Robert Goddard launched the space age with a 10-ft. rocket in a New England cabbage field Robert Goddard was not a happy man when he read his copy of The New York Times on Jan. 13, 1920. For some time, he had feared he might be in for a pasting in the press, but when he picked up the paper that day, he was stunned.
Not long before, Goddard, a physics professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., had published an arid little paper on an outrageous topic, rocket travel. Unlike most of his colleagues, Goddard believed rocketry was a viable technology, and his paper, primly titled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” was designed to prove it. For the lay reader, there wasn’t much in the writing to excite interest, but at the end, the buttoned-up professor unbuttoned a bit. If you used his technology to build a rocket big enough, he argued, and if you primed it with fuel that was powerful enough, you just might be able to reach the moon with it.
Goddard meant his moon musings to be innocent enough, but when the Times saw them, it pounced. As anyone knew, the paper explained with an editorial eye roll, space travel was impossible, since without atmosphere to push against, a rocket could not move so much as an inch. Professor Goddard, it was clear, lacked “the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
Goddard seethed. It wasn’t just that the editors got the science all wrong. It wasn’t just that they didn’t care for his work. It was that they had made him out a fool. Say what you will about a scientist’s research, but take care when you defame the scientist. On that day, Goddard – who would ultimately be hailed as the father of modern rocketry – sank into a quarter-century sulk from which he never fully emerged. And from that sulk came some of the most incandescent achievements of his age.
Born in 1882, Goddard was a rocket man before he was a man at all. From childhood, he had an instinctive feel for all things pyrotechnic; he was intrigued by the infernal powders that fuel firecrackers and sticks of tnt. Figure out how to manage that chemical violence, he knew, and you could do some ripping-good flying.
As a student and professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later at Clark, Goddard tried to figure out just how. Fooling around with the arithmetic of propulsion, he calculated the energy-to-weight ratio of various fuels. Fooling around with airtight chambers, he found that a rocket could indeed fly in a vacuum, thanks to Newton’s laws of action and reaction. Fooling around with basic chemistry, he learned, most important, that if he hoped to launch a missile very far, he could never do it with the poor black powder that had long been the stuff of rocketry. Instead, he would need something with real propulsive oomph – a liquid like kerosene or liquid hydrogen, mixed with liquid oxygen to allow combustion to take place in the airless environment of space. Fill a missile with that kind of fuel, and you could retire black powder for good.
For nearly 20 years, Goddard’s theories were just theories. When he’d build a rocket and carry it out to a field, it never flew anywhere at all. When he’d return to Clark, fizzled missile in hand, he’d be greeted by a colleague asking, as was his habit, “Well, Robert, how goes your moongoing rocket?” When he steeled himself to publish his work, the Times made him wish he hadn’t.
Finally, all that changed. On March 16, 1926, Goddard finished building a spindly, 10-ft. rocket he dubbed Nell, loaded it into an open car and trundled it out to his aunt Effie’s nearby farm. He set up the missile in a field, then summoned an assistant, who lit its fuse with a blowtorch attached to a long stick. For an instant the rocket did nothing at all, then suddenly it leaped from the ground and screamed into the sky at 60 m.p.h. Climbing to an altitude of 41 ft., it arced over, plummeted earthward and slammed into a frozen cabbage patch 184 ft. away. The entire flight lasted just 2 1/2 sec. – but that was 2 1/2 sec. longer than any liquid-fueled rocket had ever managed to fly before.
Goddard was thrilled with his triumph but resolved to say little about it. If people thought him daft when he was merely designing rockets, who knew what they’d say when the things actually started to fly? When word nonetheless leaked out about the launch and inquiries poured into Clark, Goddard answered each with a pinched, “Work is in progress; there is nothing to report.” When he finished each new round of research, he’d file it under a deliberately misleading title – “Formulae for Silvering Mirrors,” for example – lest it fall into the wrong hands.
But rockets are hard to hide, and as Goddard’s Nells grew steadily bigger, the town of Worcester caught on. In 1929, an 11-ft. missile caused such a stir the police were called. Where there are police there is inevitably the press, and next day the local paper ran the horse-laughing headline: MOON ROCKET MISSES TARGET BY 238,799 1/2 MILES. For Goddard, the East Coast was clearly becoming a cramped place to be. In 1930, with the promise of a $100,000 grant from financier Harry Guggenheim, Goddard and his wife Esther headed west to Roswell, N.Mex., where the land was vast and the launch weather good, and where the locals, they were told, minded their business.
In the open, roasted stretches of the Western scrub, the fiercely private Goddard thrived. Over the next nine years, his Nells grew from 12 ft. to 16 ft. to 18 ft., and their altitude climbed from 2,000 ft. to 7,500 ft. to 9,000 ft. He built a rocket that exceeded the speed of sound and another with fin-stabilized steering, and he filed dozens of patents for everything from gyroscopic guidance systems to multistage rockets.
By the late 1930s, however, Goddard grew troubled. He had noticed long before that of all the countries that showed an interest in rocketry, Germany showed the most. Now and then, German engineers would contact Goddard with a technical question or two, and he would casually respond. But in 1939 the Germans suddenly fell silent. With a growing concern over what might be afoot in the Reich, Goddard paid a call on Army officials in Washington and brought along some films of his various Nells. He let the generals watch a few of the launches in silence, then turned to them. “We could slant it a little,” he said simply, “and do some damage.” The officers smiled benignly at the missile man, thanked him for his time and sent him on his way. The missile man, however, apparently knew what he was talking about. Five years later, the first of Germany’s murderous V-2 rockets blasted off for London. By 1945, more than 1,100 of them had rained down on the ruined city.
Rebuffed by the Army, Goddard spent World War II on sabbatical from rocketry, designing experimental airplane engines for the Navy. When the war ended, he quickly returned to his preferred work. As his first order of business, he hoped to get his hands on a captured V-2. From what he had heard, the missiles sounded disturbingly like his more peaceable Nells. Goddard’s trusting exchanges with German scientists had given Berlin at least a glimpse into what he was designing. What’s more, by 1945 he had filed more than 200 patents, all of which were available for inspection. When a captured German scientist was asked about the origin of the V-2, he was said to have responded, “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard? He knows better than any of us.” When some V-2s finally made their way to the U.S. and Goddard had a chance to autopsy one, he instantly recognized his own handiwork. “Isn’t this your rocket?” an assistant asked as they poked around its innards. “It seems to be,” Goddard replied flatly.
Goddard accepted paternity of his bastard V-2, and that, as it turned out, was the last rocket he fathered while alive. In 1945 he was found to have throat cancer, and before the year was out, he was dead. His technological spawn, however, did not stop. American scientists worked alongside emigre German scientists to incorporate Goddard’s innovations into the V-2, turning the killer missile into the Redstone, which put the first Americans into space. The Redstone led directly to the Saturn moon rockets, and indirectly to virtually every other rocket the U.S. has ever flown.
Though Goddard never saw a bit of it, credit would be given him, and – more important to a man who so disdained the press – amends would be made. After Apollo 11 lifted off en route to humanity’s first moon landing, The New York Times took a bemused backward glance at a tart little editorial it had published 49 years before. “Further investigation and experimentation,” said the paper in 1969, “have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century, and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.” The grim Professor Goddard might not have appreciated the humor, but he would almost certainly have accepted the apology.