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Robert Goddard and the Smithsonian

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Former Secretary of the Smithsonian, Charles Greeley Abbot helped get the Space Age under way. In late September 1916, he received a letter from Robert Hutchings Goddard, a professor of physics at Clark University. “For a number of years,” the young academic began, “I have been at work upon a method of raising recording instruments to altitudes exceeding the limit of sounding balloons.” Four long paragraphs later, he finally revealed that he had been investigating rocket propulsion.

Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard was among the few people who independently discovered the rocket as the key to space before World War I, and he was one of three (along with Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Julius Oberth) who worked out all the equations. He went on to create the world’s first flying, liquid-fuel rocket and made many other pioneering contributions to rocket technology.

A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, born in 1882, Goddard earned a B.Sc. from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (1908) and an M.Sc. (1911) and a Ph.D. (1912) in physics from Clark University. After some important early work in electronics, the young professor began his work on rocketry and spaceflight. In 1914 he patented the design of both a multistage and a liquid propellant rocket and conducted an experiment demonstrating the ability of a rocket to function in space. The work was becoming ever more expensive, he explained to Abbot, and wondered if the Smithsonian could offer any support.

Abbot was immediately intrigued by Goddard’s work. He had followed in Samuel Langley’s footsteps, traveling to mountaintops and sending instrumental balloons aloft in an attempt to measure the solar constant, the total amount of solar energy reaching the Earth at the top of the atmosphere. Now he was hearing from a scientist who, in seven pages of exquisite detail, could explain precisely why a rocket was the ideal vehicle to loft instruments above the filtering atmosphere!

In less than a year, Abbot had arranged a $5,000 grant to support Goddard’s first practical experiments in rocketry. No one was more pleased than the young scientist’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.”

It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. 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 quadratic equations and tabular data designed to prove that existing solid-propellant rockets could carry instruments into space. The author did his best to understate the more sensational aspects of his study, confining his thoughts on the possibility of more efficient liquid-propellant rockets to a footnote and not even mentioning the possibility that human beings might one day ride on a rocket. The paper concluded, however, with a remark that it might even be possible to send a multistage rocket to the moon…

Hoopskirt Rocket

Robert Goddard with the "hoopskirt" rocket before an attempted launch on September 29, 1928.

… Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum have the opportunity to view a wide range of Goddard technology, from the world’s oldest surviving liquid-propellant rocket to a Rube Goldberg device designed to indicate how much photographic flash powder would have to be exploded on the face of the moon to be visible from Earth.

Tom D. Crouch is the senior curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

Excerpt from the newly published “Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography,” written and edited by Museum staff. Copies of the book can be purchased online or in Museum and book stores.

Goddard’s “hoopskirt” rocket is now on view in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery at the National Mall Building.

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3 thoughts on “Robert Goddard and the Smithsonian

  1. Dr. Goddard, much like the Wright brothers, is one of the most under appreciated pioneers in his field. His considerable legacy is constantly saddled with caveats, but while the others were theorists, he is The original rocket scientest!

  2. ~ What a wonderful and interesting narrative about young Robert Goddard. ~ Thanks for sharing!

  3. Pingback: Aviation News December 4, 2010 :: N8JW

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