Robert H. Goddard: Biography, Rockets & Inventions

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Robert Goddard is called the 'father of modern rockery.' His designed and launched the first liquid fueled rocket and the Goddard Space Flight Center is named after him in his honor.

Makings of a Scientist

Can you imagine being the first person to develop the rocket? At a time when most people thought of space flight as more science fiction than fact, Robert H. Goddard dared to envisage a world in which space flight became the norm. Goddard was born in October 1882 in Worchester, Massachusetts. His father worked various jobs but toyed with inventions that influenced the young Goddard to study science. Goddard was also influenced by the science fiction writings of H.G. Wells, which inspired him to pursue a career in science. More directly, it was Wells' vision in his War of the Worlds that people might travel to outer space that caught his attention.

Robert H. Goddard
Robert Goddard

Goddard graduated from Worchester Polytechnic Institute in 1908 and earned his doctorate in physics at Clark University. In 1919, Goddard married Esther Christine Kisk, whom he knew from Clark University. They never had children, but she was influential in helping him with his research and cataloging his research papers after his death. Goddard lived at the cusp of a new era where flight, rockets, nuclear fusion, and space travel existed more in the realm of theory than fact. Goddard was among a handful of scientists determined to advance rocket related research. The key was getting people to take him seriously.

Early Research and Publications

Clark's research opportunities came through two primary avenues. First he taught at Princeton for a year, but he primarily taught for several years at Clark University where he earned his doctorate. Second, he maintained a long-term relationship with the distinguished Smithsonian Institute, which funded and published much of his research. In 1914, he secured two patents. One was for a liquid-fueled rocket and a second for a multi-staged rocket using solid fuel. Goddard's first major publication was his article, 'A Method Reaching Extreme Altitudes' (1919) which charted new paths on the effect of high altitudes.

Photo of Goddards First Rocket Launch
Robert Goddard and His Rocket

This was followed in 1920 with more expanded research in his 'Report on Further Development of the Rocket Method of Investigating Space.' His research involved the mathematical relationship and requirements between energy, weight, and fuel for rockets. In one of many experiments, he demonstrated that propulsion could take place in a vacuum, rather than needing an object to push against. This was a key breakthrough, as it demonstrated how rockets could move through space in a vacuum-free environment. In 1936, he published another article titled 'Liquid Propellant Rocket Development' which further expanded his applications.

The Rocket is Born

Although both German and Russian physicists were working on similar research, many physicists found his views unrealistic. Goddard proved them all wrong when on March 16, 1926 he successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket was only ten feet in length, but flew at a distance of 184 feet in 2.5 seconds. Although it may seem limited, it was a revolutionary beginning and his feat was often compared with that of the Wright Brothers. Over the next few years, he commenced more launches with more advanced models. For example, in July 1929, his new model had a barometer, camera, thermometer, and was equipped with a parachute.

His growing fame won him much attention in the aviation world. Due to their mutual aviation interests, Goddard befriended famed aviator Charles Lindbergh who took an interest in Goddard's research. This relationship proved financially beneficial as well. Like many industries, funding dried up during the Great Depression, but Lindbergh secured Goddard much needed research funding from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation through his own connections.

Smithsonian Institute
Smithsonian Institute

Military Applications

It was natural that someone with Goddard's talents would be recruited by the military. In the First World War, he developed a hand-held rocket launcher for the Army which was an early model of the bazooka. Impressed, the U.S. Navy hired him following the war to experiment with armor-piercing weapons. During the Second World War, he worked for the U.S. Navy, again on rockets. In addition to the barometer, camera, and thermometer mentioned above, other innovative improvements included the gyroscopic control, which helped with rotation and directionality, and a gimbal steering device to further help with rotation.

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