On a snowy day in 1926, a 44-year-old physicist named Robert Goddard went with his wife Esther and some colleagues to his Aunt Effie’s ranch in Auburn, Massachusetts. What happened next was not a typical day on the farm. The group tested the first liquid-fueled rocket.
The motor, no larger than a roll of paper towels, powered the rocket to 41 feet in the air. At 60 miles per hour, the capsule landed in a cabbage patch 60 yards away. Although the results barely compared to the measurements of an NFL field goal attempt, the events of that day in Auburn, Massachusetts launched the first of many efforts to reach space. Or to use the title of Dr. Goddard’s favorite Jules Verne book: to go From the Earth to the Moon.
Tech Briefs spoke with writer and editor Rob Garner about the life of the fascinating, humble man whose name graces NASA’s first facility: Goddard Space Flight Center. Goddard’s efforts, Garner says, are seen in the agency’s present-day spaceflight missions and in the private-sector rocket initiatives happening today.
Tech Briefs: How did Robert Goddard get interested in rockets and propulsion?
Rob Garner, Office of Communications, NASA Goddard: For Isaac Newton, there’s the story of how the apple had a role to play in the laws of motion and gravity. In Dr. Goddard’s case, there was a cherry tree that he gave at least some credit to. In 1899, he was a teenager, and his family sent him out to clip some dead limbs from a tree on the property. I have a page from Dr. Goddard’s notes, how he recalled that event later:
"It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet. I was a different boy when I descended the ladder. Life now had a purpose for me."
And really, from that moment onward, rocketry was part of Dr. Goddard’s life. His undergraduate work was at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He did his Master’s and Doctorate work at Clark University, all in physics. During his class time, he studied physics, and when he wasn’t in the classroom, he worked on rocketry.
Tech Briefs: Take us through the day of the launch of the first liquid-fueled rocket.
Garner: Dr. Goddard was developing the theories behind liquid-fueled and multi-stage rockets just a few years after the first Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903. After about 15 years of intense theoretical work and static tests in basement labs, he had his first rocket launch.
The first liquid-fueled rocket launch took place on a snowy afternoon on March 16th, 1926. He, his wife, and his colleagues drove out to his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Mass. This rocket was ten feet tall, but most of that height was in the scaffolding. The rocket motor itself was scarcely larger than a roll of paper towels. This first launch rose 41 feet in the air. It managed 60 miles per hour and landed 60 yards away. This first rocket landed in a little cabbage patch: 184 feet away from where it took off, after only 2.5 seconds.
Tech Briefs: What happens next? What does Goddard do after the launch?
Garner: Dr. Goddard was able to secure some funding from the Smithsonian Institute to develop his theories and hardware to test rocketry out. That’s what earned him the notice of Charles Lindbergh, who became an enthusiastic supporter and was instrumental in connecting him to the Guggenheim Foundation. Funding there allowed Dr. Goddard to move out of basements and sheds in Massachusetts to the wide-open spaces of New Mexico.
The sophistication of his setup there involved small plywood structures. The launch control panel had three buttons: one to start the ignition, one to start the flow of fuel, and one to cut the flow of fuel off in the case of emergency. You can imagine: There’s a man standing in a plywood shack, rolling wires out to a gantry, sitting behind with these rudimentary on/off knobs. It’s a fair sight different from what a launch control room looks like today.
Dr. Goddard had to rely on the kinds of parts that he could buy commercially or make for himself. I think it would be akin to the “skunkworks” that you can think of today, of just scrounging up what you can put together with what you have on hand.
Tech Briefs: What parts of today’s spaceflight efforts are a direct result of Goddard’s work?
Garner: During World War II, the U.S. Army had him working to develop jet-assisted takeoff technology to get planes in the air off of shorter runways. It was really at that point that the US began to really appreciate the true potential of what rockets could do.
A minor tragedy of history is that Goddard didn’t live long enough himself to see any of this come to true fruition. He passed away in 1945. Had he lived just four more years, he would’ve seen the first rocket to ever reach space, which was a modified German V2 rocket, topped off with an American sounding rocket.
After World War II, Dr. Goddard certainly began to attract, posthumously, a great deal of attention. Very nearly everything that flies today has a liquid-fueled rocket to it. All the work that goes on now in human spaceflight — the study of the Earth, the planets, the solar system, the stars, the whole universe — all began in a snowy field in 1926 in Massachusetts when Goddard launched his first rocket.
Tech Briefs: How would you compare the private-sector rocket work being done today to Goddard's efforts?
Garner: Goddard’s own team was barely a half dozen people. It was him, his wife, and four or so colleagues doing all this work themselves. If Dr. Goddard were alive today, I hope he would be gratified to see how broad that landscape is. There is an intense degree of cooperation along government and private-sector work on rockets.
Tech Briefs: Do you have any other thoughts on Goddard that you’d like to share?
Garner: The director at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which bears Robert Goddard’s name, likes to close his presentations with one of Dr. Goddard’s quotes: “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” It’s an inspirational statement. It’s with me any time I come to work, because it is the dreams and hopes that we will be turning into reality.
Goddard was founded in 1959 as the first NASA space flight center. Goddard himself was so much an engineer and a scientist, all rolled into one. He had the training as physicist in the scientific realm, but he also got his hands dirty, constructing the rockets and drawing out the plans himself. Given that those two qualities exist so much symbiotically in him, and because it’s so much of the fabric of the work we do here, I can’t think of a more perfect identifier for our center.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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