,000 grant to fund the rocketry experiments, beginning in July 1930, after the Smithsonian funds were depleted.

With the first problem of money solved for the time being, the second issue of finding more room was attended to. A new location was decided on in the area of Roswell, New Mexico. The climate in the area was perfect for rocketry: Warm, high, and dry; the climate was also good for his health, mainly his respiratory condition. So, in August of 1930, Goddard signed a lease for the Mescalero Ranch, just three miles outside of Roswell (Time-Life, 23). There was plenty of land around the homestead and Oscar White offered the surrounding area of Eden Valley, an area of 16,000 acres, at no cost for Goddards experiments.

The final bridge to New Mexico was to get his responsibility of teaching alleviated. This turned out to be the easiest of the three with an extended leave of absence being granted by President Atwood at Clark University. Dr. Goddard packed up his supplies and equipment, and moved to meet his crew at the Mescalero Ranch in New Mexico.

At the ranch, construction began immediately and soon a machine shop was built as well as a small stucco building, set up for the crews living quarters. The machine shop was filled with milling machines, lathes, drill presses, and bending brakes along with a host of hand tools. New Mexico claimed later to have the finest machine shop in all of the southwest. (Lehman, 178)Dr. Goddard immediately began his research and by October 29, 1930 he was conducting his first tests. His progress moved swiftly in the desert climate and on the 30th of December he reached 2,000 feet with a speed of 500 miles per hour (Lehman, 186; Yost, 152). Dr. Goddard now discovered the key to achieving higher altitudes was through more thrust, which meant larger motors and more fuel. He began building larger engines with bigger combustion chambers, but the next problem was getting enough fuel to flow into the chamber in order to power a larger motor. He began working on a different kind of fuel pump, one that would pressurize the fuel with nitrogen gas, and then release it into the chamber with just enough pressure to keep the engine firing, but not to much pressure to collapse the tanks. By September 1931 Dr. Goddard was ready to test out his pressurized fuel system. The first flight successfully lifted up about 200 feet, and then the tank exploded.

The next two years were filled with trial and error on the new pressurized fuel system. The problem with his research was now not getting the rocket into flight, but getting enough fuel to the rocket to keep it in flight. This was a new type of pressurized system being invented by Goddard, which meant that much of his time was spent creating the devices that were required to make the new method of travel possible. Eventually, by October 1931, Dr. Goddard had redesigned a rocket that could reach around 1,700 feet. With his rockets now performing steadily, he turned his attention to the actual rotational movement of the aircraft and stabilization. By April of 1932, Robert Goddards work was starting to come together when another roadblock was encountered.

The Great Depression had hit, and factories were shutting down. Dr. Goddards research would suffer from the shortage of money that hit the Guggenheim Foundation after the stock market crash. Goddard was informed that the grants from the Foundation would no longer be available to fund his research for the remaining two years. So the equipment at Mescalero was boxed up, and the rocket parts were destroyed and buried. The crew left the ranch and Goddard himself headed back to Worcester to begin teaching again in the fall of 1932.

Although his actual work on the rockets was halted while in Worcester, his time was not spent idle. During the next two years, Goddard worked continuously on new ideas like igniters and other various devices needed for his rocketry, making plans for his future experiments. By the end of 1934, he had received 26 patents (Lehman, 201).

After some refinancing the new Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation was ready to put Dr. Goddard back to work on his rocketry. The Foundation renewed its full grant in August 1934, but made it clear that more substantial progress would be necessary in order to receive future funding (Lehman, 205). So Dr. Goddard and his wife packed up again and moved back to the Ranch in Roswell, New Mexico.

This would be the beginning of his most productive work with rocketry. He began immediately picking up where he left off on the rotational movement of the aircraft called the gyroscopically movement. He began with tests on an A series type of stabilizer in September 1934 and continued working on the series until October 1935. By now the rockets were getting bigger, in fact, they were up to fifteen feet in length. On May 31, 1935 the newly designed A series flight reached a height of 7,500 feet, approximately a mile and a half (Burrows, 85). Dr. Goddard continued to improve this rocket by making larger motors and trying different fuel combinations, and he also made improvements to the pressure regulators and stabilizers as well. Dr. Goddard was succeeding in his work on rocketry and his sponsors supported his work up until 1941. The pressures of World War II put a final end to his work, and shut down the Mescalero Ranch as well. Goddard carefully crated all of his work and turned his research over to the Smithsonian, and the results of his work are now exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The last day spent at the Mescalero Ranch was on the 4th of July 1942. Dr. Goddard and his wife Esther moved to the Indian Head Naval Station, in Maryland, to help the Navy in the war effort. His work was now on the development of a liquid-fueled, strap-on motor that could thrust seaplanes into the air and then drop off. These devices were known as JATO or jet-assisted take-off rockets (Stockton, 84). Although his device was not used, the Navy retained him for the duration of the war to work on developing pumps and igniters.

When the Navy released him, Dr. Goddard went to work for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation. He continued to apply for a steady stream of patents over his work in rocketry. Then the news came, the Germans had launched their own weapons, the V-1 and the V-2. Although these weapons did not change the course of the war, it gave Goddard a sense of lose, that the Germans had passed his research by. When a V-weapon was recovered after the war, Goddard had a chance to investigate the rocket. The V-1 and the V-2 largely resembled his work in rocketry while at the Mescalero Ranch in New Mexico only on a larger scale (Lehman, 388-389). It is not certain if the Germans copied Dr. Goddards work, or if the actual physics of rocketry dictated the design. The Germans did admit to attempting to solicit the help of Goddard as a contributor, but he did not reply to their requests (Freeman, 41).

The remainder of Dr. Goddards life was spent suffering from the cancer that had spread through the tuberculosis (Lehman, 395). He was admitted to the University of Maryland hospital where he spent the last few months of his life listening to the events of the war and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He died of cancer on the 10th of August 1945 and was buried on the 14th, this was the same day that World War II was officially over and, therefore, the day the Cold War began. His body was put to rest in the familys plot at Worcesters Hope Cemetery (Burrows, 93).

It is significant to note that regardless of all the challenges with his upbringing with a sickly mother that needed constant care, and his own health consistently in bad shape throughout his life, Dr. Goddard achieved much more than most would think possible. Working through the monetary problems of his research, the inventor was able to accomplish his goal of creating a rocket capable of flight, and his design would later reach the stars. Furthermore, had his work been sponsored by the Armed Forces after the First World War, the space race would have not been such a challenge for the United States (Yost, 144). Dr. Goddard is still revered and remembered as the Father of Modern Rocketry.



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Levine, Alan. THE MISSILE AND SPACE RACE. Westport:Praeger, 1994.

Spangenburg, Ray & Moser, Diane. SPACE EXPLORATION: OPENINGTHE SPACE FRONTIER. New York: Oxford, 1989.

Stockton, William & Wilford, John. SPACELINER. New York: Times, 1981.

Time-Life Books. OUTBOUND: VOYAGE THROUGH THE UNIVERSE. Richmond: Time-Life, 1989.


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