Robert H. Goddard

Robert H. Goddard

The ‘Father of Modern Rocketry;’ launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket.

Robert H. Goddard, often called “the father of modern rocketry” was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on October 5, 1882. Along with Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky of Russia and Hermann Oberth of Germany, Goddard was one of the first to envision the exploration of space. A physicist of great insight, Goddard also had a unique genius for invention.
Robert was the son of a traveling salesman who also dabbled at inventing, and both parents encouraged their son’s interest in science. Goddard graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908 and then became a physics instructor there. At the same time, he began graduate work at Clark University, where he received his M.A. in 1910 and a Ph.D. in 1911. Goddard was a research fellow at Princeton in 1912 and 1913, then in 1914, he joined the faculty at Clark University, where he became a full professor in 1919.

In 1914, Goddard received two U.S. patents- one was for a rocket using liquid fuel; the second was for a two or three stage rocket using solid fuel. At his own expense, he began to make systematic studies about propulsion provided by various types of gunpowder. In 1916, Goddard requested funds of the Smithsonian Institution so that he could continue his research. That proposal was published in 1920 along with his subsequent research and Navy work as Smithsonian Miscellaneous Publication No. 2540 “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.” In it, he detailed his search for methods of raising weather-recording instruments higher than sounding balloons. In this search, as he related, he developed the mathematical theories of rocket propulsion.

Towards the end of the report, Goddard outlined the possibility of a rocket reaching the Moon and exploding a load of flash powder there to mark its arrival. The bulk of his scientific report to the Smithsonian was a dry explanation of how he used the $5000 grant in his research. Yet, the press picked up Goddard’ s proposal about a rocket flight to the moon and created a journalistic controversy concerning the feasibility of such a thing. Much ridicule came Goddard’s way, reinforcing his natural tendencies to shyness and working alone. From this experience, he reached firm convictions about the press corps that he held for the rest of his life. His reticence, unfortunately, restricted the dissemination of his revolutionary research.

On March 16, 1926, Goddard successfully tested the world’s first rocket powered by liquid fuel at Auburn, Massachusetts, a feat as epochal in history as that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. Yet, it was only one of Goddard’s “firsts” in the field rocket propulsion in the fields of military missilery and the scientific exploration of space (see list below). He received a total of $10,000 for his research from the Smithsonian by 1927, and through the personal efforts of Charles A. Lindbergh, Goddard subsequently received financial support from the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation. In 1936, his accomplishments were published in the Smithsonian report, “Liquid Propellant Rocket Development.”

Goddard’s research largely anticipated, in technical detail, the later German V-2 missiles, including gyroscopic control, steering by means of vanes in the jet stream of the rocket motor, gimbal-steering, power-driven fuel pumps, and other devices. Goddard worked on other technologies as well, and demonstrated the basic idea of the “bazooka” at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, two days before the Armistice that ended World War I, in 1918. Dr. Clarence N. Hickman, a young Ph.D. from Clark University, worked with Goddard in 1918 on this research that eventually resulted in the World War II bazooka. In World War II, Goddard again offered his services to the U.S. military and was assigned by the U.S. Navy to the development of practical jet-assisted takeoff (JATO) and liquid propellant rocket motors capable of variable thrust. In both areas, he was successful.

After the Nazis surrendered in May 1945, Goddard was able to inspect captured German V-2s, many components of which he recognized as his own inventions. However, Goddard would not design any more rockets of his own. He learned he had throat cancer earlier in 1945 and died that year on August 10 in Baltimore, Maryland. He was buried in Hope Cemetery in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts.

When German rocket experts brought to America after the war were questioned about their V-1 and V-2 weapons, many were amazed and asked why American officials did not inquire of Goddard, from whom they had learned virtually all they knew. In 1963, Werhner von Braun said of Goddard: “His rockets … may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles.”

Robert Goddard was awarded 214 patents for his work, 83 of which came during his lifetime. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, established in 1959, is named in his honor. Goddard Crater on the Moon is also named for him, as is asteroid 9252 Goddard. On September 16, 1959, the 86th Congress authorized the issuance of a gold medal in the honor of Professor Robert H. Goddard. He was the first scientist who, not only realized the potentialities of missiles and space flight but also contributed directly to bringing them to practical realization. The dedicated labors of this modest man went largely unrecognized in the United States until the dawn of the “space age.”


Robert H. Goddard’s basic contribution to missilery and space flight is a lengthy list. As such, it is an eloquent testimonial to his lifetime of work in establishing and demonstrating the fundamental principles of rocket propulsion.

-First explored mathematically the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high altitudes and even the moon (1912)

-First proved, by actual static test, that a rocket will work in a vacuum, that it needs no air to push against

-First developed and shot a liquid fuel rocket, March 16, 1926

-First shot a scientific payload (barometer and camera) in a rocket flight (1929, Auburn, Massachusetts)

-First used vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance (1932, New Mexico)

-First developed gyro control apparatus for rocket flight (1932, New Mexico)

-First received U.S. patent in idea of multi-stage rocket (1914)

-First developed pumps suitable for rocket fuels

-First launched successfully a rocket with a motor pivoted on gimbals under the influence of a gyro mechanism (1937)