Written by Jonathan O’Callaghan
One hundred years ago in 1914 a man was granted two patents, one for liquid-fuelled rockets and another for multi-stage rockets. The patents went largely unnoticed but, although it wasn’t appreciated at the time, they signified the beginning of the era of modern rocketry. The patents were granted to a man named Robert Hutchings Goddard, who led a troubled life as he battled with criticism and poor health to design, build and develop the first rockets from which our modern marvels are derived.
Goddard was born on 5 October 1882 in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. From an early age, as electric power was introduced into American cities, Goddard became fascinated by science and technology and was readily encouraged by his father. An epiphany of sorts came for him at the age of 17 when, perched atop a cherry tree, he “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars”, as he later recalled.
In 1907 he had his first taste of rocketry at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, when he attempted to propel a small rocket with gunpowder. In 1909 he began his graduate studies at Clark University in Worcester, before accepting a research fellowship at Princeton University’s Palmer Physical Laboratory in 1912.
In the years preceding Princeton, however, Goddard had already begun writing his theories on space travel. Unfortunately, he did not find much support for his ideas and in 1913 he was also struck with a severe bout of tuberculosis. Undeterred he pushed ahead on the mathematics of rocket travel, although he kept his true intentions of developing a vehicle for space exploration a secret as he was often met with harsh criticism from those who believed such dreams were impossible.
By 1914, as mentioned earlier, he had registered his first two landmark patents, one on liquid-fuelled rockets and the other on multi-stage rockets. The following year he began to theorise that rockets would work in a vacuum, enabling space travel, but still his ideas garnered little attention.
In fact, when Goddard published his astonishingly groundbreaking paper in 1919, ‘A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes’, he was derided in the press for his suggestion that rockets could be used to take payloads to the Moon. “Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools,” read an editorial in the New York Times. 50 years later, when Apollo 11 was on its way to the Moon on 17 July 1969, propelled by the very rocket technology Goddard had pioneered, the paper would print a rather embarrassing retraction.
The public backlash Goddard experienced caused him to become rather reclusive. He became very apprehensive with regards to sharing his work and would often work alone in order to avoid confrontation or argument. In 1926, despite his seclusion, he launched the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket using gasoline and liquid oxygen as propellant. Although it rose to just 12.5 metres (41 feet), it was an important moment in rocket history.
Goddard would continue to develop and perfect his designs throughout the 1930s, when he began to receive significantly more support for his ideas. He kept working until his death on 10 August 1945, after which is wife Esther Kisk posthumously registered over a hundred of his patents that had gone unpublished.
Despite his limited support, Goddard’s work remains arguably the most significant contribution to space travel. Perhaps somewhat sombrely, it was only after his death that the USA and Soviet Union began to truly toy with the idea of rocket travel and, ultimately, send humans into space and to the Moon. A man perhaps ahead of his time, the legacy of Robert Goddard will remain as long as rockets are sent into space, while one of NASA’s major space science laboratories, the Goddard Space Flight Center, ensures his work will not be forgotten.
Image Credit: NASA