“God Pity A One-Dream Man”


A test in July, 1929, of a somewhat larger rocket gave greater promise. The 1929 rocket, its motor below its tanks in classic configuration, soared one hundred feet up, one hundred fifty-eight feet away, and the crew drank its health in ginger ale. The sonic boom of its exhaust called in a barrage of publicity worse than in 1919—reporters who saw the wreckage thought the rocket had exploded on the way to the moon—but this time notoriety brought rescue. Charles Lindbergh read about the “accident” in the New York Times and flew up to Worcester to see for himself. He liked Goddard; Goddard for once told almost all; Lindbergh set out to find major financial backing for another pioneer, another loner like himself. At Lindbergh’s urging, the Carnegie Institution of Washington pledged five thousand dollars, and then in 1930 Daniel Guggenheim, on the strength of Lindbergh’s word that the work was important to the future of aviation, wrote Goddard a personal check for twenty-five thousand dollars, the first year’s installment against a proposed one hundred thousand dollars for four years’ research. Within two weeks Goddard was packed and gone, an entire railroad car of rockets and machine tools following, to Roswell, New Mexico, where the land was flat and the wind hardly blew and the sun almost always shone.

Throughout the Depression, with the exception of sixteen months when even the Guggenheim Foundation couldn’t afford the investment, Goddard worked to perfect the liquid-fuel rocket. He developed thin-walled combustion chambers cooled by a swirl of spraying fuel; sturdy, thin-walled fuel tanks braced with ceilings of piano wire; lightweight turbo-pumps driven by gas pressure from an ingenious miniature internal-combustion generator; a reliable gyroscope that guided the vanes that directed the exhaust gases and the slipstream to stabilize flight; an automatic countdown system; an automatic parachute for recovery. He conducted, in all, one hundred and three static tests of rockets or components and forty-eight flight tests. Thirty-eight of his forty-eight test rockets gave flights, and all of the last twenty-six flew, though never higher than nine thousand feet.

Goddard worked essentially alone, with his wife’s loving encouragement and the support of a dedicated crew of machinists. He resisted publicity. He chose not to publish his findings, as scientists traditionally do, postponing all but one publication until he achieved reliable high-altitude flight, the goal that eluded him to his death. Instead of scientific publication, he embodied his inventions in patents and his research in unpublished reports to the Guggenheim Foundation and to Lindbergh, and unknowingly but steadily he fell farther and farther behind.

A German solid-fuel rocket climbed to two and one-half miles in 1931. In 1939 a liquid-fuel German A-5, a smaller version of the V-2, achieved an altitude of seven and one-half miles. It was substantially identical in configuration to Goddard’s rockets, and may well have borrowed from his patents, but it was backed by all the resources of the German Army, designed by an enthusiastic research group that included Wernher von Braun, and it worked. The V-2 followed, a burly liquid-fuel missile that weighed twenty-seven thousand pounds. On its first successful flight, on October 3, 1942, the month after a Goddard-designed rocket-assisted takeoff unit burned the tail off a Navy PBY seaplane at Annapolis, the V-2 rose to a height of nearly sixty miles at a speed of thirty-three hundred miles per hour and splashed into the Baltic one hundred and twenty miles downrange.