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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
Goddard in his lab

An historical essay on the life and work of

Robert Hutchings Goddard

The Father of American Rocketry

If a prescient newspaperman had reported on Goddard's arrival in Roswell, he might have headlined the story much like this:

Silence broken at Mescalero Ranch

New science being assembled

Please stand by for a few more years, rocket man says

Part 2: Of a Storm upon the Staked Plain

At Roswell, construction moved swiftly with his crew helping the local contractors. Living quarters for the crew went up behind the main house, a roomy stucco residence. The machine shop came next, and received the equipment on loan from Clark: milling machines, lathes, drill presses, bending brakes and a host of hand tools. New Mexico was later to boast that it was "the finest machine shop in all the southwest." [1]

Not everything went as smoothly. There was the matter of accident and liability insurance. When he applied for this, Goddard had to supply increasingly detailed descriptions of the anticipated work. Although he assured the underwriters (not identified) that this was no more dangerous than what went on in most any university research laboratory, they declined to cover him.

It went no better when the professor sought life insurance for himself. A company doctor examined him and declared, "He ought to be in bed in Switzlerland."

Nothing daunted, Dr. Goddard plunged into his rocket research with renewed enthusiasm. The first static test took place on 29 October 1930. By December 30th of that year, a Goddard rocket had reached a height of 2,000 feet and a top speed of 500 mph. [2, 3]

As always, he was careful to document his results. Seeking dependable legal services in Roswell, Dr. Goddard found Herman Crile who, it turned out, was his neighbor. The inventor wanted his papers notarized without being read, and Crile assented to this. In February 1931, Goddard travelled east to deliver a progress report to his sponsors. There was genuine progress to report, but they were still hoping for more spectacular achievements. Dr. Merriam again voiced his concern about Goddard working in isolation. As usual, the issue was tabled.

The key to higher altitudes was more thrust. Dr. Goddard knew that this meant larger combustion chambers and higher rates of fuel consumption. He began building bigger motors after he returned from Washington. But with bigger engines came bigger problems. One of the toughest was getting that greater fuel flow. Pumps seemed the best method. But nowhere in the world was there a pump that could handle liquid oxygen at the rates and pressures required. Unable to devise a reliable pump himself, Goddard fell back on the heavier system of pressurizing the fuel and oxidizer tanks with nitrogen gas. This was no piece of cake either; it needed a regulator that could hold the pressure high enough for adequate fuel flow, but not too high for the tanks to withstand. By September 1931 he was ready to proof-test a pressurization system on his existing rocket. On first flight, it lifted 200 feet — then lost thrust, fell back and exploded. The gasoline tank had burst.

Such was Goddard's life in those first two years at Roswell: Amid many failures, gradual improvements took place. He had set himself a formidable task: developing a vehicle whose reliable operation required literally dozens of devices that had never existed before. Dr. Goddard was, in fact, perfecting an entirely new branch of transportation technology.

He redesigned the pressure regulator and tried again. Two flights in October reached a height of around 1,700 feet. With that device performing more reliably, he turned his attention to gyroscopic stabilizers. In April of 1932, he began to achieve some success in this area.

But then the outside world intruded. That was the spring when Col. Lindbergh's son was kidnapped and killed, devastating the aviator and his wife. Also, the Great Depression was beginning. Factories shut down in the east, their workers winding up on soup lines; soon even rich men had trouble finding ready cash. In the midwest, severe droughts brought the first of the Dust Bowl years.

Daniel Guggenheim had died in 1930. Harry had already proved himself a capable businessman. But Daniel's network of business relationships had died with him; no son, however capable, can step immediately into the shoes his father left. More importantly, the stock market crash had badly shrunk the Guggenheim Foundation's assets. When Goddard travelled to Washington in May of 1932, he was informed that the Foundation had been forced to suspend its grants. His remaining two years of funding would not be available.

Back at Roswell, Goddard gave his men the bad news. Equipment was crated and stored. Various rocket parts were hammered out of shape and buried in a trench. The shop was swept out and boarded up. The crew dispersed, and Goddard returned to Worcester. In the fall, he took up his teaching duties at Clark again. He did not celebrate his fiftieth birthday, which came in October of that year. But his diary entry for the 19th records the traditional observation for that day: "Anniversary Day . . . Went to Cherry Tree." [4]

Goddard was able to build and test some pump hardware while at Clark. But for the most part his progress in rocketry during these two years in Worcester was on an intellectual plane. He filled notebooks with ideas for igniters and other devices, and kept his Worcester attorney Charles Hawley busy with affadavits for patent applications. By the end of 1934, he had secured 26 patents. [5] There was also time to review past victories and reflect on future plans.

In the wider world, this was the time when Germany pulled ahead of America in astronautics. The German Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) was an amateur club inspired by Hermann Oberth's books about spaceflight. Founded in 1927, it lasted until 1934 aand flew several rocket designs, one reaching a height of 3,000 feet. The German miltary offered the VfR a development contract, but dissension over whether to accept this work led to its demise. Many members (including a young Wernher von Braun) eagerly signed on with the military effort.

In America, Lindbergh and Abbot prevailed upon Goddard to offer his services to the Army and Navy once again; but they were still not interested in supporting his work. One bright spot was Lambertsville, New Jersey, where the fledgling American Rocket Society was flying small liquid-fuel rockets. They still sought Goddard's active involvement, and he was still unwilling.

Lindbergh once again became Goddard's champion. In the fall of 1933, he broke loose a $2,500 grant from the newly created Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation. And in 1934, Harry Guggenheim was ready to take up where his father had left off. The Foundation renewed its full grant to Goddard in August of that year. But this time, there were strings attached. It was made clear that further support depended on visible progress. At the Smithsonian, Dr. Abbot took the same position. [6]

The old doctor will take care of that

As they had done four years before, Robert and Esther Goddard piled into their 1930 red Packard coupé for the trip west. They stopped off in Chicago to see the Century of Progress exhibition. There they took in a reenactment of the science-fiction comic strip "Buck Rogers." Esther was impressed by the character of Dr. Huer. As she wrote to her parents:

"He wore a smooth cap of some sort to make him as bald as he looked in the funnies. He walked and talked like Groucho Marx and whenever Buck and his companions got into difficulties, he would say, `Now don't you worry, the old doctor will take care of that!'" [7]

Mescalero Ranch had suffered some in their absence. Persons unknown had stripped the launch tower up to the twenty-foot level. Crows had taken up residence in its upper reaches, weaving nests from bits of wire left by the human scavengers. But the buildings were intact, if a mite dusty. Most of the old crew returned and the site was up and running again in fairly short order.

Shortly after the Goddards' arrival, Roswell was all abuzz about the famous visitors. Lucky Lindy was in town! The Colonel and his wife Anne had flown in on their way to the west coast. They paid a call at Mescalero Ranch and Goddard gave Lindbergh the cook's tour. The visit buoyed both the Goddards, as it had the town. But it was also a reminder of the desire, in certain quarters, for newsworthy achievements.

Four-chamber rocket in tower

This was the start of what proved to be the most productive period in Goddard's rocketry development work. He conducted several series of tests, beginning with his "A series," which demonstrated a successful gyroscopic stabilizer. These tests began in September 1934 and lasted through October 1935. The rockets were now bigger, up to 15 feet in length — a beneficial result of the gap in testing. On 31 May 1935, a flight of the A series reached a record height of 7,500 feet. Subsequent series demonstrated larger motors, different fuel combinations, and continual improvements in recovery parachute systems. Concurrently, stabilizers and pressure regulators also underwent gradual improvement. One question in my mind is whether Goddard would have been better advised to stick with and perfect one component before trying to improve the next. I doubt I will ever answer that question.

At right: A four-chamber rocket ready for launch (1936)

The triumphs Goddard achieved during this period were not the spectacular kind his sponsors awaited. Indeed, the flights they witnessed on their visits were quite often spectacular failures. However, they understood that real progress was being made, and continued to support the work into 1941. At that time, the pressures of war put a permanent end to Goddard's work at Mescalero Ranch. The results of that work are visible today at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. In order to assuage Dr. Abbot's desire for an exhibit, Goddard carefully crated an A-series model and shipped it to the Smithsonian. "Nellie" (the team called all their rockets Nell or Nellie) departed the Roswell rail station on 2 November 1935. Such was Dr. Goddard's desire for secrecy that he had the device, still in its shipping crate, sealed up behind a wall in the Smithsonian. There it remained until after his death.

Dr. Charles F. Brooks was the meteorologist who helped locate Goddard's New Mexico site. He and Goddard had kept up their friendship. Now Brooks and Lindbergh persuaded Goddard to unbend enough to address the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention in St. Louis on 31 December 1935. After giving his talk, Progress on the Atmospheric Sounding Rocket, Goddard remarked to his wife, "You know, Esther, they seem to admire what I'm doing!" [8]

Lindbergh also persuaded Goddard to prepare a monograph on his progress. This report, Liquid Propellant Rocket Development, was published by the Smithsonian on 16 March 1936. Although it omitted certain details, it was a reasonably comprehensive summary of his progress since 1919.

To this point, I have no doubt given the impression that Robert Goddard kept to himself on the ranch, seeing only his wife and the crew, or whatever sponsors chose to visit. That impression is false. He attended church (although less often than in Worcester) and was a regular at weekly Rotary International chapter meetings. At his wife's urging, he sometimes met other couples for bridge foursomes — although he hated bridge, he would sit by with a book on his lap, taking part in the conversation. In short, he was a fairly normal member of the Roswell community.

He and Esther left that community for the last time on Independence Day 1942. After a series of meetings and some on-site demonstrations of "Nell", the Navy had decided to enlist Goddard in the war effort. To that end, they moved the useful parts of the Mescalero Ranch facilities to Indian Head Naval Station, on the Severn River in Maryland. Goddard had a six-month, renewable contract to develop a strap-on, liquid-fuel motor to push heavily-loaded seaplanes into the air: the JATO unit. This met all of its design goals in a static test on 13 November, and the Navy extended the contract. However, flight tests were a flop. The device was delicate, and its liquid oxygen plumbing did not take well to getting wet. Production JATO units used solid fuel rockets developed by a team from Cal Tech in an effort paralleling Dr. Goddard's. He was retained for the duration of the war, however, to do related engineering work — things like developing pumps and igniters for the laboratory next door. (This lab was run by a young fellow named Bob Truax, who later attained some renown.) Goddard was a small cog in a vast machine. It was a role he did not enjoy.

There were compensations, however. As the war expanded, he began to get inquiries from corporations: General Electric, Linde Air Products, Curtiss-Wright. A commercial offshoot of the American Rocket Society called Reaction Motors, Inc. offered him its presidency and a block of stock. Goddard eventually decided to hook up with Curtiss-Wright when the Navy released him. He bided his time with the small tasks assigned, meanwhile sending off a steady stream of affadavits to Hawley in Worcester.

The Goddards at home (Maryland, 1943)
The Goddards at home (Tydings-on-the-Bay, Maryland, 1943)

D-Day arrived, full of hope and glory. He was home with Esther when the news came in over the radio. Then came the news of the German "Vengeance weapons" V-1 and V-2 — too little, too late to change the course of the war for the Third Reich. Yet, the mere existence of these devices, and their $3 billion development budget, oppressed Goddard with the sense that the leading edge of rocketry development had passed him and his country by. When he had a chance to examine captured V-weapons after the war, these misgivings were largely confirmed. The V-1 used a motor based on his "resonance chamber," and the V-2 design was similar to the models he had been firing in New Mexico, only scaled up to space-reaching size.

"I watched him as he stared at the length and girth of the opened rocket," Henry Sachs remembered, "and went over to him.

`It looks like ours, Dr. Goddard,' I said."

`Yes, Mr. Sachs,' he answered, `it seems so.' " [9]

It is not certain whether the Germans, in making the V-2, actually copied Goddard's designs. Inventions are fairly often made independently at widely distant places within a short span of time. Also, the physics of rocketry dictates the shape and even the internal layout of the rockets to a considerable degree. Nevertheless, the similarities are striking — as shown in this comparison table.

Esther had been wondering about her husband's health for some time. True, he had always had problems, and always managed to work through them. But there had been changes lately. He seemed tireder, somehow, as if the fire had gone out of him. There were hints that his interest centered less on summoning the future than on preserving the past; he had been sorting and organizing his sealed archives, and writing summaries of them, although he kept much of this effort hidden from her. It was often difficult for him to speak; then his voice would clear again. Characteristically, he never complained, and he dismissed her concerns.

Early in 1945, the Navy awarded another six-month contract. He dutifully proceeded to fulfill it. Toward the end of May, Dr. Slack found a small growth in Goddard's throat. It seemed benign. Dr. Slack had "never heard of cancer superimposed on tuberculosis." [10] He has now.

Goddard's health declined quickly after that. About the middle of June, the growth was found to be malignant. Goddard was admitted to the University of Maryland hospital, where he underwent a laryngectomy. He held on for nearly two months — long enough to learn of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; long enough to hear that the Army had established a new rocket proving ground called White Sands just 100 miles from Roswell, and was starting to build a multi-stage rocket there; long enough to file a few more patent applications.

That low man seeks a little thing to do,
Sees it and does it;
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
Dies ere he knows it . . .
– Robert Browning, A Grammarian's Funeral

Shortly after nine on the morning of August 10th, Robert Goddard passed away without fuss or clamor. He was buried in Worcester's Hope Cemetery on 14 August 1945, the day World War II officially ended.


[1] — Lehman, p. 178

[2] — Lehman, p. 186; Yost, p. 152

[3] — Yost, p.152

[4] — Lehman, p. 199

[5] — Lehman, p. 201

[6] — Lehman, p. 205

[7] — Lehman, p. 204

[8] — Lehman, p. 218

[9] — Lehman, pp. 388-389

[10] — Lehman, p. 395


Goddard in his Lab — Yost, plate 7B

Four-chamber rocket — Lehman, picture 61 (ca. p. 238)

The Goddards at home — Lehman, picture 68 (ca. p. 334)


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