January 5: Rocket pioneer & “Father of the Space Age” Robert H. Goddard was awarded Smithsonian grant, 1917
On January 5, 1917 — 101 years ago today — Professor Robert H. Goddard of Clark College, Worcester, Massachusetts, was awarded a grant from the Smithsonian Institution. Goddard had written a research proposal about developing and experimenting with rockets and submitted it to the institution in October, 1916. Within 3 months, Goddard received a letter from the head of the Smithsonian, Charles Doolittle Walcott, that explained the Smithsonian was willing to support Goddard’s proposed work.
In the letter, Smithsonian Secretary Walcott explained:
I have submitted your proposals and data to a committee consisting of Dr. C. G. Abbot of this Institution and Dr. E. Buckingham of the Bureau of Standards for report with recommendations. Both gentlemen having verified the soundness of your theoretical work, the accuracy of the numerical data, and being favorably impressed with the ingenuity of your mechanical and experimental dispositions, the clearness of your exposition, and recognizing the value of that which is proposed, they concur in recommending support on the part of the Institution.
I, therefore, have pleasure in approving a grant to you of $5,000.00 from the Hodgkins Fund, to be used for the purposes described in your letter of October 19, 1916...
The 1917 $5,000 grant is about $100,000 in today’s adjusted-for-inflation dollars.
Like the parents of Ray Kurzweil, Larry Page, and numerous other innovators, Goddard’s parents were supportive of Robert’s home experiments as he was growing up. Goddard’s father encouraged Robert’s scientific interest by getting Robert a telescope, a microscope, and a subscription to Scientific American. When Robert was 16 years old, he read H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, which sparked his interest in space. He also developed a habit of writing down daily events in a diary, and one such key event that he recorded happened on October 19, 1899 when he was 17 years old. After climbing a cherry tree and looking at the fields below, he imagined — in his own words — “how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars… It seemed to me then that a weight whirling around a horizontal shaft, moving more rapidly above than below, could furnish lift by virtue of the greater centrifugal force at the top of the path. I was a different boy when i descended the tree… Existence at last seemed very purposive.”
In high school, Goddard suffered from upper respiratory and stomach ailments and spent much time away from school. He used the time to read scientific books which he borrowed from the local library; at the library, he also read the periodical Smithsonian, in which he learned about Samuel Langley’s scientific papers on aerodynamics and his experiments with machine-generated flight. Goddard spent the next decade getting his undergraduate degree and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics and then accepted a research fellowship at Princeton University’s Palmer Physical Laboratory.
By 1913, Goddard had developed the mathematics that allowed him to calculate the position and velocity of a rocket in vertical flight, given the weight of the rocket and the propellant and the velocity of the exhaust gases. Unfortunately, in early 1913, Goddard contracted tuberculosis and had to leave Princeton. His doctors did not expect him to live, but his dream of spaceflight via rockets inspired him to walk for exercise in the fresh air, and his condition gradually improved. He worked on securing a number of patents during this time (ultimately 214 patents), including two of his most significant patents that were milestones in the history of rocketry: (1) a multi-stage rocket fueled with solid “explosive material,” and (2) a rocket fueled with solid explosive materials or with liquid propellants (gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide).
The Smithsonian Institution was interested in rockets for the purpose of better understanding meteorological events by studying the Earth’s atmospheric envelope. So Goddard applied to the Smithsonian for a grant to meet the Smithsonian’s needs, but he knew that the grant would further advance his dream of building rockets for space travel. While using the grant money to further his research, Goddard produced a landmark report, “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” which is today regarded as a pioneering work of rocket science. A final section of his report speculated about the possibility of rockets reaching “infinite altitude” — not only reaching the Earth’s upper atmosphere, but escaping from Earth’s gravity and traveling to the Moon and beyond.
The Smithsonian published Goddard’s report in 1919, and it gained Goddard much media coverage — most of it negative. On January 12, 1920, The New York Times published a front-page story about Goddard and the small part of his report that speculated about rockets reaching the Moon. The next day, The Times ran an unsigned editorial article, entitled “A Severe Strain on Credulity,” in which Goddard was sharply rebuked for lacking “the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” The day after Apollo 11 was launched on the first manned mission to the Moon, The Times published a correction to its 1920 editorial: Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton … that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. In other words, Goddard was unfairly rebuked, and he certainly understood science better than anyone at The Times, at least in 1920.
By those observers who know more than The New York Times in 1920, Goddard has been called both “the father of modern rocket propulsion” and, consequently, “the father of the Space Age.” NASA reports from its website of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, “By 1926, Goddard had constructed and successfully tested the first rocket using liquid fuel. Indeed, the flight of Goddard’s rocket on March 16, 1926, at Auburn, Massachusetts, was as significant to history as that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.” NASA continued with a list of Dr. Goddard’s major contributions to rocketry and spaceflight:
Explored the practicality of using rocket propulsion to reach high altitudes, even the moon (1912)
Proved that a rocket will work in a vacuum, that it needs no air to push against
Developed and fired a liquid fuel rocket (March 16, 1926, Auburn, Mass.)
Shot a scientific payload in a rocket flight (1929, Auburn, Mass.)
Used vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance (1932, New Mexico)
Developed gyro control apparatus for rocket flight (1932, New Mexico)
Received U.S. patent for of multi-stage rocket (1914)
Developed pumps suitable for rocket fuels
Launched a rocket with a motor pivoted on gimbals under the influence of a gyro mechanism (1937)
The Smithsonian’s Grant, awarded this day in 1917, was pivotal to Goddard’s research and experimentation and, small though the grant was, it is worthy of recognition as an outstanding contribution to the advancement of science.