Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The development of a liquid propellant made rocketry, and thus space exploration, possible.

Summary of Event

On a cold winter day in March, 1926, three men and a woman in heavy coats gathered around a small launching stand built of pipes that had been set up in the snow in a field near Auburn, Massachusetts. Held in place on the stand, which resembled a large metal ladder, was a ten-foot-long rocket. It consisted of a two-foot-long motor at the front, connected by long, slender tubes to two tanks in the rear that contained gasoline and liquid oxygen. The individuals gathered in the field were Robert H. Goddard, a physics professor at Clark University who had designed and built the rocket; his wife, Esther Kisk Goddard; P. M. Roope, also of Clark’s physics department; and Henry Sachs, the university’s instrument maker. The rocket they were about to launch was the product of nearly ten years of research in Goddard’s shop and laboratory. Its most unusual feature was its propellant—a combination of gasoline and liquid oxygen fed into the combustion chamber by separate tubes. Up to that time, rockets usually had been fueled with black powder that was stored and ignited in the combustion chamber. [kw]Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket (Mar. 16, 1926) [kw]First Liquid-Fueled Rocket, Launching of the (Mar. 16, 1926)[First Liquid Fueled Rocket, Launching of the (Mar. 16, 1926)] [kw]Liquid-Fueled Rocket, Launching of the First (Mar. 16, 1926)[Liquid Fueled Rocket, Launching of the First (Mar. 16, 1926)] [kw]Rocket, Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled (Mar. 16, 1926) Rocketry Liquid oxygen Propellants;rockets Space science [g]United States;Mar. 16, 1926: Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket[06610] [c]Science and technology;Mar. 16, 1926: Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket[06610] [c]Physics;Mar. 16, 1926: Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket[06610] [c]Space and aviation;Mar. 16, 1926: Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket[06610] Goddard, Robert H. Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin

Robert H. Goddard with a 1926 rocket.

(Library of Congress)

In a few minutes, all was in readiness to begin the test. Esther Goddard started her motion-picture camera, and Robert Goddard touched a blowtorch to an opening near the top of the rocket. There was a steady roar, and a few seconds later, the rocket rose slowly from the launch frame and then shot into the air. It flew 184 feet at a maximum altitude of 41 feet while achieving a speed of 60 miles an hour. Then it curved sharply to the left and descended, plowing into the ice and snow as it hit the ground at high speed. The flight had lasted less than three seconds. There were no speeches and no interviews, and no newspaper reported the event, yet the rocket’s brief flight marked a giant advance toward the exploration of space.

Goddard had received a bachelor of science degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908 and a master of arts and a doctorate from Clark University in 1910 and 1911, respectively. He had a lifelong interest in rocketry, and despite a lack of government support, he had continued the research he began in the basement of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1907 when he fired a powder-fueled rocket.

Goddard’s early work came out of his interest in high-altitude weather research. The limitations on balloons led him to the development of mathematical theories of rocketry as well as to two patents, one for a liquid-fueled rocket and the other for a multistage rocket. To prove that rockets could function in the vacuum of space, Goddard had to overcome popular misconceptions of Newton’s third law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. His research proved that a rocket engine could deliver propulsion in the vacuum of space.

After initial experiments with solid fuels, in 1921, Goddard switched to the more efficient and cheaper liquid hydrogen and oxygen rocket propellants. By 1924, he had a working engine. Until that year, Goddard had not flown a rocket. Problems with pumps and the size of the combustion chamber needed to be overcome before a flight would be feasible. His work also focused on separating the combustion chamber from fuel storage and changing the exhaust nozzles to increase the velocity.

At the time Goddard performed his experiment, rockets had been known for several centuries. They were mentioned in Chinese writings as far back as the eleventh century, and they had been used as artillery weapons by European armies at various times between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries, until they finally became outmoded with the advent of modern long-range artillery. Then, in 1918, Goddard developed and tested the bazooka. Even though it came too late for use then, he continued his work, and the bazooka became an important weapon during World War II. Until that time, however, the chief use of rockets seems to have been in staging elaborate fireworks displays.

When interest in space travel first began early in the seventeenth century, few people thought of the rocket as the most suitable vehicle for the purpose. In Jules Verne’s celebrated 1865 novel De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1873), space explorers reach the Moon by riding inside a projectile shot out of a gigantic cannon on Earth. In 1903, however, a little-known Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, conclusively demonstrated in a series of articles that the rocket would have to be the vehicle of space exploration. As Tsiolkovsky saw it, the rocket had several peculiar properties that made it the only vehicle capable of carrying a payload into outer space. First, a rocket engine could develop more thrust, or push, than any other engine of the same weight; second, because a rocket is a self-contained system carrying its own oxygen supply, it could operate anywhere, even in airless space; and third, because a rocket gradually loses weight as its fuel supply is exhausted, its maximum speed comes at the end of its powered flight.

While Tsiolkovsky was developing his ideas, Goddard, unaware of the Russian scientist’s work, was reaching the same conclusions. Goddard was interested in designing a vehicle that could be used to carry instruments high into the upper atmosphere for purposes of research. In January, 1920, he published a paper in the Smithsonian Institution Reports titled “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” "Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, A" (Goddard)[Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes] in which he summed up the conclusions he had reached in the previous ten years regarding the unique suitability of rockets for high-altitude research. In this paper, Goddard demonstrated that it was theoretically possible to design a rocket that would weigh less than ten tons and attain a great enough velocity to reach the Moon. The paper would have gone unnoticed had it not been for Goddard’s suggestion that a rocket fired at the Moon should contain flash powder that would ignite on impact, thus marking the landing site for observers on Earth and proving that the rocket actually had reached its destination.

Goddard was not only a theoretician; he actually designed and built several rockets. At the time of his experiments, the only rockets he could obtain used the same type of propellant used in the Chinese rockets of the eleventh century, which was black powder. This kind of rocket clearly was unsuitable for the high-altitude flights Goddard had in mind. A high-altitude rocket had to accelerate slowly and at a fairly uniform rate, so that its maximum speed would be reached when it was several miles above Earth, where there is less air resistance. A black-powder rocket exerted its greatest thrust immediately after ignition and then slowed down as its fuel was exhausted.

Some means needed to be found to feed the fuel into the rocket’s combustion chamber at a constant and predictable rate, so that the rocket’s acceleration would be constant and predetermined. As this was impractical with solid (powder) fuels, Goddard hit upon the idea of using liquid fuels, such as ether or gasoline, which also would give the rocket a greater exhaust velocity. Because gasoline and similar liquid fuels do not contain oxygen, the rocket also would have to carry its own oxygen supply. Goddard’s Auburn rocket contained two separate tanks, one for the gasoline and another for the liquid oxygen. Fuels from both tanks were piped into the combustion chamber.


Having demonstrated the feasibility of the liquid-fueled rocket as a high-altitude vehicle with the Auburn test firing, Goddard went on to conduct successful experiments with other liquid-fueled rockets during the next twenty years. One of his rockets eventually reached a height of seventy-five hundred feet. With another, Goddard achieved the first successful controlled flight of a rocket. His tiny 1926 rocket and the larger ones he built during the 1930’s are the direct ancestors of the German V-2’s, which in turn were the precursors to the U.S. and Russian rockets that carried the first payloads into Earth orbit.

Despite his many accomplishments, including the first U.S. patent for a multiple-stage rocket and the development of vanes for guidance and gyro control devices, Goddard’s work went unrecognized during his lifetime. He published little for two reasons: First, he was an intensely shy individual, and second, he feared the German scientists, with their emphasis on race superiority, and did not want to encourage their work. Today, however, Goddard is recognized as the father of modern rocket technology. In his early work, he theorized the means of landing humans on other celestial bodies. This ability to combine practical research with a vision of spaceflight and rocketry represents his great contribution. Rocketry Liquid oxygen Propellants;rockets Space science

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, H. J. P., ed. Man in Space: An Illustrated History of Space Flight. New York: Smithmark, 1993. Examines humankind’s progress in space travel. Focuses more on the results of Goddard’s pioneering work than on the work itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braun, Wernher von, and Frederick I. Ordway III. Space Travel: A History. 4th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. One of the best single-volume histories on human beings’ conquest of space. Chapter titled “The Pioneers of Space Travel” provides thorough discussion of the scientific and technical contributions of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Goddard. Includes many remarkable photographs, an extensive time line, and an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clary, David A. Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age. New York: Hyperion, 2003. First full-scale biography of Goddard in more than forty years places his accomplishments within the context of the times and reveals more about his personality and private life than previous works. Includes chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goddard, Robert H. The Papers of Robert H. Goddard. Edited by Esther C. Goddard. 3 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970. Invaluable resource for any serious student of Goddard and the history of rocketry. Edited papers contain summaries of Goddard’s diary entries, reprints of noteworthy technical papers, and relevant correspondence among important members within the scientific community. Provides an intimate glimpse into the world of the distinguished scientist, clearly and chronologically outlining the evolution of his ideas and techniques.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Rocket Development. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1948. A selection of Goddard’s research notes from 1929-1941, published posthumously.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Rockets. New York: American Rocket Society, 1946. Includes Goddard’s two most important published papers, “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” and “Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruntman, Mike. Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004. Relates the events that paved the way for human beings to begin exploring space. Describes the early work in rocketry science of Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hacker, Barton C. “Robert H. Goddard and the Origins of Space Flight.” In Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas, edited by Carroll W. Pursell, Jr. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990. Brief essay traces Goddard’s career and characterizes the institutional context within which he worked. Despite popular notions of Goddard as a solitary, persevering scientific figure, the Smithsonian Institution, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the U.S. military played crucial roles in his ultimate success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lehman, Milton. This High Man: The Life of Robert H. Goddard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963. Readable biography exhaustively covers Goddard’s life from youth to World War II. Includes many details, but Goddard’s personality and social relationships remain somewhat unexplored.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pendray, G. Edward. “Pioneer Rocket Development in the United States.” In The History of Rocket Technology: Essays on Research, Development, and Utility, edited by Eugene M. Emme. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964. Essay by a pioneer in the development of rockets in the United States who had intimate knowledge of Goddard’s scientific and technical work succinctly sketches Goddard’s major accomplishments in astronautics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Beryl, and Samuel Epstein. The Rocket Pioneers: On the Road to Space. New York: Julian Messner, 1958. Historical study includes chapters on Sir William Congreve, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Goddard. Clearly describes Goddard’s key technological innovations within the context of his lengthy scientific career. Well researched and well written.

Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel

Categories: History