14 Jul Repeatedly upstaged by the Wright Brothers, Robert Goddard was the real father of space travel
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, media commentators will remind us that fewer than 66 years passed between the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903 and Apollo 11’s landing on the moon in 1969.
However, this oft-repeated observation is not totally appropriate in that two distinctly different technologies are involved.
Not to minimize the accomplishments of the Wrights, for they gave us the marvel of air transportation, but their invention cannot take us out of Earth’s atmosphere into space. Airplanes need that very atmosphere to provide lift for their wings and oxygen for their air-breathing engines. The technology that would take us into space, on to the moon, and beyond, was developed by an American physics professor named Robert Goddard.
In 1914, Goddard was awarded a patent for a liquid-fuel rocket that would carry its own oxygen (in liquid form) to enable its fuel to burn in the vacuum of space. In his 1916 monograph, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, he also suggested that such a rocket could go all the way to the moon. When the Smithsonian published his paper, a skeptical media glossed over his technical explanations and ridiculed him as the “Moon Rocket Man,” among other characterizations.
As a physicist, Goddard knew that a rocket’s exhaust did not need air to push against, one of the main arguments that self-proclaimed experts gave in dismissing his conclusions. In a Jan. 13, 1920, editorial, The New York Times published a harsh personal and professional attack on Goddard and his theories, suggesting that he lacked high school-level scientific knowledge and dismissing the idea that his rocket would work in space because of “the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react.”
Nevertheless, Goddard launched his first successful liquid-fuel rocket on March 14, 1926, at his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. It only rose to 41 feet, but it was followed over the next two decades by many more rockets of increasing complexity and performance.
By 1935 Goddard had created a rocket that, while smaller, incorporated all the basic features that the Germans would later employ on the V-2 rocket they eventually launched against England and other Allied targets in World War II. While American political and military leadership showed little to no interest in Goddard’s experiments, the Germans were aware of his work, a summary of which was published by the Smithsonian in 1936.
Many years later, Werner von Braun, who led the development of the V-2 for Germany (and later headed the American space program), stated that Goddard’s pioneering liquid-fuel rocket technology enabled him and his team to perfect the V-2 much earlier than would have been otherwise possible. Von Braun’s massive Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo 11 owed its technological lineage to the principles of rocketry developed by Robert Goddard.
So, even though “66 years from Kitty Hawk to the Moon” sounds catchy, “43 years from Aunt Effie’s farm to Tranquility Base” represents an even more remarkable pace of development, as well as a more accurate representation of the technology involved.
On July 17, 1969, as the Apollo 11 astronauts were on their way to the Moon, The New York Times printed a correction of its 1920 editorial that concluded with this sentence: “Further 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.”
Bruce A. Bleakley is a retired Air Force pilot and aviation author in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.