About Robert H. Goddard

Robert H. Goddard poses in a farmer’s field in Auburn, Mass., on the morning of March 16, 1926, with what was to become the first successfully launched liquid-fueled rocket.

It might be said that the Space Age began on a calm, clear afternoon in March 1926, in the town of Auburn, Mass., just south of Worcester. There, in a farmer’s field, near a cabbage patch, two men erected a metal framework and placed within it a gangly looking contraption. Its fuel, a mixture of gasoline and liquid oxygen, was ignited, and with a roar the rocket rose 41 feet into the air, falling in a heap 184 feet from its starting point.

Little noticed at the time, the event signaled the beginning of the conquest of space just as clearly as the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 (the year before Robert Goddard enrolled at WPI) marked the start of mankind’s conquest of the air. From this modest beginning, Goddard went on to build more sophisticated machines that would climb thousands of feet above the New Mexico desert.

Experiment by experiment, launch by launch, Goddard refined the technology of liquid-fueled rocketry, incorporating breakthroughs that would become standard features on virtually every rocket to come and building the foundation for an entirely new field of technology. His innovations made possible rockets that have taken humans into space and to the surface of the moon, and sent robotic spacecraft to nearly every planet, to rendezvous with comets and asteroids, and to the edges of the solar system.

Goddard late in life with one of his most sophisticated rockets. The technology he invented from the ground up became the foundation for modern rocketry.

At a time when space travel was only the stuff of science fiction, and when even many scientists doubted that it would ever be possible to escape Earth's gravity, let along set out on fantastic voyages among the stars, Goddard knew—with the certainty of a physicist who had done the calculations—that it was only a matter of building the right machine. In fact, taking the ability to reach space as a given, he leapt ahead and considered the practical problems that would come from traveling and living beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Goddard's work did not win him fame during his lifetime, but did bring occasional ridicule (as when the New York Times in 1920 famously took Goddard to task for his assertion that rocket propulsion would work in a vacuum, saying he "seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." The paper corrected its error 59 years later as Apollo 8 sailed toward the moon). But after his death in 1945, as it became clear that his insights and hard work had laid the foundation for modern space exploration, the honors began to roll in.

Congress ordered a special gold medal struck in his honor, and the American Rocket Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics created Goddard awards. WPI also has a Goddard Award (for professional achievement by alumni), as well as Goddard Hall (home of the Chemistry and Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering departments), a Goddard graduate fellowship, and the Goddard GigaPoP (WPI's portal to Internet2). Perhaps the greatest tribute to the father of modern rocketry is NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, established in 1961, exactly 35 years after Goddard's first rocket rose from that field in Auburn, Mass.

There are many sources of information on Robert Goddard on the Internet. Here are two authoritative websites maintained by Goddard's alma maters:

WPI's Gordon Library has a page on the life of Robert Goddard with chronologies ofhis key career and scientific accomplishments.

The Goddard Library at Clark University in Worcester, where Goddard received his PhD in physics and taught for several years, also has an informative page on Goddard with a wealth of material, including diagrams of Goddard's rockets, photos of the diary entry about his first rocket launch, and links to other Goddard resources.

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