Robert Hutchings Goddard

The American pioneer in rocketry Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945) was one of the founders of the science of astronautics.

Robert Goddard was born on Oct. 5, 1882, in Worcester, Mass., the son of Nahum Danford Goddard, a businessman, and Fannie Hoyt Goddard. From his earliest youth Goddard suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he remained out of school for long periods, he kept up with his academic studies, and he read voluminously in Cassell's Popular Educator and science fiction.

In 1904 Goddard enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and received his degree in physics in 1908. He then entered the graduate school of Clark University, where he was granted a master's degree in 1910 and received his doctorate a year later.

Early Investigations in Rocketry

Goddard went to the Palmer Physical Laboratory of Princeton University as a research fellow in 1912. He proposed a research project he described as "the positive result of force on a material dielectric carrying a displacement current." In the course of his experimentation he developed a vacuum-tube oscillator that he subsequently patented in 1915, well before that of Lee De Forest.

While Goddard's days in the laboratory were given over to his research in radio, his nights were free to work upon the fundamentals of rocketry. Approaching the problem theoretically, he was able by 1913 to prove that a rocket of 200 pounds' initial mass could achieve escape velocity for a 1-pound mass if the propellant was of gun cotton at 50 percent efficiency or greater. He began patenting many of the rocket concepts that ultimately gave him a total of more than 200 patents in this particular field of technology. They were to cover many of the fundamentals in areas such as propellants, guidance and control, and structure. For example, his patent granted on July 7, 1914, clearly identifies the concept of multistaging of rockets, without which the landing of men on the moon or sending probes to Mars and Venus would not be possible.

When his health permitted, Goddard returned to teaching and research at Clark University. By this time he was wholly devoted to rocketry. He built a vacuum chamber in which he fired small, solid-propellant rockets to study the effects of different types of nozzles in such an environment. Having exhausted his own funds and not wishing to draw further on the resources of the university, he applied to the Smithsonian for a grant of $5,000, which he was awarded in 1917. With these funds he began the study of rocketry in earnest.

During World War I the U.S. Army Signal Corps provided $20,000 to the Smithsonian Institution for research in applied rocketry by Goddard. He moved to the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California and set up a workshop in which to experiment with solid-propellant rockets as weapons. There, with two assistants, Henry C. Parker and Clarence N. Hickman, he set to work on two projects.

Parker worked on a rocket with a single charge that could be launched from an open tube. This was the forebear of the World War II bazooka. Meanwhile, Hickman devoted his energies to one of Goddard's pet but more complex problems—a rocket propelled by the injection of successive solid charges into its motor. Parker's rocket proved to be successful, but Hickman's was simply unworkable. However, both rockets were demonstrated for military officials, but despite the success and the obvious enthusiasm of the military, the armistice 4 days after the demonstration canceled all Army interest in Goddard and his rockets. It was not revived for 26 years.

Liquid-propellant Rockets

In 1919 the Smithsonian Institution published Goddard's monograph "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," which he had submitted earlier to that organization with a request for research funds. The newspapers, seeing a casual reference to the moon and the prospect of hitting it with a rocket loaded with flash powder, pushed Goddard into the headlines. Being a reticent man as well as a dedicated physicist, he recoiled from the unwanted publicity and resisted further attempts by publications to present the subject.

During the decades of the 1920s and 1930s Goddard's research was supported by erratic and unpredictable funding from Clark University, the U.S. Navy, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Carnegie Foundation. From static testing of small solid-propellant rockets Goddard graduated to liquid-propellant motors. His long experimentation with solid-propellant rockets had by the early 1920s convinced him that the efficiency of such motors was simply too low ever to be of use in space travel. Indeed, by the early 1920s he had daringly mentioned liquid hydrogen (not then obtainable) and liquid oxygen, that is, nuclear and ionic propulsion for rockets.

Goddard's first liquid-propellant rocket was launched in 1926 from a farm near Auburn, Mass. Present on the occasion as photographer was the young Mrs. Esther Goddard, whom Goddard had married in 1924. The rocket reached an altitude of 41 feet and a range of 184 feet and traveled the distance in only 2 1/2 seconds. It was not a statistically impressive performance, but neither was that at Kitty Hawk, N. C., on Dec. 17, 1903.

Work in New Mexico

Needing more room and a milder outdoor climate for his experiments, Goddard moved to New Mexico, near Roswell, in 1930. His Mescalero Ranch was only 100 miles from the White Sands Missile Range. There, in a well-equipped machine shop, Goddard and a small team of assistants began work on the design and fabrication of liquid-propellant rockets that were the direct forebears of the Saturn 5 and Titan 3C space boosters of the 1960s.

The first launching in New Mexico took place in 1930. In 1932 a rocket with a gyroscopic stabilizer was flown. In that same year Goddard returned to Clark University because of the economic depression. During the succeeding 2 years at Clark he continued his research as well as he could and received several patents that grew out of his work in New Mexico.

After Goddard returned to the ranch, the rockets grew larger and flew higher. On March 31, 1935, a 15-foot-tall model reached an altitude of 7,500 feet under gyroscopic control. Goddard's research continued here until 1942. During these years he turned his attention to a high-speed turbopump for delivering the propellants to the combustion chamber of the motor. It was a component that had long held up his development of a really efficient rocket.

Return East

On May 28, 1940, Goddard met with officers of the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy in Washington, D.C., to brief them on his rockets and their potential as weapons. In 1941 he finally received a small contract from the Army Air Corps and Navy to develop a liquid-propellant jet-assist-takeoff rocket for aircraft. In July 1942 he left Roswell to continue his research at the Navy Engineering Experimental Station at Annapolis, Md. There his experiments met with technical success, but an attempt to demonstrate the motor on an actual aircraft ended in failure and the loss of the plane. As rockets of all types, especially the V-1 and V-2, began making the headlines, Goddard received offers of jobs from many companies; he accepted the invitation from Curtiss-Wright, where he worked until his death on Aug. 10, 1945.

Further Reading on Robert Hutchings Goddard

The Papers of Robert H. Goddard was edited by Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray (3 vols., 1970). The only full-length biography of Goddard is Milton Lehman, This High Man: The Life of Robert H. Goddard (1963). Anne Perkins Dewey, Robert Goddard, Space Pioneer (1962), is a biography for younger readers. For general reading on rocketry during the period in which Goddard figured prominently see Willy Ley, Rockets Missiles, and Men in Space (1952; rev. ed. 1968); Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein, The Rocket Pioneers on the Road to Space (1955); and Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway III, History of Rocketry and Space Travel (1966). Useful books on astronautics in general include Frederick I. Ordway, James P. Gardner, and Mitchell R. Sharpe, Basic Astronautics: An Introduction to Space Science, Engineering, and Medicine (1962), and Mitchell R. Sharpe, Living in Space: The Astronaut and His Environment (1969).

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