- Historic Sites
“God Pity A One-Dream Man”
The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
Already his caution was building to reticence, but pressed by his department head at Clark, he paid for publication in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections of what would be his most important paper, “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” a revision of the 1914 paper and which also included his subsequent experimental work. It appeared in December, 1919. In it he no longer wrote of sending photographic rockets “to encircle the planet Mars,” as he had in the 1914 paper, but rather of “a search for methods of raising recording apparatus beyond the range for sounding balloons. …” He mentions sending “small masses” high enough “to escape the earth’s attraction,” and speaks of “infinite altitude.” The press missed those scholarly code words, but a keen publicist at the Smithsonian noticed a proposal squirreled deep in the paper to “send the smallest mass of flash powder possible to the dark surface of the moon” where telescopes could see it; the publicist put out a press release, and the embarrassing hullabaloo began. The newspapers thought his moon rocket was ready for launch. The Bronx Exposition offered its Starlight Amusement Park grounds for the occasion. Yugoslavian patriots and Kansas City girls volunteered to pilot the craft. Goddard heard from Robert Esnault-Pelterie, the French rocket pioneer, and Hermann Oberth, the Transylvanian German, who had written but not yet published his own visionary treatise, “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space,” and who worried for years afterward that people might think he had copied from Goddard, as Goddard himself believed.
“A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” might have won the aeronautical community to Goddard’s side. Oberth’s treatise did as much abroad. Goddard had combined authoritative theory with scientifically responsible experiment. Unlike Oberth, he was properly credentialed, a Ph.D. physicist who taught at a respected American university. His paper bore the Smithsonian’s stamp of approval. It was modest in its claims. Nevertheless, it fell on fallow ground. Travel through the air was still primitive. No one was interested in financing a flash-powder voyage to the moon. The Navy wondered if Goddard could develop a rocket-powered depth charge. Alexander Graham Bell invited him to dinner. But no patron appeared.
The Smithsonian continued its marginal support—generously, under the circumstances. The circumstances were that the machine-gun rocket wasn’t working. The exploding cartridges bulged their breechblocks repetitively, monotonously, filling the diaries, consuming the years. At thirty-eight, a full professor now, bald, an arrested tubercular with a sunken chest, Goddard accepted his larger fate. July 11, 1921: “Designed chamber for constant pressure. …”September 10: “Went to Linde Air Products Co. about liquid oxygen.” Nothing else worked: he would have to build a liquid-fuel rocket on a grant doled out in five-hundred-dollar lots.
March 16, 1926. The flat, snow-covered pasture of a distant cousin’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket stand, two braced trapezoids, rests on the snow, a wooden and sheet-steel barricade leaning away to one side, a stunted, unpruned tree in the background giving scale. The rocket is bare apparatus—a stick of igniter for a nose, a cylindrical combustion chamber, a nozzle—suspended three feet above the top of the stand in a frame of tubing. The tubing extends down into the stand to a conical shield. Below the shield, one above the other, a liquid oxygen and then a gasoline tank are fixed, both tanks pressurized, both feeding through the tubing up to the chamber at the top. Goddard reversed the usual order of components because he hoped the tanks would lower the rocket’s center of gravity and stabilize it. This now is essential rocket: no pumps or on-board pressure system, no guidance, no self-starting, no streamlining. Goddard has tested models, some of them elaborate models, for most of five years. He wants a flight. So, imperatively, does the Smithsonian. He’s married now. Esther, his young, blonde wife, stands by with a movie camera. His assistant lights the igniter with a blowtorch extended on a pole and ducks behind the barricade:
“The day was clear and comparatively quiet. … Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express-train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate.
“It looked almost magical as it rose, without any appreciably greater noise or flame. … Esther said that it looked like a fairy or an aesthetic dancer. …
“It rose 41 ft, and went 184 ft, in 2.5 sec, after the lower half of nozzle had burned off. …”
Not many were impressed with so slight and brief a flight, certainly not the Smithsonian. Goddard was, properly so, and in later years would point out with pride that it compared favorably with the first flight of the Wright brothers, who managed an altitude of only four feet and a distance of one hundred and twenty feet at Kitty Hawk.