The Misunderstood Professor
When he suggested in a 1920 treatise that rockets could reach the moon, Robert Goddard sparked a public frenzy.
- By Frank H. Winter
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
NASM (SI 73-1274)
(Page 2 of 4)
The young Goddard, meanwhile, while studying for a doctorate in physics, spent years searching for the most practical way to escape gravity. It was not until 1909 that he settled on the rocket as the solution. In 1915, drawing on his assistant professor's salary, he started experimenting with solid propellants. (He switched to liquid propellants in 1921, but did not announce his 1926 liquid-fuel rocket flight—the world's first—until a decade later.)
In 1916, Goddard conducted one of the most significant experiments in his career: He proved that a rocket could work in a vacuum. This was revolutionary: Throughout the 1,000-year history of rocketry, most people believed rockets needed air "to push against." But Goddard's experiments were expensive, and in 1917 he secured a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian to continue them. He was secretive about his work, saying only that his rockets were for upper atmospheric research.
Later—reluctantly, at the goading of a colleague—he wrote up his results. A Method was a dry, academic treatise, full of scientific formulas detailing his research, including the vacuum experiments. But, out of his fixation on spaceflight and because he thought it would be read only by academics, Goddard included the theoretical exercise of mathematically demonstrating the maximum efficiency of multi-stage rockets. The keys to his rocket's long reach were multi-staging and the use of the de Laval nozzle—a tube with an hourglass shape that accelerates the flow of gas through it.
In all, 1,750 copies of A Method were printed (90 copies went to Goddard), and the Smithsonian sent out its press release to thunder-struck editors. Most of the newspapers regarded the possibility of flight into space via a rocket with intense curiosity. Others treated Goddard's idea with amusement, and ran cartoons about it.
But there were criticisms too, some harsh. The most famous appeared in the New York Times on January 13, 1920, in which an editorial writer accused Goddard of being wrong and uneducated. Titled "A Severe Strain on Credulity," the writer chided the professor for his perceived ignorance: "Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair' in Clark College…does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react." Goddard, the editorial sniffed, "seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
Goddard's initial reaction to the furor was summed up in a January 14 article in the Boston Herald. "His invention he will not discuss," the article said, recounting a less-than-fruitful interview that went like this:
Presenting a copy of his treatise to the Herald reporter, Goddard said, "That tells the whole story."
"But this 69-page pamphlet is so abstruse…," the reporter complained.