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Reaching Toward Space

His 1935 rocket was a technological tour de force, but Robert H. Goddard hid it from history.

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The space age arrived on the doorstep of the Smithsonian Institution in the first week of November 1935. It came in the form of a rocket, carefully packed in a long wooden crate, looking more sleek and streamlined than the sputtering craft that would carry Flash Gordon and Dale Arden to the planet Mongo and back at the local Bijou every Saturday afternoon. Measuring 15.375 feet long, 9 inches in diameter and 21.5 inches across the fins, it was covered with a shiny aluminum and stainless steel skin, one quadrant painted red.

The donor, Robert Hutchings Goddard, had consigned his creation to an express company in Roswell, New Mexico, on November 2. "The rocket has been greased inside and out," he explained to Smithsonian officials, "and the nozzle plugged with a shellacked cork." He went on to insist that under no circumstances was his rocket to be exhibited, or even shown, without his permission. Having agreed to those conditions, Frank A. Taylor, curator of the Division of Engineering, reported on November 16 that the new acquisition had been moved into deep storage in a basement corridor of the Smithsonian Castle. There it would remain for more than a decade.

Robert Goddard’s long relationship with the Smithsonian had begun in 1917, when the Institution had provided the young Clark University physics professor with a $5,000 grant to support his earliest experiments in rocketry. Charles G. Abbot, then director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, was intrigued by Goddard’s suggestion that rockets could boost scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere. No one was more pleased than Goddard’s mother. "I think that’s the most wonderful thing I ever heard of," she remarked. "Think of it! You send the Government some typewritten sheets and some pictures, and they send you $1,000, and tell you they are going to send four more."

 The Smithsonian published Goddard’s classic treatise on rocketry, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, in 1919. The document was a serious engineering study filled with equations and tabular data designed to prove that existing solid-propellant rockets could carry instruments into space. Though the paper concluded with a remark that it might even be possible to send a multistage rocket to the moon, the author did his best to understate the more sensational aspects of his study.

Goddard’s valiant efforts to preserve his scientific dignity were a dismal failure. The shy professor and his "moon-going rocket" were front-page news from the New York Times to the San Francisco Examiner. A Hollywood agent cabled a request:

WOULD BE GRATEFUL FOR OPPORTUNITY TO SEND MESSAGE TO MOON FROM MARY PICKFORD ON YOUR TORPEDO ROCKET WHEN IT STARTS.

Burned, Goddard retreated from the limelight and continued his work in relative secrecy. He achieved a genuine milestone on March 16, 1926, when he sent the world’s first liquid-propellant rocket sputtering aloft to a peak altitude of 41 feet above a Massachusetts cabbage patch. He continued to build, static test, and launch his rockets for the next three years, gaining useful experience in the design and construction of the bits and pieces that make up a rocket.

The steady, comfortable pace of his research was broken on July 17, 1929, when a new rocket left the launch tower with its usual roar and reached an altitude twice as high as that achieved in 1926. As Goddard and his crew were packing up that afternoon, a police car and an ambulance, summoned by neighbors who had been frightened by the noise, appeared on the scene. Goddard was back in the news once more and, in effect, barred from flying his rockets in the area.

But this short-term disappointment opened the door to Goddard’s most fruitful years. He was sitting at his desk on the afternoon of November 22, 1929, when he received a telephone call from the most famous man in America, Charles A. Lindbergh. The flier had noticed an article in the latest issue of Popular Science Monthly detailing Goddard’s work.

The two arranged a meeting the next day. By the end of his visit, Lindbergh’s limited interest had given way to a much grander vision. "I am sure Professor Goddard had no idea how his words set my mind to spinning," the aviator recalled in his autobiography. "A flight to the moon theoretically possible!...Who dared, now, to say anything was impossible!"

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