Robert H. Goddard Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Inventor of rocket components.

Robert Hutchings Goddard was born on October 5, 1882, in Worcester, a middle-class suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908, and continued his graduate education at nearby Clark University, where he earned his M.A. in 1910 and his Ph.D. in 1911.

By 1914, Goddard had applied for and won two patents; one for a liquid fuel rocket, the second for a multistage rocket. These awards gave him a standing in the scientific community and eventually led to some financial support from the Smithsonian Institution.

His report A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes was published by the Smithsonian in early 1920. The publication drew attention beyond scientific circles due to Goddard’s suggestion that jet propulsion could be the technology to achieve escape velocity and fly to the Moon. He was mocked for this idea and became something of an embarrassment to his family. This and other proposals earned him the nickname of “Moon Man” in the popular press.

His backyard experiments became well known and feared. However, before pressure from the authorities, the public, and his family prevailed on him to relocate, on March 16, 1926, he successfully launched the first liquid fuel rocket at Auburn, Massachusetts. It traveled 184 feet in 2.5 seconds. In the same year, Fritz Lang produced the motion picture The Woman in the Moon, based on the efforts of Goddard and a German rocket hobbyist. Interestingly, the film foreshadowed the German V-2 series. This movie was seen by virtually all scientists who became the backbone of the German and later the U.S. space program.

In 1929, Goddard and his small team of assistants moved their testing operations to Roswell, New Mexico. Here, isolated from the world and after many failures, he achieved success in 1930 when he and his team fired an 11-foot, liquid-fueled rocket to an altitude of 2,000 feet at a velocity of over 500 miles per hour. In 1932, a critical step came with a gyroscopically controlled rocket. Goddard’s list of rocket achievements is impressive, including: components of a ramjet engine via a rocket fuel pump, regenerative cooling of combustion chambers, instrument payloads and recovery systems, guidance vanes, and gimbaled engines.

By March, 1935, Goddard was launching gyroscopically controlled rockets to 7,800 feet at over 700 miles per hour. His paper “Liquid Propellant Rocket Development,” a primer on rocket technology, was published by the Smithsonian in 1936. With the threat of war looming in Europe, Lieutenant John Sessums visited Goddard in New Mexico to assess the military value of Goddard’s rocket work. He concluded that it was of little or no value. In 1940, Goddard offered his research, patents, and facilities for use by the military, an offer that was ignored.

Goddard died at the end of the war on August 10, 1945. He survived long enough to see his dream realized in the German V-2 effort. The technical foundation he established was impressive, and he registered more than two hundred patents. On May 1, 1959, he was honored when the National Aeronautical and Space Administration named the space center at Greenbelt, Maryland, for him.

  • Braun, Wernher von, and Frederick I. Ordway, III. History of Rocketry and Space Travel. 4th rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. An excellent overview of the subject, aimed at the interested reader or amateur, with good coverage of the early days of the rocket clubs in the United States and Germany.
  • Coil, Suzanne M. Robert Hutchings Goddard: Pioneer of Rocketry and Space Flight. New York: Facts on File, 1992. A biography aimed at young adult readers.
  • Goddard, Esther C., and Edward C. Pendray, eds. The Papers of Robert H. Goddard. 3 vols. New York: Dover, 1970. A collection of Goddard’s scientific papers.
  • Lehman, Milton. This High Man: The Life of Robert H. Goddard. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1963. An authorized biography written for the general reader, showing the human side of rocket technology and giving insights into Goddard’s life.



Rocket propulsion


National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Robert Goddard conducted rocket experiments in his own backyard, gaining a reputation as something of a mad scientist, until his theories were proved viable and he was recognized as one of the founders of modern spaceflight.

Categories: History