134 years since the birth of Robert Goddard, the father of rocket ‎science, who was never really taken seriously

In 1929, a Massachusetts newspaper published a sarcastic headline “Moon rocket misses target by 238,799 1/2 miles.” The article mocked the work and research of Robert Goddard that focused on the possibility of launching rockets outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Goddard, the American rocket scientist, was not recognized for his work during his lifetime and struggled to get funding for his research. Yet despite the constant criticism and ill health, he continued to develop the theory underlying rocket science, as we know it today.

Goddard was born on October 5th, 1882 in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts. From an early age he had a technical instinct: he used to watch birds fly and enjoyed watching the sky through his father’s telescope, and he conducted home experiments that almost resulted in him blowing up his parents' home. His father encouraged him to take an interest in science and bought him a telescope, microscope and subscription to Scientific American magazine.

Goddard continued his passion throughout his teenage years focusing on aviation, initially studying kites and then balloons. Even back then he was diligent in carefully documenting his work, a skill that later served him in his career. From a young age he was fascinated by space, and after reading the “War of the Worlds,” by science fiction writer HG Wells, his interest in space grew enormously.

At the age of 17 one of the most important experiences of his life occurred. He described it in his diary: “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.” Since then, every year he celebrated the birth of this great inspiration.

The first steps

Growing up, Goddard was a skinny and ill child, and because of his health he was often absent from school. After graduating from high school he began studying at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In his third year of studies he published an article about the automatic stabilization of planes for his favourite childhood journal, Scientific American. Four years later he graduated from his bachelor’s degree in Physics, and continued as a student at Clark for his master’s degree.

Already during his master's Goddard wrote about the possibility of producing liquid-based fueled rockets, in contrast to the solid fuel that was being used at the time, and that this could double the efficiency. In 1910, he went on to doctoral studies at Princeton University, but three years later contracted tuberculosis and had to put on hold his studies. He returned to his hometown to rest and recover. When his health improved, he allowed himself to spend an hour a day on his Princeton papers. During this period, he documented his findings and ideas and started to submit patent applications for them.

From theory to application

In 1914, he began working part-time as a research fellow at Clark University, where he advanced his research on rockets. In 1915, he showed solid fuel-based rockets convert only two percent of petrol to power and went on to develop a method that improved the efficiency of rockets to 63 percent. His ground-breaking experiments paved the way for the possibility of developing a rocket launch into space.

Meanwhile, the costs of experiments began to weigh heavily on Goddard's pocket, and he looked for financial aid for his work. The Smithsonian Institution agreed to his request and gave him $5,000. Along with an additional budget from his university he was able to continue his experiments.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Goddard offered help to the American Army and Navy, but they were not interested in rockets. A civilian arms industrialist actually offered him a partnership, but he was afraid they will appropriate it and so declined. Eventually he did work with the Army Signal Corps.

Goddard developed for the Army a tube-based rocket launcher as a light infantry weapon. The launcher was the basis for the development of the anti-tank rocket launcher “bazooka” many years later. After the war, Goddard went on to advise the US government until 1923, while simultaneously returning to developing liquid oxygen and fuel-based rockets.

Lone soldier. Goddard driving one of his rockets to the launching point, circa 1930 | Photograph: Science Photo Library

Facing the critics

In 1919, Goddard’s superiors began to push him to publish his work, despite the findings not being sufficiently developed. At the end of that year, the Smithsonian published Goddard's work entitled “A method of reaching extreme altitudes.” The paper described Goddard’s mathematical theories for the flight of rockets, introduced his experiments for solid-based fueled rockets and the potential of aviation into Earth's atmosphere and beyond. The paper sparked much criticism in the press, describing his ideas to launch a rocket outside Earth’s atmosphere as exaggerated and ridiculous, and attributed intentions and statements to him that were not mentioned in his article. The New York Times went further to claim Goddard’s article misinterpreted Newton’s Laws, which were the basis for his equations, and that he didn’t understand high-school level physics.

The ridicule continued in 1924, when Goddard published an article entitled, “How my speed rocket can propel itself in vacuum,” which described the physics behind the movement in a vacuum and the experiments that confirmed his theories. Again, despite all his efforts, he was not understood and received scorn and ridicule, amongst the scientific world and the media. As a result, in the coming years he worked mostly on his own, did not receive more government funding, and became more and more distrustful.

Meanwhile Goddard married Esther Kisk, who worked as a secretary in the Department of Physics at Clark. Throughout their life together she accompanied him to his launches, photographed his work, assisted his experiments, helped with his writing and also bookkeeping.

In 1926 he successfully launched his first rocket powered by liquid fuel. The description of the event in his diary was modest, succinct and totally disproportionate to the achievement: “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” The Massachusetts park where the rocket was launched from is today named after him, “Goddard Rocket Launching Site.”

In 1929, after another successful launch, Goddard appeared in the headlines again, which was where famous pilot Charles Lindbergh, who only two years earlier was the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop, had heard about him. Their meeting gave rise to a collaboration that lasted until the end of Goddard’s life. Lindbergh used his fame to raise capital for Goddard’s further studies. After many rejections, he was able to secure one hundred thousand dollars from the wealthy Guggenheim family.

Goddard moved to Roswell, New Mexico, where he concentrated on the development of rockets and built the L-13 that managed to soar to a height of 2.7 kilometers. That decade he developed the principles of the rocket as we know it today; he began to experiment combining rockets with gyroscopes, which gave information about the rocket angle relative to the ground, and became an important part of the program. He also built the first rocket with multiple combustion chambers, which intended to increase thrust without increasing the size of each compartment.

Although Goddard's discoveries covered the practical aspects of aviation and rockets, his studies of the atmosphere and space did not receive support or funding. The US Army failed to realize the potential for military applications of rockets. Even his professional colleagues discounted Goddard so that when he tried to recruit an engineer from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), no one wanted to join him.

It was the Germans who were able to identify the potential of Goddard’s work: they studied his developments carefully and many scientists showed great interest in his rocket development. They turned to him for advice and initially he helped many of them. But as the war winds began to blow from the direction of Germany, Goddard refused to cooperate with them.

During the 30s, spies from Germany and the Soviet Union tracked Goddard’s discoveries and progress. Sometimes they managed to steal letters detailing his experiments.

He tried to warn US officials about the growing German interest in rocket development, but they did not take the warnings seriously.

Ground-breaking rockets. Goddard (on the left) and his team at the development laboratory in New Mexico | Photograph: Science Photo Library

Again, the winds of war

In 1940, on the eve of America's admission to World War II, Lindbergh, the Guggenheim family, the Smithsonian Institution and Goddard himself offered their services to the American Army and Navy. Initially, they had no interest in his work. However two years later, an American naval officer mediated with Goddard, organizing for him to work on developing rockets that will help with the take-off for aircraft carrying heavy loads.

Goddard was meant to move to the Engineering Experiment Station in Annapolis, Maryland, but his wife was afraid the climate would harm his health. Nevertheless, the couple traveled north and Goddard had huge success developing the requested Navy installation, with performance exceeding the original requirements. The design was essential to the development of the jet engine thrust for the X-2 Starbuster, first flown in 1955.

In 1945, Goddard was asked to examine the unlaunched V-2 rocket that the US military has captured. The V-2 was the world's first ballistic missile, and Germany used it frequently against the United Kingdom and Belgium during World War II. Goddard was convinced the Germans stole his work: despite minor differences in design, the basic principles of the missile were identical to Goddard's work from a decade ago. Wernher von Braun, the scientist who led the team of developing missiles for Germany in World War II, said years later that Goddard’s work paved the way for the construction of modern missiles, and that his experiments with liquid fuel saved Germany many years of work, so that they could concentrate on perfecting other technical aspects of the V-2.

Goddard's work was probably instrumental in bringing World War II to an end. When he disappeared to Maryland to work with the US Navy, the Germans feared Goddard had advanced the development of liquid fuel-based missiles and persuaded Hitler to allocate resources to the development of their missiles, to maintain the qualitative advantage. If these resources were directed to other developments, it is possible that the war would have gone on for longer.

As feared by his wife, with the move to Maryland, indeed Goddard's health began to deteriorate, and in 1945 he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He continued to work until his death in August of that year and was buried in his hometown of Worcester.

The legacy

Two hundred and fourteen patents were listed in Goddard’s name, of which 131 were approved after his death with applications submitted by his wife. He has been an influence to many figures that advanced the US space program, including pilot Jimmy Doolittle and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In 1959, he retrospectively received the Congressional Gold Medal and a year later he was given a Langley Gold Medal by the Smithsonian for his contribution to aeronautics. NASA Flight Center facilities in Maryland are named after him, as well as a crater on the moon. In 1965 a high school was named after him in Roswell.

In 1969, 24 years after Goddard’s death, and the day after the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned spacecraft landed on the moon, the New York Times published “A Correction” to the article that slandered Goddard nearly half a century earlier. The third and last paragraph read: “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.”

A long-overdue apology. The correction posted by the Times, a quarter of a century after Goddard’s death