Thursday, March 8, 2018

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.

YouTube video:

January 4: NASA’s Rover “Spirit” Landed on Mars, 2004

On January 4, 2004 — 14 years ago today — NASA’s robotic vehicle, the rover “Spirit,” landed safely on Mars. Spirit was the second robotic vehicle to land on Mars; the first was the Mars Pathfinder “Sojourner” in 1997. Spirit was joined by its twin rover, “Opportunity,” several weeks later. Both rovers were launched in July, 2003. The rovers were expected to operate for about 90 days. However, Spirit functioned for 5 years, over 20x the planned mission time. On May 1, 2009, Spirit got irretrievably stuck in Martian soft soil, but continued to send back data to Earth until it finally stopped communicating with Earth scientists on March 22, 2010.

Rover was assaulted by dust storms and cold winters, but came through these severe weather events largely unfazed. According to John Callas, Project Manager for the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, “Rover turned lemons into lemonade a number of times.” For example, a couple of years into the mission, Spirit’s right front wheel broke, so NASA’s scientists and engineers learned how to drive Spirit backwards (dragging the damaged wheel behind). Out of this adversity, Spirit went on to make an amazing discovery: evidence of water, pH neutral (pure) water, and hot springs existing at a time in Mars’s past history. Spirit revealed strong indications that Mars was at one time like the Earth, most likely about 3.5 to 4 billion years ago — with liquid water on its surface, a thicker atmosphere, and warmer temperatures than what now exist. In other words, Mars was at one time a place that could have supported life.

With the help of exploratory rovers like Spirit, humans may one day travel to Mars and extend the human civilization to another planet.

YouTube videos:


Image credit:
•An artist's concept portrays a NASA Mars Exploration Rover on the surface of Mars. By NASA/JPL/Cornell University, Maas Digital LLC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons:

January 3: Bitcoin Established the “Genesis Block”

— marking the launch of digital currency

On January 3, 2009 — just 9 years ago today — Bitcoin, the first decentralized digital currency to begin trading, established the Genesis Block. The Genesis Block defines exactly all the variables required to recreate the block and form a “block chain.” A block chain is a transaction database shared by all transactors participating in the system. The database is a public ledger of all Bitcoin transactions, and it is published to a distributed network of participating computers that have downloaded the bitcoin software. In real-time (every minute or so), batches of transactions are released in a block to be validated by the network and added to the block chain. These added blocks get a unique cryptographic marking that (a) permanently fixes every transaction and block in chronological order and (b) ensures the authenticity of every transaction.

In 2008, an anonymous programmer (or possibly a team of programmers), known as “Satoshi Nakamoto,” posted a paper on a popular cryptography blog that proposed a new system of currency that eliminates the need for banks and credit card companies — the intermediaries that currently process financial transactions between 2 individuals who are often strangers. Instead of banks and credit card companies recording transactions in their centralized, private ledgers, the paper proposed that all transactions between individuals and organizations be recorded in a huge database managed by the open-source bitcoin software. In essence, the bitcoin software dematerializes banks and credit card companies in the same way smartphones have dematerialized instant cameras, video cameras, calculators, calendars, music albums, music players, etc. With bitcoin software, transactions take place directly between individuals and organizations, the same way Napster used to share music between individuals — in a peer-to-peer network that is mediated only by open source software, not by any money-grabbing entities like banks or credit card companies. 

Within months of the submission of this proposal, and following the establishment today (6 years ago) of the fundamental components of the peer-to-peer transaction database in the “Genesis Block,” people were using the bitcoin system to buy and sell goods. Today, bitcoin is a legal cryptocurrency in the following countries:

1. Australia
2. Austria
3. Belgium
4. Brazil
5. Bulgaria
6. Canada
7. Colombia
8. Czech Republic
9. Denmark
10. Finland
11. Germany
12. Hong Kong
13. Israel
14. Japan
15. Lithuania
16. Malaysia
17. Norway
18. Philippines
19. Poland
20. Singapore
21. Slovenia
22. South Korea
23. Switzerland
24. Thailand
25. Turkey
26. United Kingdom
27. United States
28. Vietnam

Moreover, increasing numbers of companies are accepting bitcoin payments for goods and services, including these notable companies:
1. Amazon
2. Target
3. CVS
4. Subway
5. Victoria’s Secret
7. Virgin Galactic
8. Wordpress 
9. Reddit
10. Zynga
11. PayPal
12. eBay
13. Tesla
14. OKCupid
15. Tiger Direct
16. Zappos
18. Home Depot
19. Kmart
20. Sears
21. Dish Network
22. Apple’s App Store
23. MIT Coop Store
24. Wikipedia

YouTube video:


Image credits:
•Bitcoin Museum:
•Map of countries where bitcoin is legal [Left]. By Habarithor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons:

[Still working on the text of this post — please advise me what other essential details i need to include or if you see errors. Thanks.]

January 2: First Spacecraft to Reach Escape Velocity of Earth was Launched, 1959

On January 2, 1959 — 59 years ago today — the Soviet Union’s Luna 1 (a name applied retroactively years later) was launched and became the first spacecraft to reach escape speed of the Earth. The spacecraft was first known as “Mechta” (“Dream”) and its mission was to hit the Moon via a direct ascent trajectory. An incorrectly timed upper stage burn of the third stage rocket caused Luna 1 to miss the Moon by more than 3,600 miles (5,900 kilometers); but after missing the Moon, Luna 1 became the first spacecraft to reach solar orbit (its orbit lies between the planets of Earth and Mars). 
Luna 1 also marked the first time in history that radio communication took place at over 310,000 miles (500,000 kilometers). Luna 1 discovered that the Moon had no magnetic field; it also found the existence of a solar wind — a strong flow of ionized plasma originating from the Sun and streaming through interplanetary space.
YouTube video: (old documentary made in the late 1980s and early 1990s).
Image credits:
•Model of Luna 1: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

January 1: World’s First Scheduled Airline Began Operations, 1914

January 1: World’s First Scheduled Airline Began Operations, 1914

On January 1, 1914 — 101 years ago today — the world’s first scheduled heavier-than-air airline began operations. The airline was the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, organized by Percival E. Fansler, and the fleet of planes consisted of 2 Benoist XIV conventional biplanes (two parallel wings), called “flying boats.” Total number of passengers per flight was one, and the single passenger sat next to the pilot in an open cockpit. The first scheduled flight between the yacht basin in St. Petersburg and the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa departed just before 10:00 AM and was piloted by Tony Jannus, an early pioneer and daredevil in aviation history. The flight covered 18 miles (29 kilometers) and took under half an hour — about 11 hours less than the best alternative travel service by rail.

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line was founded by Percival Fansler and Thomas Wesley Benoit (the designer of the biplane used for service). Their company negotiated a contract with the St. Petersburg Board of Trade, which agreed to subsidize 50% of the costs for starting the airline, to provide 2 daily flights per day. When the contract expired on March 31, 1914, the company had transported 1,204 passengers without injury and lost only 4 days to mechanical problems. A decline in business and lack of continued funding from the Board of Trade caused the end of the service.

YouTube videos:


Image credits:
•Thomas Benoist (airplane designer, left), former St. Petersburg Mayor (center), and Tony Janus (pilot, right): Image provided by National Air and Space Museum Archives. [Top left]

•Map of the scheduled St. Petersburg to Tampa flight route: Map provided by the National Air and Space Museum. [Bottom left] Benoit XIV airboat: This image was taken from the Florida Photographic collection, where it is image rc04751. [Right]