THE GODDARD LEGACY
(originally run: March 17, 2006)
Even though there were only a handful of witnesses, history was made eighty years ago this week. At 2:30 in the afternoon of March 16, 1926, from a cold and frozen field near Auburn, Massachusetts, a small rocket, barely over one foot long, lifted off from a spindly metal frame. It then rose 41 feet into the air, and after a total flight time of 2 1/2 seconds, crashed in a cabbage field 184 feet away. This event was the first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, and those who witnessed the flight were physicist Robert Goddard, who had designed and built it, his wife Esther, and two assistants.
Rockets, the principle mechanism of which arises from Newton's Third Law of motion, had been around for several centuries, primarily for warfighting purposes. All of the early forms of rockets had utilized some kind of solid propellant gunpowder, or something similar as their source of fuel. While such propellants provided a strong initial ³push,² their explosive nature made them difficult to control, and made long-distant rocket flights all but impossible. Some of the early rocket scientists, among them Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia and Hermann Oberth in Germany, had suggested the possibility of utilizing liquid-fueled rockets to overcome these difficulties, but it was Goddard, their American contemporary, who first demonstrated that this concept was feasible.
Goddard had become interested in spaceflight while still a young child, and had an epiphany at the age of 16 when he climbed a cherry tree and imagined ³how 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.² He later became a professor of physics at Clark University in Massachusetts, and although his research work extended to other areas including the development of a device which later became known as the bazooka, which he successfully launched from a music rack near the end of World War I his primary interest remained with rockets.
In early 1920 Goddard published a paper for the Smithsonian Institution entitled ³A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,² wherein towards the end he speculated on the possibility of utilizing rockets to make flights to the moon. Shortly thereafter an article about this paper appeared in the New York Times, and the following day an editorial in the Times viciously lampooned Goddard's ideas. The anonymous writer of that editorial, arguing that a rocket could not possibly work in space because there was no atmosphere to push against an argument that seriously misunderstands the basic principles of rocketry lambasted Goddard as someone who lacked ³the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.²
Strongly incensed and stung by this unwarranted criticism, from that point on Goddard refused to publicize his efforts, and his history-making launch from Auburn received almost no publicity of any kind. Neither did his subsequent successful launches from Massachusetts, which featured higher and longer-lasting flights, and several new innovations.
Goddard's work did, however, come to the attention of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who persuaded philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim to fund additional research. Armed with this funding, Goddard and his team moved westward to the open desert near Roswell, New Mexico. From 1930 to 1942 Goddard conducted 56 rocket test flights from Roswell, with these eventually reaching altitudes of 9000 feet and which included numerous technological innovations, including stabilizing gyroscopes and deflector vanes to redirect the rockets' exhaust.
Goddard tried unsuccessfully to interest the U.S. Army in his rocket research. Ironically, the German military, and in particular the German scientist Wernher von Braun, did take an interest in his work, and von Braun's team successfully appropriated Goddard's research to develop the V-2 rockets that were used by Germany during World War II. After the war von Braun and his team were expatriated to the U.S., and continued their rocket research at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico only a three hours' drive from the site of Goddard's experiments at Roswell. The rest, as they say, is history.
Nowadays almost all the rockets that are used to place objects above the Earth's atmosphere whether they be communications satellites or spacecraft to the other planets or anything in between utilize the liquid fuel propulsion techniques developed by Goddard. (One notable exception involves the solid rocket boosters that are used to help launch the Space Shuttle.) In a manner reminiscent of the development of the entire aviation industry from the events that took place at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, our entire rocketry industry can trace its origins to the events that transpired in obscurity on a frozen field in Massachusetts eighty years ago.
Incidentally, on the day after the launch of the Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969, the New York Times retracted its criticism from almost half a century earlier, remarking: ³Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century, and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.² Better late than never . . .
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