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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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.

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