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“God Pity A One-Dream Man”
The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
But the simple truth is that the United States didn’t need high-altitude rockets during World War II, a truth Goddard himself understood. Rocket technology had not advanced sufficiently to create intercontinental missiles, and even if it had, no loading of conventional explosives could justify their expense. The V-2 was a stunningly ineffectual weapon of war, the V-I terrifying but not as cost-effective as conventional bombing. Nazi Germany’s rocket program cost almost as much as the United States’ Manhattan Project; Germany got the V-2, with a comparatively puny payload of twenty-two hundred pounds of high explosive, America got the Bomb; if the Vengeance rockets were secret weapons, they were secret weapons of the Allies. “Reason for no action by the military on long-range rocket in 1940,” Goddard wrote in a memorandum to Harry Guggenheim in late 1944: “the liquid-fuel rocket discussed was for use in comparatively large sizes, and for relatively long periods, hence more suitable for long- rather than short-range rockets. The United States had no need for long-range rockets at the time.” Ironically, the same memo compares Goddard’s New Mexican rockets with the V-2; in general design, the American and the German systems were identical. The secret of Goddard’s rocket was its lightness coupled with the energetic ferocity of its fuel. Its time would come, for space exploration and the balance of terror, and Goddard would be celebrated, posthumously, and the Guggenheim Foundation and Esther Goddard would be awarded one million dollars for government use of his patents, and a museum wing, professorships, a power plant, an Air Force squadron, an important medal, and a space-flight center would bear his name.
He was not a churlish man, and though his wife sang of him affectionately as “Just Plain Bob,” neither was he simple. His reticence rose from foundations more humane than New England Calvinism. He believed his work was unspeakably important, though that is not what he told those who presumed to ask. “My attitude is a common one among cautious scientists,” he explained to one inquirer. “I am supposed to do a definite job, namely to raise a rocket to a great height. Until this is done, I naturally avoid making public statements which might prove to be halfcocked later on. Ordinarily, this attitude would be taken for granted, but the subject is of such strong popular appeal that clubs and societies of amateurs have sprung up all over the world … and my position has been interpreted by these groups as an unwillingness to ‘play ball.’” That gives part of the reason—he knew the world might take him for a crackpot or a fool—but it doesn’t justify avoiding scholarly publication.
Certainly he grew chagrined that the work progressed so slowly. His rockets were never large enough—he needed far more money for development than any private foundation could possibly afford—but more to the point, he was systematically tackling a dozen different problems at the same time. Beautiful machines, his rockets, brilliant invention under their sleek skins, but they were skittish as racehorses and unreliable as drunken poets in the grips of the Muse.
The deeper reason for Robert Goddard’s reticence—for his near-obsession with patents, with priorities of discovery, with perfecting the rocket singlehandedly—returns us to the vision he sustained at the cherry tree in his eighteenth year. It was not only an adolescent vision of flying off the earth, though that is how he explained it. It was also a stark vision of the cooling of the generative sun, of the distant time when the frozen earth can no longer sustain life, of ecological death—of a way to escape that death.
It preoccupied him throughout his life. On January 14,1918, when he was thirty-five years old, he first committed it decisively to paper. He titled the essay he wrote that day “The Last Migration,” and he handled it curiously, more secretively than any of his other papers, as he explained later in his autobiographical notes: “Perhaps the most extreme speculations [concerning space travel] were included in a manuscript I wrote … which, in order that some word would remain, no matter what circumstance occurred during the war, I enclosed in an envelope labeled ‘Special Formulae for Silvering Mirrors’ and deposited in a friend’s safe.” The phrasing is diffident to the point of obscurity. The paper was supremely important to him; he wanted it to survive him, to survive any holocaust of war; he meant for posterity to read it. The secret must not be lost.
He reverted to it in 1943, and in his collected papers his late and early versions are edited and combined. What Goddard confronted in “The Last Migration” was the “problem which will some day face our race as the sun grows colder.” He proposed the migration of the human race to another planet “near a large sun or suns.” Human beings might not be able to migrate bodily. “It may be necessary to evolve suitable beings through many generations. Or granular protoplasm, suitably enclosed, might be sent out of the solar system, this protoplasm being of such a nature as to produce human beings, in time, by evolution. …”