86 years ago today, Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945) launched the first liquid fueled rocket on March 16, 1926 in Massachusetts. Constructed out of pipes, and fueled by gasoline and liquid oxygen, his 10-foot-tall rocket traveled to an altitude of 41 feet at 60mph.
The Chinese military invented gunpowder-based rockets in the 13th century. In the 1800s, British engineers made further advances toward "rocket science." In 1903, Russian inventor Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a theory about using rocket engines in space – though such speculations were still based on solid fuels with far lower exhaust velocity.
Physics professor Robert Goddard was the first to patent a liquid-propellant rocket design in 1914, and spent the next three decades tackling technical issues with burn rate, pressurization, fuel-injection, and igniter systems.
In 1920, the Smithsonian published his treatise, A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes, in which he claimed rockets might reach the Moon. The New York Times ridiculed Goddard's work as foolishness, implying he knew less than an average high-schooler if he thought crafts could ever leave Earth’s atmosphere. He responded, "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace."
& Col. Charles A. Lindbergh (1930)
Lacking official U.S. Governmental support, Goddard secured a Guggenheim grant with the help of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, with which they set up a testing site in Roswell, New Mexico. His team's milestones between 1930-1942 included:
- First exploration of mathematics of propulsion to reach high altitudes.
- First rocket operation in a vacuum (proving it needs no air to push against).
- First development of rocket fuel pumps.
- First scientific payload (barometer & camera) in a rocket flight.
- First development of gyro control apparatus for rocket flight.
They ceased operations during WWII to help develop boosters for Navy seaplanes. (During these years, Germany led the world in rocket development, devastating many areas of Britain with guided missiles.)
Goddard passed away in 1945, by then holding 214 rocketry patents. Years later, scientists at the dawn of space exploration realized it was impossible to build an efficient rocket without utilizing Goddard's propulsion research. His work proved to be the foundation for human space flight, and 3 days before the Apollo lunar landing in 1969, the NY Times printed a retraction of their insulting 1920 editorial.
Dr. Goddard was ahead of us all." ~ Wernher von Braun
Sadly, Robert Goddard didn't live to see the space age, but NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, was named in his honor.