The First Liquid-Fueled Rocket

Invented by Robert H. Goddard, Class of 1908

The Space Age began in 1926 on a farm in Auburn, Mass., when Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket, demonstrating a new technology that would ultimately take humans into space and to the moon, and send robotic spacecraft to the edges of the solar system and beyond. Goddard's first rocket rose only 41 feet, but in time he was developing more and more sophisticated machines that were climbing thousands of feet and incorporating breakthroughs that would become standard features on future generations of rockets.

Goddard's interest in rocketry began in 1898 when he sat in a tree behind his Worcester home and imagined a device that could carry people from the Earth to Mars. As a physics major at WPI, he filled many notebooks with ideas about space travel. He wondered, for example, about systems for supporting life outside the atmosphere, about methods for slowing a speeding spacecraft so it could land on another planet, and about techniques for putting people in suspended animation during long voyages.

His early thoughts on liquid-fueled rockets also took shape at WPI. He developed them further as a graduate student and as a professor at Clark University, conducting some of his early tests in the former magnetics laboratory (now Skull Tomb) at WPI. Concerns about the safety of his experiments led him to move his research program to the desert near Roswell, New Mexico.

Goddard's work did not win him fame during his lifetime. But later, when 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 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, which has hosted a number of WPI student projects teams over the years.