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In the middle of a flat stretch of farmland 40 miles southeast of Boston, physicist Robert Goddard gave hope to starry-eyed dreamers everywhere on March 16, 1926. Almost 30 years after wondering what it would take for people to fly to Mars, he launched the first liquid-fueled rocket, a revolutionary concept that forms the basis of space travel to this day.
Growing up in central Massachusetts during the latter part of the 19th century, Goddard was fascinated by the rapid advance of technology around his Worcester home. Experiments with electricity were just beginning to take center stage as George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison fought the War of the Currents, an event covered widely by newspapers all over the world. Inspired, Goddard began to conduct his own scientific trials while in elementary school, capitalizing on his father’s willingness to supply him with tools of the trade -- a telescope and microscope -- and eagerness to see his where his son’s curiosity led.
As he got older, Goddard found his interest piqued most by flight, playing with designs for kites and balloons well into his teens. With each test, he made extensive notes about his observations and theories why a particular shape worked when another did not. Shortly after his 17th birthday, he climbed a tree to prune it of dead limbs and found himself wrapped in a vivid daydream. Inspired by the thought of traveling to Mars, he finished his chore and returned to the ground to make it possible.
For at least a thousand years, the Chinese were aware of the explosive power of gunpowder, giving Goddard a solid basis for his tests while attending college at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the early 1900s. Known for filling the basement of the school’s physics laboratory with smoke from time to time, he was fortunate to be surrounded with supportive instructors who made suggestions for improvements -- other institutions might have removed him from the premises for good.
In 1911, after two years of study at nearby Clark University, Goddard received his PhD in physics. The following year he would move on to the Palmer Physical Laboratory at Princeton University, where he spent just a few months due to contracting tuberculosis. Back home in Worcester to heal, Goddard used his ample free time to work on calculations and chase down an idea he first had in 1909: liquid-fueled rockets.
Concerned about the possibility of having his ideas stolen, Goddard consulted with a patent attorney. With the applications submitted in October 1913, he earned his first patents -- one describing a rocket powered by gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide, the other for a multi-stage rocket using solid fuel -- in the early months of 1914. As much as a millennium after the Chinese discovered gunpowder, Goddard had moved rocketry into the modern age.
The only thing left to do was produce a working prototype, a time-consuming task for a new technology. Returning to Clark University as a researcher, Goddard spent his days teaching classes and figuring out thrust efficiency for his rockets. With each passing year, the costs of his materials grew, as did the velocities produced by his designs, so he sought help from sponsors. As part of his funding request to the Smithsonian Institution, he offered a meticulous description of his theories, which were published as A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in the Institution’s magazine during 1919.
With his ideas now in the public sphere, Goddard was surprised to find his ideas roundly criticized. Hitching on the fanciful concept of a rocket going to the moon, sarcastic editorials in newspapers all over the country considered him a quack -- propelling something in a vacuum, without air surrounding it, was believed impossible. Frustrated with the sudden publicity, Goddard continued working to create a testable rocket, conducting early experiments on a liquid-fueled rocket in September 1921.
Patient as ever, Goddard conducted trial after trial to prove his theory correct. Satisfied with the results, he took a purpose-built launching frame out onto the snowy fields of his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts on March 16, 1926. Shortly after 2:30pm, the small rocket filled with gasoline and liquid oxygen exploded off the ground on a 2.5-second flight. Goddard and an assistant, Henry Sachs, took careful measurements: the first liquid-fueled rocket in history had flown into a cabbage patch 184 feet away after reaching an altitude of 41 feet.
As always, Goddard made detailed notes about the event, eventually figuring out a problem with the nozzle kept the rocket from carrying further up into the sky. With continued refinements, he rearranged his design to put the propulsion chamber near the bottom, as modern rockets do. Largely unknown, Goddard eventually received a grant from the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics and moved to Roswell, New Mexico to test his more advanced rockets. In time, he achieved an altitude of 1.7 miles.
When he died in 1945, the importance of Goddard’s work was unknown. The Germans had succeeded in creating the V-2 rocket and launching it into Britain during World War II, possibly after stealing information Goddard gave to the United States Navy Bureau of Aeronautics, but American scientists and engineers were well behind the curve. (The intense secrecy with which Goddard conducted his research might be one cause.)
By the 1950s, however, as the Space Race between the Americans and their Soviet counterparts heated up, the value could no longer be questioned. His theories on liquid fuel and the ability to create multi-stage launch vehicles were instrumental in NASA’s program to land a man on the moon -- an idea laughed at in virtually every corner of science when Goddard first proposed it 50 years earlier.
Also On This Day:
597 BCE - Babylonian armies capture Jerusalem
1521 - Ferdinand Magellan reaches the Philippines
1942 - The V-2 rocket is tested for the first time
1988 - Halabjah, Iraq is attacked with chemical weapons, killing 5,000 Kurds
1995 - Mississippi becomes the last state to ratify the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, 160 years after the law officially abolished slavery