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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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."

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.

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