“crackpots” who were right 13: Robbert Goddard

Today the term “Rocket Science” is used as a metaphor for any kind of engineering endeavor that requires a mind of the highest caliber. In fact the standard technology for putting something into orbit is a liquid fueled rocket combining kerosene and liquid oxygen to propel a series of rocket stages, while using gyroscopes and steerable thrust to stabilise motion. It is remarkable then, that all these innovations were developed by one man working quietly without much support at a time when most people thought the idea of space travel was no more than a crazy dream to be found in science fiction. That man was Robbert Goddard.

As a young man in Massachusetts at the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Goddard looked skywards and observed the flight of birds. At the time most people thought that controlled flight would never be a possibility for a man-made machine, but Goddard was one of those who thought differently, and he was no mere dreamer. Already he understood enough physics to work out the theory of flight. He was also an experimenter who had worked with kites and balloons to understand how flight could be possible. In 1907 at the age of 25 he published a paper in “Scientific American” about a method for “balancing aeroplanes”.

His young age and lack of facilities meant that Goddard was not destined to contribute further to the achievements of early powered flight that were just getting under way. Instead he turned to idea that rockets might be used to take men much higher, even into space. In 1909 he made his first innovation when he realised that liquid fuels would be superior to solid fuels for high-powered rockets. While at Princeton a few years later he was struck with tuberculosis and returned to his home town. This gave him the time to turn his ideas into practice. In 1915 he launched his first prototype liquid fueled rockets.

Although his early flights did not get more than a few hundred meters off the ground, Goddard could see that the principle could be scaled up. In 1919 he published a book entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” with the backing of the Smithsonian Institute. The book went far beyond what anybody else thought possible at the time. It culminated with the suggestion of an experiment to send a rocket beyond Earth’s atmosphere and on to the moon where he hoped its impact could be observed through telescopes.

It is not surprising that such ideas were met with skepticism at the time, but the scale of ridicule and mockery from the US press in reaction to Goddard’s work must have come as quite a shock. The New York Times was particularly vehement. The journalists thought that it would be impossible for a rocket to work beyond the atmosphere because it would have nothing to push against. They lambasted Goddard for his failure to appreciate basic high school physics. Of course it was them who were being ignorant.

The public backlash forced Goddard to retreat to more private research. despite very little funding he persevered and went on to develop many of the basic principles of rocket propulsion from both theory and experiment. While the US rejected his work, elsewhere in the world, and especially in Germany, others saw its value and quickly started to build on it. This gave the Germans a startling lead in rocket science that culminated with the V2 rockets launched against London during the war.

As the war ended Goddard died unaware that the Americans and Russians were secretly vying to capture German rocket technology. It was the beginning of the cold war which would be symbolised by the space race. Within less than 25 years military engineers with vast funds from government would go much further than even Goddard had dreamed. In 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. The technology used was scarcely different from what Goddard had proposed, except in scale. 

Shortly after,  the New York Times issued a correction to its editorials of 49 years earlier that had mocked Goddard:

 “Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

Even within the apology the journalists show an incredible ignorance and arrogance. How could they truly believe that Newton’s laws had not been understood or tested earlier? It raises deeper questions: why did no American physicists speak up for Goddard at the time? They must have seen the basic errors in the criticism against him. Did no scientist of authority think to write a letter to point out how Newton’s laws worked? Were they really so scared on the power of the papers that they did not want to risk their reputation in defense of Goddard?

We shall perhaps never know the truth but we should not forget how dire the consequences nearly were. With a little more work on rockets the Germans would have had weapons of incredible power that might have led to a different end ot the war.

In 1959 the Goddard Space Flight Center became one of several facilities to be named in his honour, so that his legacy may live on in our memory for many years.

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