When Robert Goddard was born on October 5, 1882, few people outside of major cities had electricity, almost no one in the United States owned an automobile, and rocketry essentially did not exist. Within his lifetime, rockets propelled by liquid fuel would become invaluable scientific tools and staggering destructive weapons. Twelve years after Goddard’s death, people began utilizing rockets to explore the universe. In 1969, a mere 87 years after Goddard was born, the first men walked on the moon.
As a boy Goddard was taken with science, especially aviation. On October 19, 1899, when he was 17, Goddard climbed a tree in his back yard in Worcester, Massachusetts, and dreamed of building a device capable of leaving the Earth and traveling through outer space, perhaps even to the planet Mars, in which he had become interested after reading H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds. For the rest of his life, Goddard marked October 19 as the day when his work in rocketry began – his “Anniversary Day.”
He graduated high school in 1904, and as a college undergraduate in 1907 he published a paper in Scientific American proposing a method for stabilizing aircraft in flight. In 1909 he first wrote of the possibility of liquid-fueled rockets. In 1911 he completed his Ph.D. at Clark University. In 1914, while recovering from a life-threatening bout with tuberculosis, Goddard was awarded two patents, one for a multi-stage rocket design, and one for a rocket fueled by gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide. Goddard would earn 83 patents in his lifetime, and his work would eventually garner a total of 214. In 1916 he received his first research grant, from the Smithsonian, to continue his work in rocketry. In his spare time between rocket research and teaching, he invented the bazooka in 1918.
In 1919 the Smithsonian published Goddard’s book A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, the founding document of modern rocketry. Wernher von Braun, inventor of the German V-2 rocket in the 1940s and father of the U.S. space program in the 1950s, cited Goddard’s book as a primary inspiration and influence on his own work. The media reacted to the book with disbelief and ridicule; Goddard became the man who wished to build “moon rockets.” In 1920 the New York Times reported a proposal of Goddard’s to send a rocket to the moon and explode it on impact, so that it could be viewed from Earth, thus proving that it was possible to launch objects out of Earth’s atmosphere and into outer space. The newspaper later published an editorial deriding the proposal as full of “intentional mistakes and oversights,” and claiming it was impossible for a rocket to propel itself through the vacuum of space.
Despite the mockery of the media, Goddard went ahead with his research, often working alone, suspicious of outside help. On March 16, 1926, near Auburn, Massachusetts, Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in the history of the world. It reached an altitude of 41 feet, and flew just over 2 seconds before it crashed into a cabbage field. From that first flight, it was just over 31 years until an R-7 rocket carried Sputnik 1 into orbit, mankind’s first artificial satellite, and from that only four years until Yuri Gagarin rode atop a Vostok rocket and became the first human being in space. On July 17, 1969, the day after Apollo 11 lifted-off for the Moon, the New York Times, sufficiently persuaded, issued a retraction for its 1920 Goddard editorial: “[I]t is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”
Following his historic first rocket launch, Goddard became chummy with Charles Lindbergh, and together the two men continued to pursue the development of rocket flight, believing it to be the future of aviation. In the 1930s, after securing additional financial backing with Lindbergh’s help, Goddard relocated from New England to Roswell, New Mexico, where his experiments went on. He offered to lend his expertise in rocket design to the U.S. Army, but they declined; in a typical display of foresight, the Army saw no possible military applications for Goddard’s rockets. Working with the U.S. Navy during World War II, Goddard was able to examine recovered German V-2s, and recognized many of the components as his own designs.
Goddard died of throat cancer on August 10, 1945. He is buried in his hometown of Worcester, where an elementary school, the Goddard School of Science and Technology, is named for him. There is also a high school in Roswell and a library at Clark University named in his memory. There is a crater on the moon dubbed Goddard Crater. When NASA established its first major research facility in 1959 it was named the Goddard Space Flight Center, in honor of the man who 33 years earlier had blasted a small rocket a miniscule distance into the sky, and made humanity’s physical exploration of the cosmos possible.