ROCKET (Inventions)

The invention: Liquid-fueled rockets developed by Robert H. God-dard made possible all later developments in modern rocketry, which in turn has made the exploration of space practical.

The person behind the invention:

Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945), an American physics professor

History in a Cabbage Patch

Just as the age of air travel began on an out-of-the-way shoreline at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the Wright brothers’ airplane in 1903, so too the seemingly impossible dream of spaceflight began in a cabbage patch in Auburn, Massachusetts, with Robert H. Goddard’s launch of a liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926. On that clear, cold day, with snow still on the ground, God-dard launched a three-meter-long rocket using liquid oxygen and gasoline. The flight lasted only about two and one-half seconds, during which the rocket rose 12 meters and landed about 56 meters away.
Although the launch was successful, the rocket’s design was clumsy. At first, Goddard had thought that a rocket would be steadier if the motor and nozzles were ahead of the fuel tanks, rather like a horse and buggy. After this first launch, it was clear that the motor needed to be placed at the rear of the rocket. Although Goddard had spent several years working on different pumps to control the flow of fuel to the motor, the first rocket had no pumps or electrical system. Henry Sacks, a Clark University machinist, launched the rocket by turning a valve, placing analco-hol stove beneath the motor, and dashing for safety. Goddard and his coworker Percy Roope watched the launch from behind an iron wall.
Despite its humble setting, this simple event changed the course of history. Many people saw in Goddard’s launch the possibilities for high-altitude research, space travel, and modern weaponry. Although Goddard invented and experimented mostly in private,others in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Germany quickly followed in his footsteps. The V-2 rockets used by Nazi Germany in World War II (1939-1945) included many of Goddard’s designs and ideas.

A Lifelong Interest

Goddard’s success was no accident. He had first become interested in rockets and space travel when he was seventeen, no doubt because of reading topics such as H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) and Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898). In 1907, he sent to several scientific journals a paper describing his ideas about traveling through a near vacuum. Although the essay was rejected, Goddard began thinking about liquid fuels in 1909. After finishing his doctorate in physics at Clark University and postdoctoral studies at Princeton University, he began to experiment.
One of the things that made Goddard so successful was his ability to combine things he had learned from chemistry, physics, and engineering into rocket design. More than anyone else at the time, Goddard had the ability to combine ideas with practice.
Goddard was convinced that the key for moving about in space was the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). To prove this, he showed that a gun recoiled when it was fired in a vacuum. During World War I (1914-1918), Goddard moved to the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where he investigated the use of black powder and smokeless powder as rocket fuel. Goddard’s work led to the invention of the bazooka, a weapon that was much used during World War II, as well as bombardment and antiaircraft rockets.
After World War I, Goddard returned to Clark University. By 1920, mostly because of the experiments he had done during the war, he had decided that a liquid-fuel motor, with its smooth thrust, had the best chance of boosting a rocket into space. The most powerful fuel was hydrogen, but it is very difficult to handle. Oxygen had many advantages, but it was hard to find and extremely dangerous, since it boils at -148 degrees Celsius and explodes when it comes in contact with oils, greases, and flames. Other possible fuels were pro-

Robert H. Goddard

In 1920 The New York Times made fun of Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945) for claiming that rockets could travel through outer space to the Moon. It was impossible, the newspaper’s editorial writer confidently asserted, because in outer space the engine would have no air to push against and so could not move the rocket. A sensitive, quiet man, the Clark University physics professor was stung by the public rebuke, all the more so because it displayed ignorance of basic physics. Every vision is a joke, Goddard said, somewhat bitterly, “until the first man accomplishes it.”
Goddard had already proved that a rocket could move in a vacuum, but he refrained from rebutting the Times article. In 1919 he had become the first American to describe mathematically the theory of rocket propulsion in his classic article “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitude,” and during World War I he had acquired experience designing solid-fuel rockets. However, even though he was the world’s leading expert on rocketry, he decided to seek privacy for his experiments. His successful launch of a liquid-
fuel rocket in 1926, followed by new designs that reached ever higher altitudes, was a source of satisfaction, as were his 214 patents, but real recognition of his achievements did not come his way until World War II. In 1942 he was named director of research at the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, for which he worked on jet-assisted takeoff rockets and variable-thrust liq-uid-propellant rockets. In 1943 the Curtiss-Wright Corporation hired him as a consulting engineer, and in 1945 he became director of the American Rocket Society.
The New York Times finally apologized to Goddard for its 1920 article on the morning after Apollo 11 took off for the Moon in 1969. However, Goddard, who battled tuberculosis most of his life, had died twenty-four years earlier.
pane, ether, kerosene, or gasoline, but they all had serious disadvantages. Finally, Goddard found a local source of oxygen and was able to begin testing its thrust.
Another problem was designing a fuel pump. Goddard and his assistant Nils Riffolt spent years on this problem before the historic test flight of March, 1926. In the end, because of pressure from the sonian Institution and others who were funding his research, Goddard decided to do without a pump and use an inert gas to push the fuel into the explosion chamber.
Goddard worked without much funding between 1920 and 1925. Riffolt helped him greatly in designing a pump, and Goddard’s wife, Esther, photographed some of the tests and helped in other ways. Clark University had granted him some research money in 1923, but by 1925 money was in short supply, and the sonian Institution did not seem willing to grant more. Goddard was convinced that his research would be taken seriously if he could show some serious results, so on March 16, 1926, he launched a rocket even though his design was not yet perfect. The success of that launch not only changed his career but also set the stage for rocketry experiments both in the United States and in Europe.


Goddard was described as being secretive and a loner. He never tried to cash in on his invention but continued his research during the next three years. On July 17,1929, Goddard launched a rocket carrying a camera and instruments for measuring temperature and air pressure. The New York Times published a story about the noisy crash of this rocket and local officials’ concerns about public safety. The article also mentioned Goddard’s idea that a similar rocket might someday strike the Moon. When American aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh learned of Goddard’s work, Lindbergh helped him to get grants from the Carnegie Institution and the Guggenheim Foundation.
By the middle of 1930, Goddard and a small group of assistants had established a full-time research program near Roswell, New Mexico. Now that money was not so much of a problem, Goddard began to make significant advances in almost every area of astronautics. In 1941, Goddard launched a rocket to a height of 2,700 meters. Flight stability was helped by a gyroscope, and he was finally able to use a fuel pump.
During the 1920′s and 1930′s, members of the American Rocket Society and the German Society for Space Travel continued their own research. When World War II began, rocket research became a high priority for the American and German governments.
Germany’s success with the V-2 rocket was a direct result of Goddard’s research and inventions, but the United States did not benefit fully from Goddard’s work until after his death. Nevertheless, Goddard remains modern rocketry’s foremost pioneer—a scientist with vision, understanding, and practical skill.
See also Airplane; Artificial satellite; Communications satellite; Cruise missile; Hydrogen bomb; Stealth aircraft; Supersonic passenger plane; Turbojet; V-2 rocket; Weather satellite.

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