Robert Goddard
Robert Goddard

Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, considered by many to be the father of modern rocketry, was a physicist of great insight who had a genius for invention. Along with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky of Russia and Hermann Oberth of Germany, Goddard envisioned the exploration of space.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Goddard graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in 1908 and remained at his alma mater as a physics instructor. That same year he began graduate work in physics at Clark University and received his Master's and Doctorate degrees in 1910 and 1911, respectively. In 1912, Goddard became a research fellow at Princeton University and in 1913 developed the mathematical theory of rocket propulsion. The following year he joined the faculty at Clark University. In 1915, he proved that rocket engines could produce thrust in a vacuum, therefore making space flight a practical goal. Goddard became a full professor at Clark in 1919.

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On the Shoulders of Giants
Robert Goddard
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Top: A portrait of Robert Goddard. (Drawing by Hailey King)

  Robert Goddard

Goddard first obtained public notoriety in 1907 when he fired a powder rocket in the basement of the physics building at WPI. School officials then took an immediate interest in Goddard's work and, to their credit, did not expel him for the incident.

In 1914, Goddard received two U.S. patents, one for a rocket that used liquid fuel, the other for a two- or three-stage rocket using solid fuel. At his own expense, he began to make systematic studies about propulsion provided by various types of gunpowder. This work resulted in his classic study in 1916 requesting funds from the Smithsonian Institution to continue his research. This was published along with his subsequent research in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Publication No. 2540 (January 1920) entitled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." In this treatise, he detailed a search for methods of raising weather-recording instruments higher than sounding balloons.

Patent Drawings
Goddard patented designs for both a two-staged solid fuel rocket and a liquid fuel rocket in 1914. These drawings are from the patents.

In this 1920 publication, Goddard outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching the moon and exploding a load of flash powder on its surface to mark the rocket's arrival. The bulk of his scientific report to the Smithsonian was a dry explanation of how he used the $5000 grant in his research. The press picked up Goddard' s proposal about a rocket flight to the moon and sparked a journalistic controversy concerning the feasibility of such a concept. Goddard was widely ridiculed, causing him to deeply resent the press corps, a view that he held for the rest of his life.

By 1926, Goddard had constructed and successfully tested the first liquid-fueled rocket. The flight of Goddard's rocket on March 16,1926, at Auburn, Massachusetts, was a historic feat. It was one of Goddard's "firsts" in the now booming field of rocket propulsion in military missilery and the scientific exploration of space.

First liquid propelled rocket
The first liquid-fueled flight lasted only 4.2 seconds, reached an altitude of merely 41 feet, and landed just 184 feet from its launch pad. However, this modest accomplishment marked the beginning of the space age. (Photograph courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

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Robert Goddard

Launch from Roswell, New MexicoGoddard's greatest engineering contributions were made during his work in the 1920's and 1930's (see list of historic firsts). By 1927 he had received a total of $10,000 from the Smithsonian Institution, and through the personal efforts of Charles Lindbergh, he subsequently received financial support from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation. Progress on all of his work appeared in "Liquid Propellant Rocket Development," which was published by the Smithsonian in 1936.

Goddard's work was virtually ignored in the United States and made little impression upon government officials. Ironically, his rocket designs (including gyroscopic control, steering by means of vanes in the jet stream of the rocket motor, gimbal steering, power-driven fuel pumps) shared many similarities with those developed by German rocket engineers during the 1930's and World War II. Thus, many people assumed that the Germans had used copies of Goddard's work in their development of the V-2 rocket. However, Goddard's secrecy had prevented the Germans from learning much about his work, and the similarity of design was mostly coincidence. It was not until after the war that Goddard's work was widely published.

From 1917 to 1918, Goddard developed the basis for a rocket-propelled weapon, now known as the bazooka. Using a music stand as his launching platform, he successfully demonstrated the idea at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland before representatives of the U.S. Armed Services. Dr. Clarence N. Hickman, a young Ph.D. from Clark University, worked with Goddard in 1918 and continued his research that produced the World War II bazooka. In World War II, Goddard was assigned by the U.S. Navy to develop practical jet-assisted takeoff and liquid propellant rocket motors capable of variable thrust. He was successful in both ventures.

Goddard died on August 10, 1945. At the time of his death, Goddard held 214 patents in rocketry.

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Top left: Rocket launch from Roswell, New Mexico. Goddard picked the site because it had mild weather, flat ground, and a low population. (Photograph courtesy Roswell Museum and Art Center)

  Robert Goddard

Goddard was the first scientist to realize the potential of missiles and space flight and to contribute directly in bringing them to realization. The dedicated labors of this modest man went largely unrecognized in the U.S. until the dawn of what is now called the "Space Age." High honors and wide acclaim, belated but richly deserved, now come to the name of Robert H. Goddard.

Assembled Rocket
Goddard moved his experiments to Roswell, New Mexico, as his rockets got bigger. By the mid 1930s, Goddard's rockets had broken the sound barrier [1191 km per hour (741 mph)] and flown to heights of up to 2.7 km (1.7 miles). (Photograph courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

In memory of this brilliant scientist, a major space and earth science laboratory, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, was established on May 1, 1959. Later that year on September 16, Congress authorized the issuance of a gold medal in honor of Professor Robert H. Goddard.

Historic Firsts
Robert H. Goddard's basic contributions to missilery and space flight is a lengthy list. As such, it is an eloquent testimonial to his lifetime of work in establishing and demonstrating the fundamental principles of rocket propulsion.

1912: First to explore mathematically the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high altitudes and even the moon
1914: First to receive a U.S. patent for the idea of a multi-stage rocket
1915: First to prove, by actual static test, that a rocket will work in a vacuum
1926: First to develop and shoot a liquid fuel rocket using a mixture of gasoline and liquid oxygen
1929: First to shoot a scientific payload (barometer and camera) in a rocket flight
1932: First to use vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance
1932: First to develop a gyro control apparatus for rocket flight
1935: First to launch a liquid-propellant rocket that attained a speed greater than the speed of sound (700 mph)
1937: First to successfully launch a rocket with a motor pivoted on gimbals under the influence of a gyro mechanism

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On the Shoulders of Giants
Robert Goddard
Rockets
Engineering
Historic Firsts
Links and References

  Robert Goddard

References

"Goddard, Robert Hutchings," Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000
http://encarta.msn.com
© 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

"Robert H. Goddard: American Rocket Pioneer," NASA Facts

"Robert Goddard, father of the space age," Clark University

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On the Shoulders of Giants
Robert Goddard
Rockets
Engineering
Historic Firsts
Links and References