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The Misunderstood Professor

When he suggested in a 1920 treatise that rockets could reach the moon, Robert Goddard sparked a public frenzy.

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Robert Goddard could scarcely believe his eyes as he scanned the newspaper the morning of January 12, 1920. A young physics professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, Goddard had figured that the scholarly paper he gave to the Smithsonian Institution, his sponsor for high-altitude research, might attract attention. But not this: "New Rocket Devised By Prof. Goddard May Hit Face Of The Moon" screamed the front-page headline in the Boston Herald.

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Goddard's treatise, "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," had been released to the public the day before, along with what was then a startling press release from the Smithsonian. Although the original release has not been found, all the major U.S. newspapers across the country quoted from it.

It was mind-boggling news, for two reasons. First, the very idea of flying in space was simply inconceivable when just seven months earlier, in June 1919, Britain's Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown had notched a major milestone in aviation by completing the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic, a 16-hour journey they made at an average speed of 118 mph. Second, the average person in 1920 knew rockets only as the simplest kind of fireworks, something that flew up to 100 feet or so on holidays like the Fourth of July.

But here was the venerable Smithsonian touting a scientist who, the newspaper said, "had invented and tested a new type of multiple-charge, high-efficiency rocket of entirely new design for exploring the unknown regions of the upper air. The claim is made for the rocket that it will not only be possible to send it…beyond the Earth's atmosphere, but possibly even so far as the moon itself."

The Herald article went on to describe the rocket and explain how it could help study the upper atmosphere's chemical composition, temperatures, electrical properties, densities, and ozone content. But the newspaper, and many others across the country, chose to sensationalize what Goddard had intended as a strictly hypothetical exercise: to mathematically demonstrate the possibilities that a multi-stage, unmanned rocket could reach the moon.

The rocket concept was soon featured in magazines, movies, poetry, cartoons, and even music. Goddard would spend much of his career trying to knock down the misimpressions and rein in what he called "popular fallacies" about his treatise, which never mentioned manned spaceflight at all.

Goddard began his rocketry career in 1899, when at 17 he daydreamed of a spacecraft that could fly to Mars. The vision came to him after he read two serialized stories in the Boston Post, an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells and Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garret P. Serviss. Goddard was so inspired that he vowed to devote his life to seeking a method to get into space.

Unknown to him, about 8,000 miles away, in Kaluga, Russia, a partly deaf schoolteacher named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had already worked out the possibilities of spaceflight. In 1903, Tsiolkovsky's seminal article appeared in a popular scientific journal, Naouchnoe Obozrenie (Scientific Review). The title of the article, translated, was "The Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Propelled Devices." The czarist authorities seized the journal because another piece in it was deemed politically subversive, but Tsiolkovsky continued to write about space. His articles were little known even in Russia, mainly because he could barely afford to pay for their private printing. Because of this, and the isolation of Russia from the West, his early works on space were then practically unknown in America.

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.

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