Inspired by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, a young Robert Goddard started tinkering with model rockets launching them high into the sky in an attempt to make contact with Mars. Friends and family thought he was crazy, but what started as a childhood fantasy would lead to a lifetime of research and the development of the world’s first liquid-fuel rockets and ultimately to the Earth’s conquest of the moon and beyond.
In 1919, at only 21 years old, Goddard took a teaching job at Clark College in New Hampshire. That year he published a paper about his rocket theories that opened him up to a great deal of public ridicule. The media called him crazy and “rocket man.” So, embarrassed, he conducted his experiments in relative secrecy.
In only 7 years, Goddard was able to successfully launch a rocket using liquid propellant – sure, it fluttered only 41 feet into the air and 184 feet from the tower – but it was a success in his mind. Of course, the press again attempted to squash his dreams with public mockery, but this time the publicity helped him gain vital support from the world-renowned explorer Charles Lindbergh and monetary funding from Harry Guggenheim.
With this funding Goddard moved his operation to Roswell where he would have solitude, wide-open spaces and plenty of favorable weather. Over the next 12 years he would complete fifty-six flights, six of which would reach over 1,000 feet.
He left quite a legacy after his death in 1945. His research would not only provide the groundwork for airplane and space travel but his notes would later be the basis for some of the 20th Century’s most ground breaking technology:
- Magnetic Levitation for Transportation: Dr. Goddard imagined that someday, a trip from Boston to New York could be made in less than ten minutes using a vehicle that glides between two magnets in a tunnel. Today known as “MagLev” systems, the Chinese Government opened the Shanghai Maglev Train that has a top operating speed of over 265 mph (which would make the trip between Boston and New York in only 45 minutes… pretty close.)
- Solar Energy: Though he initially theorized the use of solar energy to power spacecraft (as it would be an affordable, light and omnipresent source of fuel), many of his initial drawings and patents have been influential for the development of solar energy panels on Earth as well.
- Radio Tubes: In 1915 Goddard patented one of the world’s first radio frequency oscillating tubes. Marketed under the name “Gammatron” the product was quite successful for the company that produced them.
After his death, Mrs. Goddard donated many of his rockets to the Roswell Museum and Art Center, and in 1969 the Robert H. Goddard wing was dedicated. The wing now contains a replica of his workshop and many test rockets. You can still see his work there today, it’s free (donations encouraged) and well worth a stop.