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Biography of Robert Hutchings Goddard

Goddard, Robert Hutchings

Between 1918 and his death in 1945, Robert Hutchings Goddard was arguably America’s most famous scientist. He invented and developed much of the hardware that made modern rocket science possible.

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust


Because Robert H. Goddard, “America’s first rocket scientist,” kept a life-long diary beginning at age 12, much of his later life is well known. He was born October 5, 1882, in Worcester, said then to be the “industrial heart” of Massachusetts. His father, Nahum Danford Goddard, was a bookkeeper and minor inventor; his mother,Fanny Louise Hoyt, was the daughter of the owner of the firm for which Nahum worked.1 Each of them contributed profoundly to the trajectory of their son’s life.

Robert’s parents recognized and encouraged his scientific bent from early in life. They gave him a telescope and microscope and subscribed him to Scientific American even as a young child. Such parental backing, combined with a general climate of inventiveness in the United State at the end of the nineteenth century, and in Worcester in particular, led young Robert to precocious interest in things scientific and mathematical. But his parents also bequeathed him health problems that would frame his life. Fanny was tubercular, and Nahum passed on to Robert a predisposition for throat cancer.2

Goddard himself recalled two particularly decisive youthful events that changed the course of his life. The first was his reading of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds at age 16 in 1898. Many years later, on the occasion of Wells’ sixty-sixth birthday, Goddard wrote to the author to tell him that his book about an attack on Earth by Martians had made a deep impression on him: “...I decided that what might conservatively be called ‘high altitude research,’ was the most fascinating problem in existence.”3

The second pivotal event of those early years was referred to in his note to Wells as well: “…on the afternoon of October 19, 1899, I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn…as I looked toward the field at the east, I imagined how 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…I was a different boy when I descended the tree…for existence at last seemed very purposive.” Every year thereafter, Goddard commemorated that date as “the Anniversary.”4

Although it is not clear that the state of Robert’s health was ever truly critical as a child, he was held back from school a couple of times. Consequently, by graduation from South High School in Worcester in 1904 he was three or more years older than most of his classmates. He was the valedictorian of his class and shortly after graduation, he began dating the top female student in his class, Miriam Olmstead. A year later they were engaged, but never married, and Miriam moved to New York.5

 Goddard entered Worcester Polytechnic Institute, taking a general science course and working as a lab assistant. He graduated at the top of his class in 1908 and the following semester entered graduate school at Clark University in Worcester, only the second institution in the U.S. to offer graduate degrees. He was awarded a Ph.D. from Clark in 1911 and by September 1912 was an instructor at Princeton University. His role at Princeton was primarily to conduct research at the Palmer Physical Laboratory. By early 1913, he had demonstrated mathematically that rocket propulsion was possible in the upper atmosphere.6

But later that spring, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was thought to have only a few weeks to live. He established a regimen for himself of sleeping with the windows open even in frigid weather and taking long walks. He himself put it this way: “I…remained in the room with the steam heat on and the windows open.” He did not die, and the year 1914 found the disease “all but gone.” He had, however, adopted the habit of almost incessantly smoking cigars, which he persisted in doing for the rest of his life.7

In August of 1914, Goddard authored the influential publication, “The Problem of Raising a Body to a Great Altitude above the Surface of the Earth.” Because of his poor health, he resigned from Princeton and returned to Clark College, within the University, to a light undergraduate teaching load that fall. He was a faculty member at Clark for the next 29 years, although he was on leave for much of that time. During his first years at the university, Goddard spent much of his time testing rockets and propellants in a laboratory/workshop in the old and unused “Magnetic Building” on the Worcester Polytechnic campus. The small, Romanesque stone building served as his fabrication shop for three years. In 1920, he moved to the Clark University physics and chemistry lab and used part of his Aunt Effie Ward’s truck farm, near the town of Auburn, to launch rocket prototypes. His entire tenure at Clark was “spent in trial and error and trial again.”8

In 1917, Goddard received the first of a number of grants from the Smithsonian Institution to pursue his research on rockets. In support of his application for that grant, he submitted a paper entitled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” which was later published by the Smithsonian in late 1919. World War I took Goddard away from the university briefly in 1918 to work at Mount Wilson in southern California on tube-launched rockets, ancestors of the World War II bazooka. After returning to Clark University and within days of publication of “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” Goddard’s casual mention of the possibility of sending a rocket to the moon sparked a nationwide sensation. Ever afterward, in the public imagination, Goddard was working on a moon rocket. He even inspired the character of Dr. Huer in the long-running Buck Rogers comic strip.9

 In October of 1919, at age 37, Goddard hired an eighteen-year-old student at Bates College, Esther Christine Kisk, to do typing for him. Over the next three years, as she continued as his part-time typist, a romance gradually blossomed between the two. In the spring of 1923 he proposed to her, and a year later they were married. Esther remained a key member of Goddard’s research team, for the rest of his life. Besides typing, she kept the rocketry project’s books and served as its photographer, documenting every launch and every major modification of hardware.10

In March of 1926, Goddard and his crew successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket from Aunt Effie’s farm. Its flight reached an elevation of only 41 feet, but it was considered a dramatic accomplishment, as it set the course for subsequent rocket development. All launches were not successful. In fact, fiery explosions far outnumbered the occasional short, but increasingly higher, flights. After one particularly spectacular rocket explosion in 1929, the state fire marshal forbade any further rocket flights in Massachusetts.11

Just as that mandate seemed to derail the rocket testing program, Charles Lindbergh entered the picture. Only two years earlier he had become world famous for making the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean and in so doing also became the most prominent booster of aeronautics. He was an associate of Daniel and Harry Guggenheim, a father and son, who had established the “Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics.” Lindbergh visited Goddard in Worcester and was so impressed by his intelligence, drive, and technical skill, that he recommended that the Guggenheims fund his further research.12

In order to pursue the research that the Guggenheims generously agreed to sponsor, it was necessary to find a new location for testing Goddard’s designs. Goddard described the process in July of 1930: “I went into the matter of a location with Colonel Lindbergh very carefully when I was in New York, and we decided that the southern part of the Great Plains region would be best for the work. I have since concluded that, owing to winds and dust, the southwestern edge would be more desirable, say in eastern New Mexico.” The Goddards and their crew moved to Roswell, New Mexico, which met the prescribed criteria for a research location and also provided an “optimum environment” for Robert’s reoccurring case of tuberculosis.13

 In early August of 1930, the Goddards “went out to Miss Effie Olds’ place and hired it for a two-year lease at $115 per month.” Her eight-acre property, known as Mescalero Ranch, was situated about two miles northeast of the town of Roswell and included an adobe house, which became the Goddards’ residence for most of the next twelve years. Adjacent to the house, the “hub of Goddard’s operation,” a 30’ x 60’ workshop was built to accommodate his machinist and instrument maker crew, comprised of his brother-in-law Al Kisk, Nils Ljungquist, and Charles and Larry Mansur. Goddard also arranged for the use of a launch site northwest of Roswell, a large, flat pasture known as Eden Valley. The tower they had previously used at Aunt Effie Ward’s farm in Massachusetts was shipped out to New Mexico and reassembled in Eden Valley. All in all, the equipment shipped across the country to Goddard’s new facility filled two thirds of a boxcar.14

The familiar succession of failed launches and variously successful flights which started in Massachusetts continued at Roswell, except at a considerably accelerated pace, made possible by Guggenheim funding. This crucial financial support was interrupted for two years during the early days of the Great Depression. During this time Goddard returned to teaching at Clark University. Goddard’s work had been productive over the years. The altitude of test flights rose from 2,000 feet at the end of 1930 to 7,500 feet in May of 1935 and the fueling and stability of the rockets had improved. To keep abreast of developments in the Goddard rocket research project, Charles Lindbergh visited Mescalero Ranch every year during the 1930s. As global politics began to point toward war at the end of the decade, the U.S government became increasingly interested in the potential military use of the rockets being tested by Goddard.15

Although Robert and Esther planned to continue their work at Roswell indefinitely, buying the Mescalero Ranch in 1940, military funding for rocketry research dictated a move. In late June of 1942, the Goddards “started packing and crating” their belongings in preparation for a move to Annapolis, Maryland. There, research for the Goddards shifted to the development of rocket-assisted-takeoff (later jet-assisted takeoff) for aircraft. For the next three years, Robert Goddard was the Director of Research at the Bureau of Aeronautics for the Department of the Navy at Annapolis, Maryland. Although rocket-assisted takeoff became a reality, “Goddard’s technical accomplishments were modest during the war, compared with his achievements of the previous two decades.” He was often uncomfortable with restrictions placed on his work by the Navy. His years in Annapolis helped to shape “the marriage of United States science and the military establishment.” As Goddard biographer Milton Lehman put it: “The Military mind and the scientific mentality often found the courtship difficult.”16

During the early months of 1944, Goddards voice, already thin, became more difficult to understand. By the end of the year, he could not speak at all. Finally, in May of 1945, doctors found a small growth in his throat and by June a surgeon had determined that surgery was needed immediately, if Goddard was to have any hope of survival. He had been diagnosed as having throat cancer. At the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, his larynx and upper trachea were removed, but the procedure came too late. Goddard lingered until August 10, 1945. Mandy Ljungquist, his nurse and wife of one of the long-time members of the Goddard crew, recalled that although the scientist’s death was expected, when it finally came, it took everyone by surprise.17

 When Robert Goddard began serious research on rocket propulsion in the early 1900s, he was alone in the field in the United States though similar work was being conducted in Europe and Russia. For years, Goddard was known as America’s “rocket man.” As the twentieth century progressed, rocket science became a world wide phenomenon. Goddard patented much of the hardware and many of the theoretical formulations crucial to rocket flight that he had worked on over the years. He was protective of, even secretive about, his inventions and discoveries. As a result, he was seen by some as an uncooperative loner; a portrayal that tarnished his professional reputation during the final decades of his life. After his death, Esther and Harry Guggenheim took it upon themselves to promote Goddard’s place in the history of rocketry. They published a selection of his writings, paid to have a biography written, and actively pushed for government recognition of his accomplishments. By and large, they were successful, achieving for Robert Goddard widespread posthumous fame. Perhaps the peak of that fame came in 1961, when the new U.S. Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, was named for him. Today, the center is often referred to solely by his surname, Goddard.18

Notes:

1. David A. Clary, Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 6-8. Milton Lehman, This High Man: The Life of Robert H. Goddard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1963), 10-14.

2. Clary, Rocket Man, 10, 11, and 231. Lehman, This High Man, 17.

3. Lehman, This High Man, 22.

4. Robert H. Goddard, “Material for an Autobiography, 1927 and 1933,” in Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray, eds., The Papers of Robert H. Goddard, 3 vols., Vol. 1:1-40 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), 9. Clary, Rocket Man, 13-14.

5. Clary, Rocket Man, 18-20.

6. Ibid., 18-38.

7. Goddard, “Material for an Autobiography,” 19. Clary, Rocket Man, 41-42.

8. Clary, Rocket Man, 48, 52-53, 63, and 84. Lehman, This High Man, 21, 86. Goddard, “Material for an Autobiography,” 30.

9. Lehman, This High Man, 78-86 and 103-04. Clary, Rocket Man, 74-78 and 123.

 10. Lehman, This High Man, 106-07, 120, and 137-38. Clary, Rocket Man, 98 and 150-51.

 11. Clary, Rocket Man, 120-22, 132, and 136-38.

 12. Clary, Rocket Man, 138.

 13. “The First New Mexico Adventure, 1930-1932,” in Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray, eds., The Papers of Robert H. Goddard, 3 vols., Vol. 2:749-834 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), 2:756. Lehman, This High Man, 177.

 14. “The First New Mexico Adventure,” 2:761 and 764-68. Clary, Rocket Man, 150-52. Lehman, This High Man, 178, 181, and 184.

 15. Lehman, This High Man, 209. Clary, Rocket Man, 160, 163-64, 166, and 169.

 16. “1938, Pressure Tank Rockets Concluded,” in Esther C. Goddard and G Edward Pendray, eds., The Papers of Robert H. Goddard, 3 vols., Vol. 3:1105-1201 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), 3:1467-69. Clary, Rocket Man, 205-09, 214, 219, 230, and 231. “1941-1945, JATO and Variable Thrust for the Military,” in Esther C. Goddard and G Edward Pendray, eds., The Papers of Robert H. Goddard, 3 vols., Vol. 3:1425-1612, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970), 3:1430. Lehman, This High Man, 310.

 17. Lehman, This High Man, 369, 395, and 397.

 18. Clary, Rocket Man,  243-45 and 252-54. Lehman, This High Man, 405.