The Birth of the Space Age



I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn…and as I looked toward the fields 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, if sent up from the meadow at my feet. I have several photographs of the tree, taken since, with the little ladder I made to climb it, leaning against it…I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended. Existence at last seemed very purposive.
 

 
— Robert Goddard
 


Rocketry is a historical paradox. The subject feels modern; the quest for the moon, the space shuttle, and today’s reusable rockets are developments of approximately the last half-century.

Yet, NASA traces rocketry’s pedigree to 400 BCE in Greece (steam) and the first century of the common era in China (gunpowder). The Mongols employed rockets for warfare in the 1200s. A scientist named Jean Froissart discovered launching rockets through tubes produced more controlled flights in the 1300s. In the 16th century, Johann Schmidlap produced fireworks rockets that utilized multiple stages. Sieges in the 1700s used rockets by the thousands to demoralize and devastate walled cities. Fort McHenry endured a famous bombardment in the War of 1812, where the rocket’s red glare illuminated a still-standing American flag.

All these examples seem anachronistic because rockets are more at home in science fiction than period pieces, but the science of rocketry is ancient.

Johann Schmidlap's two-stage rocket from 1561

Despite the varied lineage, we can point to specific moments or innovators that allowed rocketry to move in giant leaps. One such titan is Robert Goddard, known as the Father of Modern Rocketry. In many ways, our travels into space are a direct result of Goddard’s life.

Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1882, Goddard took to science and engineering from a young age. At five, his father demonstrated static electricity on a carpet and the boy never looked back. At 16, he read the classic H.G. Wells story The War of the Worlds and his focus turned toward outer space. From a cherry tree, he imagined a rocket leaving the planet’s atmosphere on its way to Mars. He dedicated his life to rocketry.

Despite being a studious youngster, Goddard graduated high school two years late due to a string of sicknesses. He quickly made up for lost time, however, by earning a doctorate in physics before age 30. By 1912, he nabbed a fellowship at Princeton University’s Palmer Physics Laboratory.

Portrait of Robert Goddard - NASA

As an instructor at Clark University, Goddard gained access to labs with which he could study rockets.

Two driving forces propel the tale of Goddard and spaceships. He was extraordinarily shy. He eschewed publicity and bristled at overzealous spotlights on his work. At the time, rocketry was considered a fool’s errand. Most self-respecting physicists of the early 20th century did not spend their time on a technology that offered little potential to humanity. Relativity and quantum mechanics ruled the theoretical world, while radios and airplanes dominated the practical side. Rocketry was largely viewed as a joke. Someone experimenting with rockets would draw a lot of attention, something a shy person would already abhor, and not the good kind of attention.

In 1915, he tested a powder rocket after hours at Clark. The event was so loud and bright that he provoked alarm from the campus janitor. Goddard had to awkwardly ensure the man that his experiment was both safe and meaningful. It was the first encounter that informed a problem with testing big things that blow up, albeit in a controlled manner, around other people.

Still, Goddard’s love for rockets compelled him to tinker. He increased the thrust efficiency of rocket design from 2% to 40% in 1915, then pushed it to 63%. These statistics demonstrated that rockets could leave Earth’s atmosphere, though almost no one realized it at the time. He concocted a test that proved rockets would perform in the vacuum of space. He designed and tested the first ion thrusters.

Goddard at Clark University - NASA

Despite his desire to tackle rockets in seclusion, the money needed to experiment began to outpace what Clark University could provide. Over the next several decades, Goddard received help from the Smithsonian and, through the intervention of Charles Lindbergh, the Guggenheim family. 

In 1919, he published the groundbreaking work A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. Though most of the treatise was mathematical, Goddard stated he believed humans could send ships to space, the moon, and beyond. The national media lambasted him, publishing op-eds with titles such as “A Severe Strain on Credulity.” Goddard’s reaction was to become an experimental hermit, trusting only a select few to work with him.

Despite the public kerfuffle, Goddard was ready to test a real rocket. Today, it would seem absurd to do so in populated areas of the planet. Goddard, however, did not have the luxury of space centers. Instead, he went to his aunt’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. On 17 March 1926, Goddard successfully launched the world’s first liquid-propelled rocket.

Goddard's original launch console - photo by RainmakerUSA

That rocket – nicknamed Nell – only rose 41 feet and crashed into a cabbage patch, but it demonstrated the future.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrated the aforementioned people problem. The neighbors were not at all pleased with a massive rocket launching nearby.

The East Coast of the United States was not going to cut it. Goddard needed a new proving ground. In this regard, he, again, became a pioneer.

In 1930, Goddard and his wife relocated to Roswell, New Mexico. Nearly two decades before flying-saucer fever struck the region, Roswell was a different town than the kitschy one that exists today. Southeastern New Mexico provided several benefits. The climate suited Goddard, who had suffered from tuberculosis and other breathing ailments. Further, the wide-open spaces offered two bonuses: he could launch rockets without worrying about them impacting other humans and he could launch rockets in remote areas without worrying about other humans bothering him.

Thus began a tradition the scientific and military communities have embraced ever since, utilizing the vast deserts of the western United States for testing purposes.

Looking down Goddard's Roswell launch tower - photo by Charles Lindbergh

In Roswell, Goddard pushed the field of rocketry into the modern age.

He introduced gyroscopic guidance systems, turbopumps, and variable-thrust engines. He did it all without military or government funding, too. Despite the onset of World War II, the U.S. military largely failed to see the benefits of rockets. Conversely, the Germans lavishly funded the work of Wernher von Braun, whose rockets reached the edge of space by 1942. German spies may have cased Goddard’s Roswell location, claiming to have witnessed launches and sending back vital intelligence.

In 1963, von Braun recounted, “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’s experiments in liquid fuel saved us years of work, and enabled us to perfect the V-2 years before it would have been possible.” Despite the praise from the Germans, the military never understood the potential of Goddard’s rockets and his technology did not really enter the fray on the U.S. side. 

A Goddard L-C rocket - photo by RainmakerUSA

Goddard died of lung cancer in 1945 before the breadth of his rocket breakthroughs could be realized. His desire for privacy along the way ensured that many people did not know about his accomplishments.

Not until the United States fully embraced space travel did his genius receive the proper acclaim. Today, NASA’s Space Flight Center research facility is named after Goddard. His bust sits in the International Aerospace Hall of Fame, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and the International Space Hall of Fame.

In his adopted home of Roswell, he retains a looming presence. A high school there bears his name. A planetarium and a wing carry the Goddard moniker at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

As one drives down the main street of Roswell, accosted on all sides by little green men that bring in tourists, a curious structure rises from a street corner. At the Roswell Museum, the intrepid traveler can amble up to an original launch tower used by Goddard in New Mexico. It feels like a hidden gem of history, significance hiding in plain sight.

Goddard's launch tower - photo by Kyle Stout
Goddard in statue form watches a rocket in the tower - photo by Kyle Stout

The monument around the tower includes the quote from Goddard as a child in the cherry tree. Though he did not live to see rockets take humanity to space, the newspapers that ridiculed him decades before published apologies when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

A purposive existence indeed.

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