March 16, 2013
On July 17, 1969, the day after Apollo 11 was launched and a couple of days before Neil Armstrong made his “small step,” The New York Times published a correction of an editorial, “Severe Strain on Credulity,” it had written in 1920 mocking Robert Goddard for his assertions that rocket-powered flight could take man to the moon.
The Times had ridiculed Goddard and the idea that propulsion could occur in a vacuum, saying, “… After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.”
The New York Time’s reaction to Goddard’s predictions of the use of rockets, which he had described in his 1919 paper, “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” was echoed by many in the popular press.
Goddard mostly ignored the criticism and worked to prove his theories. In 1924, he published an article in Popular Science, “How my speed rocket can propel itself in vacuum,” but skepticism remained.
On March 16, 1926, Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Mass. To the casual observer it may not have seemed spectacular, the rocket reached a height of 41 feet and lasted by 2.5 seconds, but it worked! Goddard’s diary entries were understated, belying the passionate dreams that had driven him.
“March 16. … Tried rocket at 2.30. It rose 41 feet & went 184 feet, in 2.5 secs., after the lower half of the nozzle burned off. Brought materials to lab. …”
“March 17, 1926. The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn. . . .
“Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate.”
Goddard was born on Oct. 5, 1882, in Worcester, Mass., and was fascinated by science and technology from an early age, which was encouraged by his father, who bought Goddard scientific instruments and a subscription to Scientific American.
In his autobiography, Goddard tells of the events that inspired his interest in space. First, when he was 16, he read H.G. Wells’ novel, “The War of the Worlds,” and then a year later when he was doing chores for his father. “On this day I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn… and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet. I have several photographs of the tree, taken since, with the little ladder I made to climb it, leaning against it.
“I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended. Existence at last seemed very purposive.” Goddard’s health prevented from regular school attendance, and he was an 18-year-old sophomore in high school when he could finally go regularly. He made up for lost time, and was valedictorian when he graduated at age 21. His valedictory speech was called “On Taking Things for Granted.”
“… in the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant to safely pronounce anything impossible, so for the individual, since we cannot know just what are his limitations, we can hardly say with certainty that anything is necessarily within or beyond his grasp. Each must remember that no one can predict to what heights of wealth, fame, or usefulness he may rise until he has honestly endeavored, and he should derive courage from the fact that all sciences have been, at some time, in the same condition as he, and that it has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
His speech foreshadowed the 214 patents he was awarded, including foundational patents for our ability to achieve spaceflight.