A Brief History of Rocketry – Early Rockets to Goddard

Robert Goddard
The Father of American Rocketry

Portrait of Robert Hutchings Goddard, 1882-1945.
Schematic for Goddard’s 1925 rocket.

Robert Goddard, the “Father of American Rocketry,” was an engineer and physicist who created and launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1882, Goddard’s interest in rocketry and space was sparked at a young age, thanks to the novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Even as a youth, he realized it was how he would spend his life.

As a young teacher at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908, Goddard conducted experiments with small solid-fuel rocket motors – indoors. He was soon asked to move his experiments outside. The following year, he was pursuing graduate studies at Clark University in Worcester while continuing to refine his ideas – one of which was the efficiency of using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen as the ideal propellants. Awarded his doctorate in 1911, he then taught at Princeton University from 1912 -1913 while further refining his ideas to the point that, by 1914, he held patents in combustion chamber design, exhaust nozzles, propellant systems, and multi-stage rockets. The approach of the First World War found Goddard back in Worcester, flight testing solid-fuel rockets that reached up to 500 feet in altitude. By now, he needed additional funding to further his research – into liquid-fueled rockets.

In 1916, he wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, describing his work in some detail, and requested a grant which would allow him to continue. Asked for provide more information, he detailed the use of his invention as a platform for high-altitude scientific data gathering. In January, 1917, he was awarded a grant of $5000, allowing him to begin a more serious pursuit of his work. The war, however, placed his plans on hold.

Goddard approached both the Army and Navy with proposals to use rockets for various purposes but only the Army responded. Sponsored by the US Army Signal Corps, and working from the security of the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, his proposal consisted of a light, tube-launched rocket that could be used as an infantry weapon. With Dr. Clarence Hickham, he demonstrated the use of the rocket at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland in early November 1918. Though the Army was impressed with the potential weapon, the Compiegne Armistice, ending the war, was signed 5 days later and the project was discontinued. Later, Dr. Hickham, working with Colonel Leslie Skinner and Lieutenant Edward Uhl, took Goddard’s invention and added a shaped charge to the rocket, creating the Bazooka.

Robert Goddard and his early bazooka prototype, 1918.

At the urging of Dr. Arthur Webster, of the Smithsonian, Goddard expanded the 1916 proposal he used to seek funding, and included new research data and notes. A groundbreaking work, it’s regarded as one of the pioneering studies in modern rocketry, and described Goddard’s mathematical theories in depth – such as the relationships between propellants, thrust, mass, velocity, and energy. Though the research dealt in great detail with solid fuels, such as nitrocellulose smokeless powder, a breakthrough was described in the use of Laval nozzles with rocket engines. The use of these nozzles – which convert the energy from gas combustion into forward thrust – increased the efficiency of Goddard’s rocket motors from 2 percent to almost 70 percent.

He also used an approximate method to solve his differential equations, concluding that a rocket with an effective exhaust velocity of 7000 feet per second and an initial weight of 602 pounds would be able to send a one-pound payload to an infinite height – space. This small part of the monograph, included close to the end, gained Goddard considerable attention when he stated that proving that an object had indeed attained infinite height would be rather difficult to prove. He wrote, “The only reliable procedure would be to send the smallest mass of flash powder possible to the dark surface of the moon when in conjunction [i.e. the new moon], in such a way that it would be ignited upon impact. The light would then be visible in a powerful telescope.” Goddard even calculated the amount of powder required.

A man who avoided publicity, he was unprepared for what happened when the media discovered his idea to send a rocket to the moon. Though this part of the book was only 8 lines of text, almost at the end of 69 pages, the press seized on it to ridicule Goddard and his idea. In a front page story about Goddard, the New York Times failed to show any understanding of Newton’s third law of physics – which a read of the monograph would have clarified – and wrote,

The cover of Goddard’s most famous work, 1919.

After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would
be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then
might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of
dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are
licensed to do that. … Of course, [Goddard] only seems to lack the knowledge
ladled out daily in high schools.

A week later, Goddard released a statement to the Associated Press, “Too much attention has been concentrated on the proposed flash powder experiment, and too little on the exploration of the atmosphere. … Whatever interesting possibilities there may be of the method that has been proposed, other than the purpose for which it was intended, no one of them could be undertaken without first exploring the atmosphere.” He further responded in a Popular Science article in 1924, in which he explained the physics and gave the details of the experiments he had conducted using a vacuum – proving that rocket flight in space was certainly possible.

Goddard showing the use of pressure to achieve thrust. The concept relies on Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Goddard also explored the idea of using multiple sections that could detach after they had expended their fuel. Multi-stage rockets are still an important concept used in rocketry today.

Further Smithsonian funding in 1920, as well as a position with the US Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance – Indian Head Powder Factory in Maryland, helped Goddard fund further research and by 1926 he was ready for the most important of his pioneering experiments. Though he had begun experimenting with liquid-fueled rockets in 1921, his continued difficulties in developing a high-pressure pump led him to try a pressurized fuel feed system – a system still used today. His first static test occurred in December 1925 and its success demonstrated to Goddard the idea could work. Additional testing occurred in the beginning of 1926 and by March he was ready for the first flight of a liquid-fueled rocket.

In the cabbage patch of Aunt Effie’s farm, in Auburn, Massachusetts, Goddard gathered with his crew chief Henry Sachs, Esther Goddard, and Percy Roope, assistant professor of physics at Clark University. The rocket, dubbed “Nell,” rose from the launch frame at 2:30 in the afternoon and reached an altitude of 41 feet, landing 184 feet away. The launch proved that liquid fuels and oxidizers could be used as rocket propellants. The experiment also showed that fins were not for sufficient for stabilization, and Goddard later added movable vanes in the rocket exhaust, controlled by an on-board gyroscope – a system used by the Germans in their V-2 rocket program in later years.

Another flight in 1929 had unseen consequences for Goddard – a visit from Charles Lindbergh. Reading about the test in the New York Times, by this time Lindbergh had understood that the future of aircraft and flight might lay in the use of rockets and – to that end – decided to pay a visit to Goddard’s office at Clark; after checking to ensure Goddard was “legitimate.” Though ground-breaking, Goddard’s research and experimentation was largely ignored in the United States. Lindbergh’s support extended to his pursuit of business and commerce leaders, asking their support for Goddard. Due to the financial conditions in the United States after the stock market crash of 1929, however, they were in no position to fund something like Goddard’s rocket experiments. By the spring of 1930, Lindbergh convinced financier Daniel Guggenheim to provide funding for a total of $100,000 over the next four years.

Dr. Robbert H. Goddard and liquid oxygen-gasoline rocket in the frame from which it was fired on March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts. This was the first flight of a liquid-propelled rocket. NASA.
Goddard (center) with (left to right) brother-in-law and Machinist Albert Kisk, Harry Guggenheim, Charles Lindbergh, and Machinist N.T. Ljungquist, New Mexico, 1935.

Dr. Goddard in his dual-purpose workshop and lab in Roswell, New Mexico, October 1935. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center.

That summer, Goddard moved to New Mexico and continued his research at a specially build and equipped laboratory at Mescalero Ranch, 12 miles northwest of Roswell. Here, he conducted tests of a variety of “series” rockets. For example, the “A Series” rockets tested guidance and control, and gyroscope systems, while his “P Series” rockets tested new designs for propellant pumps. These tests were instrumental in the further development of rocket frames, guidance and control systems, fuels and fuel pumps, and propellants – and led to further innovations in rocket technology throughout the twentieth century. Goddard also worked with the US Navy prior to the Second World War on JATO (Jet-assist Take Off) engine technology, but his work never go the attention it truly deserved in the United States. In Europe, however, his ideas were seriously studied and refined. Wernher von Braun stated, “His rockets … may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles.” Goddard died in August, 1945, in Baltimore, and only after his death was his true importance in the development of rocketry and space travel understood.

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