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 3 of 4)
Goddard simply "smiled pleasantly" and replied, "It seems to me that it would be impossible for me to improve upon the plan."
"Just one question then," the reporter said. "How soon do you expect to be able to go to the moon?"
At this, "the professor began to pace the floor nervously."
"In self-defense," Goddard said, "I have to fight shy of the newspaper men." There was not only the risk of "being misunderstood," he explained, "but my inventions are being perfected under the supervision of the Smithsonian Institution."
That last part was not entirely true. Although the Smithsonian expected and received regular reports of his technical progress, Goddard had complete freedom in his experiments and received no direct technical help from the institution. Goddard had assistants throughout his career, but he never revealed his overall plans to them, and in fact had his workers sign agreements not to reveal details of what they knew of his research.
It wasn't long, though, before Goddard, who subscribed to a news clipping service in New York City, began trying to correct the gross errors he saw in U.S. newspaper accounts of his work. The publicity continued for months, and spread around the world. Newspaper and magazine articles on his moon rocket appeared in Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, and Spain.
Things began to turn bizarre when a Captain Claude Collins of the New York City Air Police volunteered to ride in Goddard's rocket—not to the moon, but to Mars. That, of course, encouraged others. In all, more than 100 people over the years volunteered to ride in the hypothetical rocket. Goddard characterized these people as "adventurers" rather than scientists. In speeches and interviews, he emphasized that it was far too early to talk about humans in space, when what was really needed was fundamental development of the rocket.
Goddard hoped he could turn the flood of unexpected publicity to his advantage and get the public to contribute to his experimentation (he estimated the cost at between $50,000 and $100,000). He was not averse to delivering public lectures on parts of his research, but at one point he complained to reporters, "I could get along a whole lot faster if there was less volunteering and more real support."