June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
The Ordeal of Robert Hutchings Goddard
In 1901, just after Christmas, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a sickly nineteen-year-old high school student named Robert Hutchings Goddard sat down to compose an essay on an enterprise of surpassing technological challenge. He was no stranger to enterprise. He had already tried to fly an aluminum-foil balloon filled with hydrogen gas and attempted to build a perpetual-motion machine. Samuel P. Langley, aeronautical pioneer and Smithsonian Institution secretary, had asserted in print that birds turn in flight by beating one wing faster than the other; skeptical, Goddard had observed closely the banking flight of chimney swifts and written to a popular magazine to correct the distinguished physicist’s error. The enterprise that challenged Goddard now, that had fired his dreaming for more than two years, was space travel. He titled his essay “The Navigation of Space.” Concisely, unemotionally, it defined his life’s work.
“The interesting problem of space travel seems to be much neglected,” Goddard began, “which is not surprising considering the almost insurmountable difficulties involved. Occasionally, however, we may hear of a plan suggested. The method generally advanced is causing the recoil of a gun placed in a vertical position with the muzzle directed downwards, to raise itself together with a car containing the operator.” A rocket, in other words, and a spacecraft and a man.
Goddard’s perspicacity here is remarkable. The Wright brothers would not achieve bare powered flight until 1903. Rockets were known in 1901—small, erratic, powder rockets for siege warfare and signaling—but their technology had been in decline for half a century. Nor was rocket propulsion as a means of space travel “generally advanced.” Despite the authority of Newton’s third law of motion, “to every action there is always opposed an equal reaction,” responsible scientists as well as laymen still believed that rockets required air behind them to push against and could not in any case fly faster than the velocity of their exhausts. Goddard knew that existing rockets were inadequate, and he wasn’t at all sure that anything this side of atomic energy would be energetic enough to power a rocket to escape the earth, but he had already perceived that the application of the rocket to space travel was a technological problem, not one of basic science, and could in time be solved. “At present,” he concluded, “the mass of the [propellant] cartridge is too great in proportion to that of the gun to allow for a voyage in space and the return. … Space navigation is an impossibility at the present time; yet it is difficult to predict the achievements of science in this direction in the distant future.”
The work of Robert Goddard’s life was rockets. He published the first detailed, physically and mathematically correct theory of astronautics. He invented, built, and launched the first liquid-fuel rocket to fly under its own power. Between 1917 and 1941, supported by modest grants from the Smithsonian Institution, Clark University, and other sources, along with massive grants from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation—$209,940 in twenty-four years, more money than any other American scientist was granted for research on a single project until World War II—he invented, patented, and tested most of the components vital to modern rocketry. More than 200 of his 241 patents are acknowledged as prior art in the design of space rockets today. The Space Shuttle designed to orbit the earth is a direct descendant of his research.
Yet the rockets Goddard designed never achieved a flight altitude of more than 9,000 feet; though he was by far the most knowledgeable rocket expert in the United States, he was shunted aside when the U.S. military began serious experimentation in the late 1930’s with jet- and rocket-propulsion, and participated in those developments only peripherally; and he died, in 1945, short months after examining a captured German V-2 that might have come from his own workshop—so similar was it to his own designs—a neglected and a disappointed man. Pioneers often suffer for their boldness. Despite the all-inclusiveness of his invention and the distinction of his support, Goddard suffered for his granitic New England reserve. But that is only part of the story.
He was born in Worcester on October 5, 1882. His father was a businessman with a knack for invention—Nahum Goddard had patented a machine knife for cutting rabbit fur and developed a new type of welding flux—and his mother was a genteel tubercular invalid. When he was “four or five” years old he attempted to fly electrically by carrying a zinc battery rod while he scuffed his feet along a gravel walk and then jumped off a fence. The equipment amused his mother, but the jumping alarmed her; she “called out to me that I should be careful, because sometime it might work, and I would go sailing away, without being able to come back. After this warning, I hid the zinc rod and never repeated the experiment.”
Other experiments followed. He tested the eyesight of a paralytic greatgrandmother, tried to melt aluminum for his balloon on the kitchen stove, made a bow and featherless arrows and practiced firing them vertically into the air, tried to make artificial diamonds and blew up his chemistry set, designed a frog hatchery complete with hatching houses and pumping plant. He also read: Youth’s Companion, St. Nicholas Magazine, Scientific American , Cassell’s Popular Educator (which gave him Newton’s laws), and memorably, in early 1898, when he was fifteen, a serial in the Boston Post , “Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds, in and near Boston”—a recasting of H. G. Wells’s thriller on local ground, ground the Worcester boy had walked. It “gripped my imagination tremendously,” as did the serial that followed it in the Post, “Edison’s Conquest of Mars.”
The device Goddard imagined for his flight to Mars was a sort of centrifugal engine, “a weight whirling around a horizontal shaft.” He described it to a friend who was a student at Harvard; his friend told him it wouldn’t work, but couldn’t explain why. Goddard proceeded to build wooden models—the perpetual motion machine. “These, naturally, gave negative results, and I began to think that there might be something after all to Newton’s laws.” He tested Newton’s third law for himself, “both with devices suspended by rubber bands and by devices on floats.” He verified it, “conclusively.” “This, however, did not put a stop to my interest, but it made me realize that if a way to navigate space were to be discovered—or invented—it would be the result of a knowledge of physics and mathematics.” He changed high schools so that he could go after physics. He inquired of a firm of patent attorneys, in 1901, if a “Projecting Apparatus” he had invented could be patented. The firm thought it could, but apparently Goddard wasn’t ready yet to pursue patents. He wrote “The Navigation of Space,” and, a little later, “The Habitability of Other Worlds.” He told his high school graduation class that “the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” He had experimented by then with gyroscopes and thought of a machine-gun-like rocket propelled by cartridges fired successively in reverse. But the numbers were still wrong. He burned his notes and went off to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to study physics and math.
The dream would not down. “Anything is possible with the man who makes the best use of every minute of his time,” Goddard wrote in his diary in 1904. “If there is no law against it, why—then ‘twill happen some day,” he added early in 1905. He imagined a magnetically propelled express train sealed inside a vacuum tunnel that could make the Boston-New York run in ten minutes and wrote a short story about it as an English theme. Two patents for the train were issued to him posthumously, his first prior art. He still thought rockets were inherently inefficient and looked into atomic energy and propulsion by streams of ionized gas. “March 4, 1906. … Decided today that space navigation is a physical impossibility.” He had started keeping secret notebooks. They filled up with numbers as he mastered undergraduate science. He proposed “The Use of the Gyroscope in the Balancing and Steering of Airplanes,” apparently the first person anywhere to do so; Scientific American printed the proposal in a supplement on June 29, 1907, when he was twenty-five and still an undergraduate. He wrote again “On the Possibility of Navigating Interplanetary Space,” more learnedly this time, and concluded that space travel would depend on solving “the problem of atomic disintegration.” He graduated a bachelor of science from Tech, his thesis—it related to the basic physics of a device used in early radio—taking first prize. ” ‘The years forever fashion new dreams, when old ones go,’ ” he quoted in his diary at the end of 1908, adding, perhaps humorously, “God pity a one-dream man.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. …”
Such speculations are almost commonplace today; in 1918 they were revolutionary. Robert Goddard’s vision, messianic, was a vision of space travel as the only final salvation of his species. Thus the anniversary kept faithfully in his diary. Thus the lifetime of determined effort, the brilliant, sustained invention. Thus also the patents and the meticulous recording of priorities, the unwillingness to “play ball.” He might have sought wealth, he might have sired children, he might have promoted his talents to early fame: instead he devoted himself to the ultimate future of mankind. He was a quiet man, even a humble man, but in return for his unselfish devotion he wanted one intangible reward. He wanted the record straight. He wanted history to record that he, Robert Hutchings Goddard, a sickly New England boy slung dreaming in a backyard cherry tree, had conceived the means, the physical, corporeal means, by which the human race might at last escape the mire of the earth, the ultimate death of extinction. And he was right: he had.