Robert H. Goddard


Robert Hutchings Goddard is regarded as the father of modern rocket propulsion who conducted both theoretical and experimental research on rocket motors and spaceflight.

Goddard was born in 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts in an old New England family. He was interested in science and engineering since his childhood, partly due to the encouragement of his father, who taught him how to generate static electricity and later provided him with a telescope, microscope and a subscription to Scientific American. Goddard was particularly interested in flight – kites and balloons and at the age of sixteen, he tried constructing an aluminum balloon. Around the same time he was greatly inspired by H.G. Wells’ science fiction The War of The Worlds and decided to dedicate his life to the pursuit of space flight.

While still in school Goddard read Newton’s Principia Mathematica and found that his Third Law of Motion also applied to motion in space. In 1904, he enrolled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and he received a Bachelor’s degree in physics in 1908. For graduate studies he went to Clark University and got both his M.A. and PhD in physics from there. In 1912, he joined the Palmer Physical Laboratory at Princeton University as a research fellow. He published science articles in the Scientific American and Popular Science. However, he had to leave the position due to poor health and moved to Worcester.

Goddard’s first two landmark patents were accepted and registered in 1914. One of them was a multi-stage rocket and the other was a rocket fueled with gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide, and both were to become crucial in the further development of rocketry. By 1915, he had joined Clark University as an instructor and research fellow, which gave him the resources to continue his rocketry research conducting static tests of powder rockets to measure their thrust efficiency. He found that powder rockets were converting only 2% of their fuel into thrust. In a few years he had achieved 63% thrust efficiency. The expenses of is experiments on rocketry were sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society and the Aero Club of America. In 1919, the Smithsonian published his groundbreaking work, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.

During World War I, when many American universities began to contribute to the war effort, Goddard explored possible military applications of his rocket research. In a 1920 report to the Smithsonian he outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching the moon but this generated a lot of public ridicule, both from the press and from skeptical scientists. In the 1920s Goddard began experimenting with liquid fuel rockets and launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926 in Auburn Massachusetts. By 1929, the aviator and social activist Charles Lindbergh started taking an interest in Goddard and they formed a lifelong alliance. Lindbergh tried to get funding for Goddard from private investors but the stock market crash made it very difficult to get sponsorship. But finally in 1930, he got financial support from the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1936, the Smithsonian published his work ‘Liquid Propellant Rocket Development’.

During World War II, Goddard once again extended his services to the war effort. He was assigned by the U.S. Navy for the development of practical jet assisted takeoff and liquid propellant rocket motors capable of variable thrust. Goddard was anxious that the Germans had stolen his research. Due to this and his distrust of the press, Goddard avoided sharing the details of his research. Towards the end of his life, Goddard joined the American Rocket Society and became a director. In 1945, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and died soon after. After his death, there started a lawsuit which ended in 1960 with the U.S. army and NASA paying an award of $1 million to his wife Esther. Goddard is credited with 214 patents, out of which 131 were awarded after his death, after long years of struggle by his wife.