The day after Apollo XI launched, The New York Times published a short correction to an article that had graced its front page more than 49 years earlier. “Believes Rocket Can Reach Moon” was an article published on January 12, 1920, dismissing and indeed mocking the research of Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882–1945). The Times, and most of the rest of the world, had been under the impression that Newton’s third law of motion required atmosphere to create equal and opposite reactions which implied rockets would not work in the vacuum of space.
Goddard was crucial to the development of ballistic missiles, space travel, atmospheric research, and many of the technologies that make it all possible. As a child he suffered from poor health and as a result struggled in school. After falling behind, he began to educate himself. He read Newton’s Principia and the works of Samuel Langley and began to investigate their conclusions for himself. He disagreed with Langley, in part, but he made a stunning realization about Newton’s third law — it didn’t prohibit space travel, it may even assist it!
With improving health, Goddard pursued an education in physics with a focus on the stabilization and control of flight. In 1909 he began studying the possibility of increasing rocket efficiency by switching to liquid-propulsion (specifically liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen). Within three years, Goddard could calculate the position and velocity of a rocket given its weight. As he was gaining insight toward what would become the first patent on a multistage rocket, Goddard came down with tuberculosis. When his doctors said they expected it to be terminal, he maintained, “I have to live to do this work.”
In 1914, after allowing himself only one hour per day to work while he recovered, Goddard registered two of the benchmark patents that would launch modern rocketry — one each for multistage and liquid-fueled rockets. Once again, his health began to recover and his intuition began to prove correct. Solid rockets, he found, were 2% efficient, but with the help of de Laval nozzles, his liquid engines were 64% efficient, a ground-breaking achievement!
Unable to support his experiments through his salary as a researcher, Goddard found funding from the Smithsonian Institution and later by rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Charles Lindbergh, James Doolittle, Daniel Guggenheim, and H.G. Welles.
The Smithsonian published Goddard’s research in a 1919 report called A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes. The work, though now thought to be a work of genius, was belittled by most including the NYT. When The Times asked for a quote, Goddard said, “Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it, once realized, it becomes commonplace.” In a monumental achievement, on March 16, 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket. His hometown paper reported, “Moon rocket misses target by 238,799 miles”. No one in the U.S. was paying attention but German engineers, including Wernher von Braun, used it as the starting point for their work. As early as 1923 Goddard was worried about the disparity of interest. In a letter to the Smithsonian he said he “would not be surprised if his research would become something in the nature of a race”.
Goddard was always a very private individual who was protective of his work. The negative publicity and lack of support hampered his progress and the Germans quickly outpaced his results.
During World War II, he attempted to assist the war effort with his research until his health deteriorated again. He passed away from throat cancer in 1945. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Langley Gold Medal, 241 patents, and Daniel Guggenheim Medal as well as being the namesake for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
At his valedictorian address in 1904, Goddard remarked, “It has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
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