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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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Lindbergh communicated his enthusiasm to his friend Harry Guggenheim, son of philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim, who agreed to provide an initial grant of $50,000 to support the effort. Before the project was over, the Guggenheims would spend some $188,500 on Goddard’s work.

The grant enabled Goddard to devote his full attention to rocketry. At the suggestion of a meteorologist, he selected the isolated high-plateau country around Roswell, New Mexico, as the ideal site for testing high-altitude rockets.

In the desert, Goddard could insulate himself from the pressures and the perceived dangers of the outside world. Concerned that rocket builders in other parts of the nation and the world would make use of his work before he could achieve extreme altitudes and publish his research, he trusted no one outside his tiny circle of assistants. Rocketeers all over the world knew his name, but none of them knew much about his technology, or precisely what he had accomplished.

By the spring of 1935, Goddard was concentrating on the development of a gyroscopic control system. "Last Friday we had the best flight we have ever had during the entire research," he reported in a letter to Clark’s president. Still, progress was slow.

At Goddard’s invitation, Lindbergh and Harry Guggenheim flew into Roswell on September 22, 1935, hoping to observe a flight. Two trips to the test area resulted in nothing more than a pair of abortive launches. Goddard, Lindbergh recalled, "was as mortified as a parent whose child misbehaves in front of company."

Before leaving Roswell, Lindbergh and Guggenheim urged Goddard to publish a report on his latest experiments and to ensure the preservation of his technology by presenting one of his recent rockets to a museum. After their departure, Goddard wrote to his old friend Charles G. Abbot, now serving as Secretary of the Smithsonian, offering to prepare another report for publication by the Institution and to deposit "one of the complete rockets that we have used in the stabilization development."

Goddard’s workmen spent the next several days reassembling a typical A series vehicle from parts of several surviving rockets, likely including A-5, which had been flown on March 28. "The greatest height reached by these rockets," Goddard wrote, "was somewhat over a mile, and the greatest speed in flight over 700 miles per hour." On November 2, the rocket began its journey to long-term storage at the Smithsonian. There it would remain until after World War II, when it would finally be displayed in the World War I temporary building, the "tin shed" housing many objects that would form the heart of the National Air Museum collection.

The professor and his wife left Roswell in 1942 to work with U.S. Navy and Curtiss-Wright engineers on the development of rocket-assisted takeoff and variable-thrust, liquid-propellant rockets. He died of throat cancer in August 1945, still dreaming of reaching the extreme altitudes.

Goddard was largely forgotten during the flurry of excitement over the German V-2 rocket and the postwar high-altitude rocket tests at White Sands, New Mexico, not very far from Roswell. But the neglect was about to change. The Guggenheims funded a large museum display of Goddard technology, the contents of which eventually entered the Smithsonian collections. The post-Sputnik drive to honor the American rocket pioneer reached its peak when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1959, and the United States government awarded $1 million to the Guggenheim Foundation and Mrs. Goddard for the use of Goddard patents in 1960.

Today, the Goddard A series rocket is in storage, but present plans call for its display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, scheduled to open at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2003. Three other Goddard rockets can be seen at the Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

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