Derby and District Astronomical Society

The Journal of the Derby and District Astronomical Society
Winter 2007-2008

Robert Hutchings Goddard
By Malcolm Neal

Robert Hutchings Goddard
Robert Hutchings Goddard

Robert Hutchings Goddard was the pioneer of liquid fuelled rockets that ultimately led the way to the Moon. However this knowledge was passed on via German researchers who took more notice of what he was doing than did the Americans at the time. Born October 5th 1882 and died August 10th 1945 he died young and never saw the fruits of his experiments with rocketry. It was as early as 1926 that he launched the first ever-liquid fuelled rocket. It was a tiny projectile as shown by the image below. Eventually his rockets reached speeds of well over 500 mph but they never reached space.

He was born at Worcester Massachusetts and was an only child. Even early in his childhood he showed a scientific bent, experimenting with static electricity and soon became interested in flight first via kite flying and later balloons. Like many of us it was science fiction in the form of stories by H.G. Wells that turned his interest towards space and the means of getting there. His early education was troubled mainly through his poor health but he proved to be a very able student and eventually enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he obtained his bachelors degree in 1908. Whilst there he was interested in gyroscopes as ways of ensuring controlled (balanced) flight. This interest led to an article published in Scientific American, a journal still very much alive. He first mentioned the possibility of liquid fuelled rockets in 1909 using as oxidiser, liquid oxygen, and as a fuel, liquid hydrogen. He correctly assumed that there would be a greater propellant effect than using the gunpowder-based fuels of the time.

He gained an MA in 1910 and this was followed very quickly, the next year by his PhD, both from Clark University. The next year he moved to Princeton University where he had been offered a research fellowship. At Princeton his interests were in electronics and he took out many patents in this field. However at the same time he also took out patents in the field of liquid fuelled rockets the most notable being The first, Patent No. 1,102,653, July 7th 1914, which described a multi-stage rocket and the second, Patent No. 1,103,503, issued just a week later described a rocket fuelled with petrol and liquid nitrous oxide. The two patents would become milestones in the history of rocketry. His rocket research was however outstripping his ability to pay for it as he only earned a small amount as a lecturer back at Clark University, to which he had returned in 1914. In 1916 he applied for and was given a grant of some $5000 dollars from the Smithsonian Institute to continue his research into rocket motors. This cash was to last a five year period. His researches at this time also involved potential weapons and he did the groundwork for, and demonstrated, a very early bazooka that eventually became a standard weapon in World War Two.

Robert H. Goddard standing next to his liquid fuelled rocket prior to its launch
Robert H. Goddard standing next to his liquid fuelled rocket prior to its launch

In 1919 the Smithsonian published Goddard’s book – A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, that described his ideas, theories etc. regarding both solid and liquid fuelled rockets. This was believed to have interested Werner von Braun and his V2 research for the German military. Unfortunately, the book was sensationalised by the New York Times and this lead to him becoming a rather unsociable figure. He made no real claims about reaching the Moon, etc. but this was the thrust of the newspaper and it seems to have been taken up by many other national and local newspapers. One local paper after an aborted rocket test stated that he had missed the Moon by 238,799.5 miles! His very first flight was all of 40 feet and lasted 2.5 seconds in March 1926 (picture at right). His rocket flights came to the attention of Charles Lindberg who saw rockets as the next step beyond aviation and the two became very good friends. Lindberg helped finance the rocketry research eventually through the Guggenheims who gave substantial funds over $100,000 over four years and would continue to support him for the rest of his research life.

With better finance, his research moved to New Mexico, as it was more remote. He worked for more than 10 years and made significant developments and even tried to interest the U.S Army in his work but they were simply not interested. The Germans were interested and made many contacts, even direct person-to-person contact on occasion. They even set up a spy network around him to report his many developments and so help the V2 program. Goddard however gave up the majority of his rocket research following the Army’s negative reaction and instead threw his considerable ability into developing experimental aircraft. After the end of the Second World War he was able to inspect V2 rockets and recognised much of his own research and even similar components within the rocket bodies and motors. Goddard’s life came to an abrupt end when he discovered he had throat cancer in 1945 and died very soon after without doing any more work in rocketry.

He may not have reached space or even the upper atmosphere with his rockets but there is no doubt that without his research the V2 would possibly not have been developed and so the Americans may not have spirited away von Braun and his fellow workers at the end of the war to kick start their own attempts to get into space. Quite rightly Goddard is known as the father of space travel.