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Reflections from History and Faith Robert Goddard

By Jeff Olson

Those of us in the Baby Boomer Generation and others since, grew up in a world of scientific advancements, many quite amazing. Most of us can’t remember when there weren’t airplanes, rockets, spacecraft, satellites and televisions, just to name several.

We also can’t remember often enough those pioneers who had the imagination and creativity to discover the far horizons of science and technology that awaited hungry minds and with the courage to challenge conventional wisdom and thinking. One of those was Robert Hutchings Goddard, who was an American engineer, professor, physicist, and inventor.

He was born on October 5, 1882 in Worcester, MA. He became interested in science as a child, but he was especially intrigued by space after reading H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds.” Goddard enrolled as a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1908, and went on to attain his master’s and doctorate in physics from Clark University. In 1912, he joined Palmer Physical Laboratory at Princeton University and later served as a part-time instructor at Clark University. In 1924, he married Esther Christine Kisk.

Goddard was intrigued by rockets and so began his study of them (at his own expense) by experimenting with gunpowder, and successfully launched his first powder rocket at Clark University in 1915. He learned that powder rockets were inefficient with only 2 percent of the available energy was being converted into motion. Therefore, he focused his research on the specific components of rockets to find a more efficient method of propulsion.

He then returned to the idea of a liquid-fueled rocket, which he first developed in 1914. Goddard’s rocket relied on a design using a combination of gasoline and liquid oxygen, a method still used today. Ninety-four years ago this week, March 16, 1926, Goddard drove out to his Aunt Effie’s farm near Auburn, MA and fired off a ten-foot tall, world’s first ever liquid-fueled rocket. Nell, as he called her, traveled to a height of 41 feet, leveled off, and hit the ground in a cabbage patch about 180 feet away. The flight averaged about 60 miles per hour and lasted only 2.5 seconds, but it was 2.5 seconds that ultimately launched mankind into outer space. This event was as significant to history as that of the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Goddard’s milestone achievement caught the attention of the Smithsonian, which donated $10,000 to Goddard in 1927 for additional research. His rocket flight in 1929 carried the first scientific payload (a barometer and a camera). Through the personal efforts of Charles A. Lindbergh, Goddard subsequently received financial support from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation. Progress on all of his work, titled “Liquid Propellant Rocket Development,” was published by the Smithsonian in 1936.

Goddard moved to Roswell, NM in the 1930s, where he continued his extensive research on rockets and did so pretty much in obscurity for the better part of 20 years. The large expanse of desert provided the perfect place to work in safety. There he launched 31 rockets over 15 years. During World War II Goddard volunteered his services and was assigned by the U.S. Navy to the development of practical jet assisted takeoff and liquid propellant rocket motors capable of variable thrust. In both areas, he was successful. However, Goddard never lived to see his dream of a rocket traveling into space. He died of throat cancer at his home in Baltimore in August 1945, twelve years before the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik.

Robert Goddard, considered the father of modern rocket propulsion and one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry, was credited with 214 patents. Of these, 131 were filed by his wife after his death. The dedicated labors of this modest man went largely unrecognized in the United States until the dawn of the “space age.” NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was named for this brilliant scientist, as was the Goddard Crater on the Moon and asteroid 9252 Goddard. On September 16, 1959, the 86th Congress authorized the issuance of a gold medal in the honor of Professor Robert H. Goddard. In his words: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

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