— Unimpressive by today’s standards, Robert Goddard’s rocket flight peaked at an altitude of only 12.5 meters, and flew a distance of 56 meters before crashing. But that two-and-a-half-second flight changed the course of history. Space historian Roger Launius called it the “Kitty Hawk of spaceflight,” a reference to the Wright Brothers historic first powered airplane flight.
Goddard, then the director of Physical Laboratories at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., launched the first liquid-fueled rocket from a Massachusetts farm, according to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Web site.
Initially Goddard intended to use solid fuel to power his rocket, using a machine gun-like feeding mechanism, but he found the delivery method unfeasible and decided to use liquid fuel instead, according to the NASA Web site.
The solid fuels available at that time – basically forms of gunpowder – were of insufficient thrust to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, Launius said in a March 4 phone interview. And ultimately that was Goddard’s goal.
Although using liquid substances to fuel rockets had been proposed independently by Russia’s KonstantinTsiolkovsky and Germany’s Hermann Oberth, Goddard was the only one to carry the theory through to a working product.
He was awarded a patent for a liquid-fueled rocket in 1914 as a physics professor at Clark University, where he got his doctorate, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Web site said.
Still he required a way to increase the performance of his rocket since liquid fuels burn at higher temperatures than solid fuels, according to the NASA Web site. Using a de Laval turbine for a rocket nozzle, he increased thrust efficiency from around 2 percent to 63 percent. The de Laval turbine ran faster by using four nozzle points to spin like a wheel unlike rocket nozzles at that time, which were similar to today’s fireworks, said Launius, a chairman of the Washington-based space history division of the Smithsonian Institute.
The gasoline-fueled and liquid oxygen-oxidized rocket seemed a failure at first; it burned off part of the nozzle and took 20 seconds before enough fuel was consumed for the rocket to be light enough to take off, the NASA Web site said.
The event took place with little fanfare, just as Goddard preferred. The physics professor generally distrusted the media especially after being ridiculed unfairly in a Jan. 13, 1920, New York Times editorial, the NASA Web site said. The Times editorial not only criticized Goddard’s theory that a sufficiently powerful rocket could reach the Moon, as outlined in a January 1920 Smithsonian report titled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” but also questioned his knowledge of basic physics. The editorial asserted that even a high school student knew rockets could not work in the vacuum of space, an article on Time magazine’s Web site said.
But Goddard already had done the research and had flown rockets successfully in artificial vacuums in 1915 as a Clark University professor, thus proving rockets do not need air to push against and create thrust, according to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Web site.
With the promise of privacy for his research and a grant from Harry Guggenheim, Goddard took a leave of absence from Clark University and left his native Massachusetts for Roswell, N.M., in 1930, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Web site said.
There Goddard’s research flourished as he built his rockets taller and flew them farther with his development of liquid-fueled technology. One rocket flew at supersonic speed, another reached an altitude of 2.7 kilometers, according to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Web site.
noted that while Goddard was an excellent theorist, his experiments never lived up to expectations. That may be attributed to his “lone-scientist approach” when the model for modern technological research involved using teams of scientists, Launius said.
Though Goddard’s own rockets never accomplished his goal of reaching extreme altitudes – he died in 1945 – his innovations paved the way for others to reach that goal and eventually go to the Moon.
During the 1930s, Goddard corresponded with German scientists on his rocket research and later found out the German V-2 missile’s design was strikingly similar to his, according to Time magazine’s Web site. The V-2 contained control and steering devices Goddard had innovated, according to the NASA Web site.
The V-2, developed during World War II, is a direct ancestor of NASA’s Saturn 5 rocket, which sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1959, NASA Administrator Keith Glennan named the agency’s newly authorized facility in Greenbelt, Md., after the U.S. rocket scientist, calling it the Goddard Space Flight Center.