On October 5, 138 years ago, in 1882, was born Robert H. Goddard, an American physicist from Massachusetts who became known for his works in this field of rocketry and was eventually acknowledged as the father of modern rocketry. Goddard received his early higher education from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, obtaining a bachelor’s in science in 1908 and then spent most of his academic career in Clark University, earning his doctorate, teaching and, pursuing his first experiments with rockets, eventually successfully testing the world’s first liquid-propelled rocket.

His pursuits quickly became a topic of national debate and, not without controversy. His theories and ambitions received extensive criticism, though unattainable and unrealistic: a moral and financial hurdle that almost led him to give up on his aspirations.

Robert H. Goddard
Robert H. Goddard Credits: Wikipedia

A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes

Goddard’s lifetime dedication to work in rocketry first began in 1907, when he attempted to fire a powdered rocket in the basement of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, causing large clouds of smoke and turning everyone’s attention towards what was considered rather obscure and bizarre work. In 1914, he eventually received two U.S. patents to fire both liquid and solid-fueled rockets.

Thus in 1915, he launched his first gunpowder rocket outside Clark University, where he had recently accepted a position and researcher and instructor. However, he quickly realized that his rocket designs were relatively inefficient and made his first improvements and changes to his machines, using de Laval nozzles which accelerated highly pressurized gases to convert the heat energy of this flow into valuable kinetic energy.

Dr. Robert H. Goddard at Clark University
Dr. Robert H. Goddard at Clark University

In 1917, Goddard was systematic and rigorous with his research on different types of gunpowder and the propulsion they provided and, as such, received funding from the Smithsonian Institution’s where he went on to explore the various uses of rocketry, notably, to release weather recording devices high up in the atmosphere, where sounding air-balloons could no longer peer. This research concluded in one of his most well-known studies entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, published in 1919, recapitulating his work and its mathematics. In addition, towards the end of his report, he also outlined the possibility of reaching the Moon using a rocket. However, this idea was received with great controversy.

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Liquid fueled rockets

After years of a close study of powdered fueled rockets, Goddard shifted his focus to the research and development of liquid-fueled rockets, coming up with a design whose basics are still used today. Robert Goddard’s key discovery was the crucial role that liquid oxygen could play in the fuel combustion of a rocket, working as a powerful oxidizer propellant.

Robert H. Goddard with 1st liquid fueled rocket
Robert H. Goddard, standing with the first liquid-fueled rocket. Image Credits: Wikipedia

He quickly realized that he could not power a rocket based on atmospheric oxygen as natural supply would run out at higher altitudes and as such, fueled his rocket thanks to the combustion of gasoline and liquid oxygen. This allowed him, on March 16, 1926, to successfully launch his first rocket using liquid fuel, reaching a height of around 12 meters and an average speed just shy of 100 kilometers per hour. Receiving different grants and funds, his research was able to continue and, he eventually published a conclusive paper recapitulating his research in 1936: “Liquid Propellant Rocket Development.”

Goddard’s achievement inspired many, including the German army, who began and program of research and development of long-range missiles using a liquid propellant, which they eventually put into use in 1931. As such, the stakes of war came into play in Goddard’s research and, as part of the effort, he worked for the navy between 1942 and 1945, creating experimental engines for the military.

Legacy

Dr. Goddard died on August 10, 1945, at the age of 62. Still, his legacy remained, and, in 1959, NASA newly established space flight center was dedicated to him: the Goddard Space Flight Center, which continues to operate, pursuing his dreams and pushing aspirations to new limits even after his death.

Moreover, when Apollo 11 was set off on its way to Mars in 1969, Buzz Aldrin carried with him a copy of Goddard’s biography, remembering him as the pioneer whose designs and experiment had fundamentally made this space flight possible. Rocket launches have become commonplace thanks to his effort to pursue what was firmly believed to be absurdities.

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