- Historic Sites
“God Pity A One-Dream Man”
The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
Goddard worked for the Navy on rocket development throughout the war, but he was essentially sidelined, and by early 1945 he was reduced to designing pumps for other people’s rockets. Had he lived, he might have continued productive work with Curtiss-Wright or General Electric, who turned to him late in the war for consultation. But on the night of June 14, 1945, after several years of what he called “chronic laryngitis,” Goddard suffered a severe bout of choking; on June 16 a Baltimore specialist found a growth in his throat; on June 19 the growth was judged malignant and his larynx was removed. His tuberculosis flared up anew. He sent off a last batch of patent applications. He read of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—”atomic disintegration” at last, the words freighted with grotesque irony now—and nodded and gave the Churchillian victory sign. A day later he slipped into a coma. He died quietly shortly past nine on the morning of August 10.
Robert Goddard felt personally affronted by his country’s neglect of him during the war, and chose to believe that competitors in rocket research were ranged against him. He was angry, not disturbed, but a touch of paranoia sometimes smudged his papers in his later years. The Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology had begun rocket research in 1936 and had attempted to pull Goddard in. He resisted, and the Galcit group forged ahead on its own, winning the interest of the Army Air Corps in its jet-assisted-takeoff work and subsequently in jet propulsion. In 1940 Goddard would write contemptuously of the Galcit program that “they are now just about where I was fifteen years ago,” and hint darkly of “people [who] are using the present emergency for their own ends.” But Harry Guggenheim, Daniel’s heir and the head of the foundation, had urged Goddard to work with Galcit, among others, as early as 1938, and Goddard had countered that “the time and expense required by various institutions for solving problems is too great to warrant undertaking cooperation with them this year.” Or any year. In the last months of his life Goddard was copying extracts into his diary with evident bitterness. “‘I must confess that Kandinsky was a man whose work I fundamentally don’t like,’” he quoted an art critic, “‘which is another way of saying, of course, that I don’t understand it.’” From Dashiell Hammett he copied: ”‘The outcome of careful planning always looks like luck to saps.’”
Goddard was partly a victim of circumstance. He was linked to Charles Lindbergh, who continued as Harry Guggenheim’s adviser throughout the 1930’s, and the linkage can’t have worked in his favor once Lindbergh began speaking out for America First and Aryan civilization and earned Franklin Roosevelt’s unbounded contempt. Nor did Goddard’s reputation for working alone help his cause, nor did the unfortunate fire on the test PBY. His espousal of liquid oxygen for his rocket systems frightened off the Army and worried the Navy; rocket development during the war was concentrated on solid propellants and fuels liquid at normal temperature that could be handled at the front line.