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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Robert Goddard Born, October 5, 1882

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Today in 1882, Robert Hutchings Goddard was born in Massachusetts. More than any other single person, Goddard is today considered the father of modern rocketry. His story is one of perseverance against sometimes harsh public criticism and technological failure.

Unlike most people, Robert Goddard knew the exact day on which his life's work came to be known to him: October 19, 1899. On that day, Goddard was climbing a cherry tree to trim some branches when he imagined a craft lifting off from the field below. He had recently read H.G. Wells' book War of the Worlds and so thought of such a lift-off as the beginning of a journey to Mars. From that day forward and for the rest of his life, Goddard would observe October 19th as the day on which he found his greatest inspiration.

After graduating first in his high school class, Goddard attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he earned a degree in physics. He then attended Clark University, where he earned his Masters and Ph.D. While at Clark, Goddard first wrote about the possibility of building a rocket powered by liquid fuel. At that time, powdered fuel was the norm. Goddard believed that liquid hydrogen with a liquid oxygen oxidizer would give a great boost in rocket engine efficiency.

Over the next few years, Goddard received two patents for his ideas about rocketry. The first patent was for a multi-stage rocket and the second was for a rocket powered by gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide. Goddard was already thinking outside the box, but these patents were only the first milestones in a monumental career.

During the First World War, Goddard began development of what would later become known as the bazooka. He demonstrated the weapon for the Army, but the war ended soon thereafter. Some years later, a researcher picked up where Goddard had left off. The bazooka became the premier man-portable anti-tank weapon of the Second World War.

In 1919, Goddard's first book was published, entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. It is considered today to be the most important early book about the science of rocketry and was read the world over by other researchers in the field, including an engineer in Germany named Werhner von Braun. The book gained Goddard some attention, but this was not something he sought or, in the end, appreciated. His life's work would be effected greatly by the criticism he withstood at the hands of misinformed and uneducated newspaper reporters and editors.

For example, in January, 1920, The New York Times ran a story based on a Smithsonian press release in which an idea was put forward to send a rocket to impact on the moon. Since Goddard was mentioned in the story, it was assumed that the moon mission was his idea. The next day, the paper ran an editorial in which Goddard was accused of not understanding the basic laws of physics. At the time, it was believed that a rocket would not work outside of the Earth's atmosphere, and so the moon mission seemed farcical. The paper's mocking tone hurt Goddard deeply, to the point where he began to work mostly alone and mistrust many of those who he had once considered trusted associates.

Goddard achieved his dream of a liquid-fueld rocket in March, 1926. The craft lifted only 41 feet off the ground, but it proved that liquid propellants were more efficient than the solid fuels used at that time. Goddard continued his research over the next few years, eventually gaining the attention of famed aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh believed that rocket-powered aircraft were the future of the aviation industry and was impressed with the results Goddard had achieved. The two formed a partnership that would endure for the remainder of Goddard's life.

As his rockets became larger and potentially more dangerous, Goddard moved his operation to Roswell, New Mexico when it was still a small desert community and NOT a Mecca for UFO conspiracy theorists. There, he began to consider the practical applications of his work and tried to convince the US Army that it needed to help fund his research. But the military budget was thin during the 1930's and the Army did not see an immediate application for rockets. Across the Atlantic, however, another army would come to understand the importance of the technology all too well.

It is not an exaggeration to say that without Goddard's published research, Wernher von Braun and his team of German scientists would not have achieved their success with rockets in time for their use during the Second World War. Before the beginning of the war in Europe, German scientists would even contact Goddard directly with questions concerning his research. The Nazi regime in Berlin even planted a spy among Goddard's inner circle who made sure that all his inventions and discoveries made their way into German hands. As a result, Germany introduced the world to a brand new genre of terror weapon: the ballistic missile. Known as the V-2, it was used in the last year of the war against targets in England, Belgium and elsewhere.

Goddard spent most of the war years working for the US Navy on various experimental aircraft designs. When the war ended in Europe in May, 1945, he was finally able to inspect a V-2 firsthand and saw how heavily his research had influenced the design. Goddard's designs would go on to form the basis of the world's manned missions into space.

Unfortunately, he would not live to see one of his designs leave the Earth. On August 10, 1945, Goddard died of throat cancer in Baltimore, Maryland. He was 62. Twenty-four years later, as the Apollo 11 mission raced to the moon, The New York Times published a correction to it's 1920 editorial criticizing Goddard by stating that, indeed, it appears that rockets do work as well in a vacuum as they do in Earth's atmosphere.

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