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Dr. Robert H. Goddard



Robert H. Goddard, the son of a machine shop owner, was raised in Boston. His family returned to Worcester when he was sixteen and he went to the Polytechnic Institute there, graduating in 1908. He received his Ph.D. in physics at Clark University in Worcester in 1911. He taught at Princeton but returned to Clark in 1914 and remained there for thirty years.

Dr. Robert H. Goddard

He had a mind daring enough for a science fiction writer, and he was firmly grounded in science, to boot. While still an undergraduate, he described a railroad system between Boston and New York in which the trains traveled in a vacuum under the pull of an electromagnetic field and completed their trip in ten minutes. He called it “Traveling in 1950,” but, alas, the railroad trip still took more than four hours when 1950 rolled around.

He also grew interested in rocketry as a teenager thanks to his reading H.G. Wells. Already in 1914 he had obtained two patents involved in rocket apparatus and by 1919 all this had ripened to the point where he published a small book entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.

In 1923 Goddard tested the first of a new type of rocket engine, one using gasoline, and liquid oxygen as the motive force. This was the first revolutionary advance over previous solid-fueled rockets.

In 1926 Goddard sent up his first rocket. It was about four feet high, six inches in diameter, and was held in a frame like a child's jungle gym. This nevertheless, was the grandfather of the monsters that a generation later were to rumble upward from Florida.

Goddard's first rocket, 1926.

Goddard managed to get a few thousand dollars from the Smithsonian Institution, and in July 1929 sent up a larger rocket near Worcester, Massachusetts. It went faster and higher than the first. More important, it carried a barometer, a thermometer, and a small camera to photograph the proceedings. It was the first instrument carrying rocket.

Unfortunately Goddard already had a small reputation as a crackpot and, like Langley before him, had earned an editorial in the good, gray New York Times, berating him for his scientific folly. The noise of his second rocket brought calls to the police. Officials ordered him to conduct no more rocket experiments in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, Lindbergh interested himself in Goddard's work. he visited Goddard and was sufficiently impressed to persuade Daniel Guggenheim, a philanthropist, to award Goddard a grant of $50,000. With this, Goddard set up an experiment station in a lonely spot near Roswell, New Mexico. Here he built larger rockets and developed many of his ideas that are now standard in rocketry. He designed combustion chambers of the appropriate shape, and burned gasoline with oxygen in such a way that the rapid combustion could be used to cool the chamber walls.

From 1930 to 1935 he launched rockets that attained speeds of up to 550 miles an hour and heights of a mile and a half. He developed systems for steering a rocket in flight by using a rudder-like device to deflect the gaseous exhaust, with gyroscopes to keep the rocket headed in the proper direction. He patented the device of a multistage rocket. He accumulated a total of 214 patents, in fact.

But the United States Government never really became interested in his work. This lack of interest was made easier by the fact that Goddard was a rather withdrawn and suspicious person who preferred to work in isolation.

Only during World War II did the government finance him, and then only to have him design small rockets to help navy planes take off from carriers. One of Goddard's early inventions was also perfected as the World War II weapon known as the bazooka.

When German rocket experts were brought to America after the war and were questioned about rocketry, they stared in amazement and asked why American officials did not inquire of Goddard, from whom they had learned virtually all they knew.

American officials could not do so because Goddard had been neglected during his lifetime and died of throat cancer before that neglect could be made up for. He lived long enough to learn of the German rockets, and even to see one, but did not live to see the United States step into the space age. However, if the space age could be said to have been manufactured by any one man, that one man was Goddard.

In 1960 the United States Government issued a grant of one million dollars for the use of his patents - half to Goddard's estate and half to the Guggenheim Foundation. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland is named in his honor.

From Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Second revised edition, 1982, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y.

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Updated: 12 March, 2004