A team of engineers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is hard at work on a project to “recreate history” by building a pair of replicas of the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. One of them is a working version that is undergoing ground tests at the Marshall Center this summer.

The original rocket, designed and built by rocket engineering pioneer Robert H. Goddard, was first flown March 26, 1926, in Auburn, Mass. That accomplishment is considered the first step in opening the door of modern rocketry. The 10-foot rocket reached an altitude of 41 feet, while the flight lasted only 2.5 seconds. 

The project was the brainchild of Robert Sackheim, assistant director and chief engineer for space propulsion at the Marshall Center, and John London, technical assistant to Mr. Sackheim. Both men were officers in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Alabama-Mississippi Section and developed this project for AIAA to help celebrate this year’s Centennial of Flight activities. According to Sackheim, the Marshall Center was the perfect fit to take on such a challenging project due to its history and resources in propulsion. The AIAA is the world’s largest professional engineering and science society. 

“Building replicas of Goddard’s first rocket has been like an archeological effort for us,” said Tim Sanders, the Marshall Center’s technical team leader for test area operations and acting volunteer project manager for the Goddard rocket replica team. “History is a big part of the rocket business. Becoming more aware of it keeps us from repeating some of the same mistakes of the past,” he said.

AIAA approached Sanders and his 22-member team of replica volunteers, all from Marshall’s Space Transportation Directorate, late last year with the proposal to recreate Goddard’s first rocket. The Space Transportation Directorate manages numerous key propulsion and flight research areas intended to dramatically improve access to space and in-space transportation. Other members of Sander’s technical team included engineers Sandy Elam, Warren Peters, Paul Dumbacher, Gary Hicks, Jay Dennis and Richard Cooper.

The Marshall design team’s plan has been to stay as close as possible to an authentic reconstruction of Goddard’s rocket. For the working version the same propellants will be used – liquid oxygen and gasoline – as available during Goddard’s initial testing and firing. The team is also trying to construct both replicas using the original materials and design to the greatest extent possible. By purposely using less advanced techniques and materials than many that are available today, the team has encountered numerous technical challenges in testing the functional hardware. “Since there were no original blueprints or drawings, all we’ve had to rely on are photographs and notes. It’s much like piecing together a puzzle,” said Sanders.

However, this faithful adherence to historical accuracy has also allowed the team to experience many of the same challenges Goddard faced 77 years ago, and more fully appreciate the genius of this extraordinary man. According to London, the work of the team represents remarkable research that is uncovering a wealth of previously unknown information about one of the greatest accomplishments in astronautics.

The team members also look at the replica project as an educational resource for those who study liquid rocketry in the future. Along with the working version, the team is creating a full-scale model to be used for exhibit and educational purposes. “Our hope is to provide resources for students to study liquid rocketry 50 years from now, giving them an idea of the challenges Goddard faced during his time,” said Rebecca Farr, a Marshall engineer who is working on the project. “Once we get things down on paper and they see the full-scale model up close, so many more people will be able to benefit from these efforts.”

The Centennial of Flight is being celebrated this year with events across the country, to mark the passage of a century since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies with their Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903.

For more information on Robert H. Goddard and his original rocket design, visit the Web site: