Robert Goddard Biography (1882-1945)


From childhood, Goddard had been fascinated by space travel, finding inspiration in part from H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds. He experimented avidly as an adolescent, attempting to work out the principles and calculations for rockets and space travel. He began studying physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908 and later entered Clark University where he received hisPh.D. in 1911. As a student he decided that the most effective propellant would be a combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Unfortunately, neither was commercially available at the time.

After his schooling, he worked briefly at Princeton as a researcher, then accepted a position in the physics department at his alma mater, Clark University. There, he speculated about travelling in space and published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, a now classic monograph on the topic. In 1926 he discovered an even more effective liquid fuel combination: gasoline andliquid oxygen. That same year he launched the world's first liquid-propelledrocket, a small (10 lb. [4.5 kg]) device that went up a grand total of 41 feet (12.5 m) and landed 184 feet (28 m) away. Despite this limited success, orperhaps because of it, reporters and fellow scientists ridiculed Goddard's efforts, dismissing him as a "crackpot" whose ideas concerning space flight were "ridiculous." This marked the beginning of his life-long struggle to be taken seriously.

Undeterred, Goddard continued his research. In July of 1929, one of his rockets exploded outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, attracting the attention ofthe local newspapers and the State Fire Marshal who banned Goddard from everagain testing rockets. However, the publicity the incident generated promptedthe famous aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) to seek out Goddard. Impressed by the physicist's work, Lindbergh helped Goddard obtain the funding to continue his rocket research. In 1930, Goddard moved his operations to Roswell, New Mexico, establishing the world's first professional rocket proving ground. The work to set up such a test site was incredibly difficult due to bad weather, dangerous insects, lack of tools, and the lack of any real knowledge.Goddard and his assistants had to save everything after each test in hope ofrepairing them for future flights. They had a terrible time developing goodparachutes that would open long enough to keep the falling rocket from shattering on impact. One flight was especially frightening when the rocket took off, had gyroscope trouble, and turned around to chase Goddard and his assistant, who saved themselves by falling flat to the ground. The men also had to crouch behind sheets of galvanized steel close to the test stand in order to read their instruments, knowing that any explosion would send fragments of metal in all directions.

When World War II broke out, Goddard repeatedly offered his services to the government, but was rejected because his ideas were considered too bizarre. Inaddition, he had retreated into a world of secrecy because of the negative reactions he had encountered in the past. Due to the intervention of a few military men who had worked with Goddard, the United States Navy finally agreedto finance his research, but only on small boosters to help their planes liftoff carrier decks. Goddard went east to set up a new site near Annapolis, but died of throat cancer soon afterwards.

The government only appreciated the importance of his work after the discovery of Germany's rocket program at the end of the war. Their devastatingly powerful V-2 rockets had been based on the same principals put forward by Goddard. In all, Goddard accomplished many things in his desire to see rockets succeed: he pioneered gas-generator-powered turbo-fed rockets, developed automaticlaunch-sequence control, set up a sequence for tank pressurization/ignition/automatic shutdown, engineered on-board control for guidance, established parachute recovery systems, pioneered gyroscopic stabilization and rocket-exhaust deflection controls, successfully used gimbal-mounted rocket motors, and set up recording and optical-telescope tracking methods. The United States government eventually awarded Goddard's estate one million dollars for all rightsto the more than two hundred patents he owned.

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