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 4 of 4)
Overseas, the public reaction to Goddard's paper was no less enthusiastic. In Russia, enthusiasts first inspired by Tsiolkovsky's works formed rocketry clubs and put on exhibitions to promote Goddard's research throughout the 1920s (see "Russia's Long Love Affair With Space," Aug./Sept. 2007).
After Goddard's paper appeared, it didn't take long for Hollywood to catch moon fever. The first movie to depict a space rocket was All Aboard for the Moon, produced by Bray Studios and released in February 1920. It was a short, animated, educational movie directed by David Fleischer. (Fleischer's brother Max, who did the animation, went on to greater fame as the animator for such characters as Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman.) Film producer John Bray contacted Goddard for technical help, but Goddard politely declined. Undeterred, Bray released a second space movie in 1920, What It's Like to Live on the Moon. Another of his films, 1922's The Sky Splitter, featured a radium-powered rocket that made it onto the cover of the French magazine La Science et la Vie (Science and Life).
Images of spacecraft from the Bray films helped spread the idea of the space rocket to wider audiences, even if the message distorted what Goddard was actually suggesting. Goddard's treatise clearly had an impact on movie makers of his day; before 1920, films about space did not have rockets at all. Georges Méliès' classic 1902 movie LeVoyage dans la Lune (The Voyage to the Moon), featured a giant cannon as the launcher. By contrast, a publicity photo for the 1922 film Chasing the Moon showed star Tom Mix straddling a moon-bound rocket. The movie went out to more than 20,000 exhibitors in a dozen countries.
Early science fiction literature also toyed with the space rocket idea, but it took the publication of Goddard's treatise on rocketry for the idea to take hold in that genre. In a compendium edited by Everett Bleiler of more than 3,000 science fiction stories, the earliest mention of the rocket as a means of travel into space was in Cyrano de Bergerac's novel The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, published in 1656. But considering that the title contained the word "comical," it was easy to dismiss de Bergerac's concept of the rocket as little more than a humorous literary device. His spacecraft, in fact, was only a box lifted up by ordinary fireworks.
Overall, the compendium showed that before 1920, only about five space stories featured rockets. Before Goddard, the most popular means of space propulsion in science fiction was anti-gravity, as featured in H.G. Wells' First Men in the Moon, published in 1901. The situation changed dramatically after 1920, with the appearance of the world's first sci-fi magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926. For the next decade, the rocket was the preferred method of imaginary travel, appearing in 169 science fiction magazine stories, more than any other type of vehicle.
Adding to the rocket frenzy of the 1920s was the impact of another rocket pioneer, Rumanian-born (later German) physicist Hermann Oberth, whose book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket Into Interplanetary Spaces), appeared in 1923. In many ways Oberth's book was far more advanced than Goddard's work, although it was strictly theoretical. For one thing, Oberth focused on the potentially more powerful and controllable liquid-propellant rocket, compared with Goddard's initial, solid-fuel rocket. For another, Oberth stressed human spaceflight, while Goddard had written of the unmanned rocket.
From the 1920s to the 1940s, Goddard's name was invariably brought up worldwide in any literature having to do with rockets. But from 1930 on, almost without interruption, he had become—except for a few assistants—the lone rocket experimenter at his isolated research station near Roswell, New Mexico, funded by the industrialist Daniel Guggenheim. In the end, Goddard preferred secrecy to publicity, and he remained aloof from an ever more crowded field of rocket experimenters until his death in 1945.
Although unintentionally, Goddard's treatise planted the seeds, both conceptual and technological, of the Space Age. While Goddard did not live to see that age unfold, his ideas were eventually accepted even by his critics. Almost 50 years after the New York Times had so blistered Goddard, it conceded in an editorial: "Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton, and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in the atmosphere. The Times regrets the error." The retraction ran on July 17, 1969, as Apollo 11 streaked to the moon.