Viewport: Maverick Geniuses
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2009
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Air & Space.
A replica of the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, created by Robert H. Goddard and launched in 1926, occupies an honored place in the National Air and Space Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery. I walk by it every day on the way to my office, and, I have to admit, it doesn’t look like much. It’s a scrawny pipe with a conical cap, hanging on a test stand built of slender tubes. Goddard’s original, after reaching an altitude of 41 feet, made a U turn and slammed into the snow-covered ground on his Aunt Effie’s Massachusetts farm. There could hardly have been a more modest beginning for a discipline that exerted such enormous influence on the history of the 20th century.
In this issue, devoted to invention, you’ll read about advances in aviation and spaceflight that drew on the resources of corporations and government agencies. The Boeing 307 Stratoliner, which is on display at the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, was the first airliner to fly above the clouds and offer its passengers a truly comfortable ride (see “Above It All,” p. 12). The development of the Stratoliner’s pressurization system called for the cooperation of engineering teams and captains of industry. All U.S. aerospace companies benefited from the pioneering research of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which built wind tunnels to test breakthrough designs for engine cowlings and airfoils. Later, after the NACA had become NASA, one of its engineers, aerodynamicist Richard Whitcomb, made three discoveries—the area rule, the winglet, and the supercritical airfoil—that improved both commercial and military aircraft.
Robert Goddard eventually earned 214 patents and received support from private foundations as well as the military. He pioneered many key innovations, such as gyroscopic control and steering by movable vanes. But in 1926, the year of his historic launch, Goddard was a university professor working alone. He had no corporate R&D money and no government agency helping out with basic research. (He did, however, secure in 1917 a $5,000 grant from a forward-looking Smithsonian Institution.) Standing at the launch site that winter day with a single assistant, Goddard was elated with his modest success, writing about the rocket in his diary: It looked almost magical as it rose, without any appreciably greater noise or flame, as if it said ‘I’ve been here long enough; I think I’ll be going somewhere else, if you don’t mind.’
The history of aerospace is filled with individuals like Robert Goddard, and a few of them are in this issue too. It is satisfying to know that in a field so dominated today by large projects, requiring teamwork and shared risk, some of the seminal work comes from lone inventors who have to believe in themselves, sometimes for years, until the rest of us catch up and start believing too.