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“God Pity A One-Dream Man”
The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
He studied for his master’s degree at Clark University in Worcester, teaching part-time at Tech. In his notebooks he calculated and recalculated the energy a rocket would require to escape the earth, and finally, on February 2, 1909, he saw his error: chemical energy would work if it burned more efficiently than powder rockets burn, burned not at 5 per cent efficiency but at 50 percent or more. He recalculated his energy table: to lift one pound free of the earth at 50 per cent efficiency would require 243 pounds of nitroglycerin, 2,187 pounds of gunpowder. And then, as he searched for a more energetic fuel, the future came out whole:
“Try, if possible an arrangement of H[ydrogen] and O[xygen] explosive jets, with compressed gas in small tanks which are subsequently shot off—giving perhaps 40 or 50 per cent.
“To get even 50 per cent efficiency, it will probably be necessary to have small explosive chambers and jets, into which the explosive (not too violent) is fed. They should also be small in number. Otherwise a large mass of metal will be needed for the large high-pressure chambers, which will cut down the efficiency per pound greatly.”
Goddard had his rocket, to be powered by the same fuel and oxidizer that powered the upper stages of the Saturn 5 that carried American astronauts to the moon. Now to make it work.
First he must do more science. “See if jets etc. possible before writing it up,” he noted on June 28, 1910. “It’s no more difficult than a lot of other physical researches,” he prompted himself on August 23. “Make it one of them.” A year later he saw an airplane for the first time. He took his M. A. cum laude in 1910, his Ph.D. in physics in 1911. Columbia University offered him a position in its physics department, but he wanted research more than teaching. Princeton gave him a research instructorship. By day he studied “the positive result of force on a material dielectric carrying a displacement current.” By night: “Worked on jet problem. … Calculated on jet problem. … Started application for a patent. …” On Anniversary Day, 1912, he wrote in the latest volume of his notebooks: “Order [of further work]: air resistance, theory; calculate for guncotton; calculate shape of jet from entropy of perfect gas, and the proportion that is steam; design feeding mechanism and cartridges. ” He was still thinking about a machine-gun rocket. Liquid hydrogen was expensive and hard to get, liquid oxygen only a little less so, and he had realized that a rocket light enough to fly would have to carry those gases in liquid form.
Near Easter, 1913, he went home exhausted to Worcester. He thought he had a chest cold. One doctor came, then another. He had double pulmonary tuberculosis. The doctors gave him two weeks to live. He didn’t get out of bed for a month, didn’t even write in his diary, but he allowed himself an hour a day with his rocket problem. On July 2 he filed for his first rocket patent, a two-stage solid-fuel rocket with an efficient nozzle. A year later, teaching now at Clark, his tuberculosis in remission, he filed for his second. It specified a cartridge-firing mechanism as well as a liquid-fuel rocket burning gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide.
A month later he wrote up his theory of rocketry from the notes he had made at Princeton, a paper dense with charts and calculus. By 1915 he was experimenting in earnest, working on a cartridge rocket. He dreamed one night of going to the moon. “Saw and took photos of earth with small Kodak while there. … Used tripod arrangement, to hold [rocket] in position. ” In his diary he sketched a streamlined Lunar Module supported on folding legs. Each October 19 he went out to his cherry tree and renewed his commitment; each Christmas he reread War of the Worlds .
Goddard appealed to the Smithsonian in 1916 for financial support, and got it in modest increments—the Smithsonian’s total investment over many years came to only $12,750—and pushed on. For the Army, during World War I, he invented the bazooka, but the Armistice interrupted his full-dress demonstration of that remarkable infantry weapon, and it was warehoused. He wasn’t a salesman.