Robert Goddard was a theoretical physicist as well as a talented engineer. He taught at Clark University, Worcester, Mass., beginning in 1914, and became director of the school’s Physical Laboratory in 1923.
The first liquid-fueled rocket featured the thrust chamber and nozzle located above the fuel supply, with gasoline and liquid oxygen fed to the engine by tubes forming the rocket’s frame. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Goddard with supporters in New Mexico, 1935. (left to right) Assistant Albert Kisk, financier Harry Guggenheim, Goddard, Charles Lindbergh and assistants Nils Ljungquist and Charles Mansur. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Goddard and his team work on a rocket without its out casing in Roswell, N.M. in 1940. Left to right are Goddard, machinist Nils Ljungquist, machinist and Goddard’s brother-in-law Albert Kisk; and welder Charles Mansur. (U.S. Air Force photo)
"It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow." - Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945)
Physicist and inventor Dr. Robert H. Goddard is considered the father of practical modern rocketry and space flight. In the early 20th century, he conceived many key concepts for later development of ballistic missiles, earth-orbiting satellites and interplanetary exploration. The U.S. Air Force's strategic missile and space launch capabilities are built on the foundations laid by this American pioneer.
As a young man, Goddard was inspired by science fiction, and he became convinced that space travel was possible with rockets. In 1914 Goddard patented the concept of multi-stage rockets and liquid-fueled rockets. In 1920 he wrote about the possibility of a rocket going fast enough to leave the earth's atmosphere, and even reaching the moon. The press ridiculed Goddard's ideas and the government paid little attention to his work.
His ideas, however, found a following in Germany, which later took many of Goddard's ideas to develop the V-2 rocket, the only operational ballistic missile used during World War II.
Pioneering Rocket Work
Goddard registered more than 200 patents related to rockets. His most important experimental breakthrough came in 1926, when he built and tested the first successful liquid-fueled rocket. On March 16, in a field near Worcester, Massachusetts, his rocket flew for just 2.5 seconds and rose to a height of only 41 feet, but it proved that liquid-fueled rockets worked. Eventually he needed a larger area to safely launch rockets, and Goddard moved his research to Roswell, N.M., in 1930.
There, Goddard and a small team of assistants built rockets which used high-speed pumps to deliver fuel to rocket engines, another fundamental idea still in use today. His most significant effort in New Mexico came in 1941, when one of his rockets rose to a height of 9,000 feet. After the U.S. entered WWII, Goddard tried to convince the military of the potential value of rockets, but the government saw no usefulness to the war effort in his research. Disappointed, Goddard instead went to the U.S. Navy to work on jet-assisted takeoff rockets for aircraft, and to develop a "throttleable" rocket engine.
Influence on Space and Missiles Goddard's ideas established several fundamentals of modern rocketry and space flight. Along with his mathematical calculations establishing the idea of "escape velocity" (the speed required to break away from earth's gravitational pull), Goddard proved that rockets would provide thrust in a vacuum, that is, they would work outside of the earth's atmosphere.
In addition to building and launching the first liquid-fueled rocket, Goddard also was the first to put scientific instruments on a rocket. Among his other inventions was the concept of using gyroscopes to stabilize rockets, and steering rockets by using moveable vanes to deflect exhaust gas. Goddard also pioneered "film cooling" using a rocket's liquid fuel to cool the engine and keep it from melting. This key technical feature can be seen in the German V-2 and many other modern rocket engines, some developed in the U.S. after WW II in part by the same German engineers who were influenced by Goddard's pre-war work.
Goddard was not credited for his pioneering work until after his death in 1945 at age 62. In 1959 Congress recognized him with a gold medal, and only then was he rightly honored as the "father of space flight." That same year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), named the Goddard Space Flight Center, Md., in his honor. In 1960 the government awarded his estate $1 million for the use of his many rocket patents.
Finally, the New York Times -- having famously ridiculed Goddard's intellect in 1920 -- admitted it was wrong after Apollo 11 lifted off on its way to the moon in 1969.