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Trail Blazer into Space PUBLIC ACCESS

From the Cold War to Voyager, the Work of Robert Goddard Has Gone the Distance.

[+] Author Notes

Frank Wicks is a professor of mechanical engineering at Union College in Schenectady, N. Y., and a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering.

Mechanical Engineering 122(10), 71-74 (Oct 01, 2000) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2000-OCT-3

This article reviews that from the Cold War to Voyager, the work of Robert Goddard has received much recognition. Independently, Goddard started conceiving and designing a variety of air and space vehicles, and analyzing methods for propulsion and control. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright had achieved powered flight with the three-axis control they had invented, but the flying machine was extremely difficult to manage. In 1907, while he was still an undergraduate, Goddard studied the dynamics of the Wright Flyer, and designed a gyroscope-based stabilizer for automatic control. His attempts to procure government funding were rejected by a United States military that did not recognize any value of rockets beyond the possibility of assistance at takeoff for aircraft. Rockets increasingly are supporting the marvels of our post-Cold War information revolution. The satellite-based Global Positioning System has brought the most sophisticated navigation system into the personal automobile. Within the century, Robert Goddard’s vision and life’s work begat far more than he could have imagined.

Sensational headlines appeared in newspapers from coast to coast on Jan. 12, 1920. The Boston American proclaimed "A Modern Jules Verne Invents Rocket to Reach the Moon." The San Francisco Examiner heralded "A Savant Invents Rocket Which Will Hit Moon." The source for this excitement was a 70-page monograph issued by the Smithsonian Institution titled "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes." The author was 37-year-old Professor Robert Hutchins Goddard of Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

A New York Times editorial writer reacted with alarm to Goddard's ignorance of basic scientific principles and for the Smithsonian's participation in promoting such a scientific fraud. Perhaps the writer recalled some of his schooling and drew on his own common sense. His editorial sarcastically explained: "Professor Goddard does not know the relation of action to reaction, and for the need to have something better than a vacuum to push on. He seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in our schools."

The editorial stated an accepted truth that turned out to be false. Five years earlier, by using a vacuum pump and chamber and long tubes and an assortment of toy and signal rockets in a basement at Clark University, Goddard had demonstrated that a rocket will work in a vacuum. Furthermore, he found a rocket produced its maximum thrust in a vacuum where it had nothing to push on.

Goddard also explained that the vacuum of space would result in no aerodynamic drag on a vehicle. This is the fuel-conserving principle that commercial jet airliners now partly use by flying six miles high. where the thinner air density reduces drag by 75 percent.

In July 1969, the Apollo program used many of Goddard's inventions and principles to land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, while Mike Collins circled above in the lunar orbiter

People back on Earth with their televisions and radios followed the event with disbelief and amazement as it happened. Goddard died in 1945, but his work had laid the foundation for one of the most dramatic accomplishments in human history. The New York Times formally apologized for its 1920 editorial.

Science fiction can inspire young minds to careers that convert fantasy into reality. In 1898, Robert Goddard, a 16- year-old in Worcester, Mass., had to stop his schooling because of serious respiratory and digestive problems. At home, he read mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, and science fiction. He was left spellbound by reading and rereading books that included Jules Verne's Journey from the Earth to the Moon and H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. He later wrote how these books provided him with new viewpoints of scientific applications. He decided that high-altitude research was the most fascinating scientific problem.

Thus, while Orville and Wilbur Wright were beginning their experiments that would lead to powered heavier- than-air flight in the lower atmosphere, Goddard had started thinking about vehicles for travel to the upper atmosphere and to outer space.

Goddard's health improved enough for him to return to school. He was nearly 22 when he graduated from high school as class valedictorian in 1904. The commencement address was about how the United States was becoming a super power under President Theodore Roosevelt. That fall he enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Independently, Goddard started conceiving and designing a variety of air and space vehicles, and analyzing methods for propulsion and control. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright had achieved powered flight with the three-axis control they had invented, but the flying machine was extremely difficult to manage.

In 1907, while he was still an undergraduate, Goddard studied the dynamics of the Wright Flyer, and designed a gyroscope-based stabilizer for automatic control. He submitted his design to Scientific American, where it was published. Goddard's stabilizer is now the basis for all instrument flying and automatic pilots on modern aircraft. He would also be first to use gyroscopes to stabilize and control rockets.

Goddard entered Clark University in 1908, went on to earn his graduate degrees there, and later became a professor at the university.

Clark had been founded in 1887 as one of America's first graduate schools in science. The first head of the physics department was Albert Michelson, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in physics. Michelson's research of the velocity of light would help lead Albert Einstein to his theories of relativity.

Goddard's doctoral dissertation, completed in 1912, on the conduction of electricity at the contacts of dissimilar solids, had little to do with space travel, but made him a pioneer in solid state physics 35 years before the invention of the transistor.

During an abbreviated research fellowship at Princeton, he designed and patented a high-frequency oscillator tube that would later be applied to FM radio receivers. In the evenings, he continued to analyze possible techniques for space travel.

In March 1913, Goddard was becoming increasingly weak and tired, and was found to have tuberculosis in both lungs. For the second time, he was confronted by serious illness. He returned to Worcester expecting to die, but gradually recovered and was able to take a teaching job at Clark University.

At Clark, Goddard could further define and analyze his ideas for space travel and also perform some experiments. A different kind of propulsion system was required. All existing methods of transportation on land, water, or in air were based upon the vehicle's pushing on some stationary medium, such as a wheel on the road or a propeller in water or air. Jules Verne's fictional mission to the moon used a land-based gun that propelled the space capsule to the Earth's escape velocity, which can be calculated to be seven miles per second, or 25,000 miles per hour.

This velocity is derived by recognizing that a body on the surface is held in a gravity trap. It has a negative potential energy equal to the work required to climb from the surface to an infinite height. Calculus is required because gravity, and thus the weight, decreases with the inverse square of the distance from the center of mass. The eloquently simple result is that the escape velocity is equal to the square root of two times the surface gravity and the radius of the earth.

An energy source is always required. The Chinese invented gunpowder hundreds of years ago. This was followed by solid-fuel chemical rockets for entertainment and then for signaling. Sir William Congreve had mounted explosives on rockets that were first used by the British Navy against Napoleon in 1806, and then used against the United States in the War of 1812. It was the failure of "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" that were launched again st Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor that inspired Francis Key Scott to write the poem that became the United States' national anthem.

The rocket had history, but had never operated in a vacuum. Goddard was initially unsure that Newton's law of equal and opposite reaction could be applied. Goddard eventually concluded that rocket thrust is always equal to the rate of change of momentum of the exiting gas, which is equal to the product of the mass flow rate and the leaving velocity relative to the rocket.

Goddard collected and tested an assortment of fireworks rockets and signal flares. Next, he designed apparatus for testing thrust in air and in a vacuum. He was pleasantly surprised that the rockets produced about 20 percent more thrust when fired in a vacuum. He concluded that thrust increases because the gases can leave the rocket at a higher velocity.

The power source of every gun or rocket is an energy-releasing chemical reaction. Combustion produces a high-temperature and high-pressure gas that then expands and transfers its energy to the projectile. The reactants are blended together in gunpowder and in solid-fuel rockets.

In the Roswell, N.M., rocket shop in 1940 (from left), Goddard checks fuel pumps with assistants Nils Ljungquist, Albert Kisk, and Charles Mansur.

Grahic Jump LocationIn the Roswell, N.M., rocket shop in 1940 (from left), Goddard checks fuel pumps with assistants Nils Ljungquist, Albert Kisk, and Charles Mansur.

One problem with solid fuel was that there was no method for controlling the burn rate and thrust. In 1909, Goddard had conceived the idea of a liquid-fuel rocket with separate tanks for the fuel and oxygen, a high-pressure combustion chamber, and a nozzle to produce high exit velocity. A potential advantage would be higher specific thrust, which is the ratio of thrust to propellant flow rate. It also offers the ability to control the combustion rate and the resulting thrust. In 1914, he was issued a patent.

An advantage of a rocket over a gun is that the acceleration of the projectile takes place over a much longer time and distance, and thus is less violent and allows for much higher final velocities. Also, the recoil momentum of a gun is equal and opposite the momentum imparted on the projectile. This limits the size of hand-held guns and causes major design problems with cannons and large shipboard guns.

Goddard designed an armor-piercing rocket gun that would evolve into the World War 11 bazooka.

The maximum g loading for a human is less than 10. For a projectile to achieve escape velocity in a gun barrel, the g factor becomes the ratio of radius of the planet to the length of the vertical gun barrel. Since the Earth is 4,000 miles in radius, a barrel more than 400 miles long would be required for Jules Verne's scheme for reaching the moon.

Goddard continued to perform calculations and compile seminal patents related to rockets that existed only in his own fertile mind. Further research would require substantial funding beyond what he could support with his $1,000 annual salary as an assistant professor. In 1916, he solicited funds from the Smithsonian. His stated objective was to launch weather recording devices to higher altitudes than could be reached by balloons. His unstated goal was to reach the moon.

The review committee was impressed with the ingenuity, clarity, and potential value of the proposed work, and awarded a $5,t00 grant for lab space, equipment, and the hiring of a physics student as a technical assistant.

When the United States entered World War I, Goddard tried to interest the Navy in using rockets rather than guns to launch large projectiles from ships. The Navy judged the concept would take too much development and that acceptable accuracy would be hard to attain. Goddard then designed and successfully demonstrated a hand-carried and armor-piercing rocket gun for the infantry to use against tanks. This would evolve into the World War II bazooka.

Goddard had conceived the liquid-fuel rocket in 1909 and patented the idea in 1914. It took him until 1925 to build a primitive-looking prototype that could lift its own weight in static tests in the laboratory. The maiden flight was on his aunt's farm in nearby Auburn, Mass., on March 26, 1926. It was a brief three seconds in which the rocket rose 41 feet and landed 184 feet away from the launcher. Despite this modest performance, Goddard wrote to the Smithsonian that he had proved conclusively the practicality of the liquid-propelled rocket. He added that he required more funds in order to achieve great heights.

Goddard continued to use his aunt's farm for a rocket base with increasing success until 1929, when the neighbors complained about the hazard. The fire marshal inspected the operation and demanded that Goddard remove his menacing tests from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

This became national news that came to the attention of aviator Charles Lindbergh, who two years earlier had made the nonstop flight from New York to Paris. The achievement had made him probably the most famous American at the time.

Lindbergh, who had been using his influence to promote aviation, traveled to Worcester to meet Goddard. In Goddard he found a soul mate. They were both visionaries and loners with similar instincts. Lindbergh took Goddard for his first airplane ride, which included some stunts. Goddard noted it had been a good test for his nerves.

Lindbergh explained he was also trying to look far into the future of flight and this took him to space. He recognized the limitations of the propeller, leading him to ideas of jet propulsion for airplanes and rockets for space travel. The possibility of rockets on airplanes could be a preliminary step. It was clear to Lindbergh that Goddard needed and deserved more support along with a better test site.

Lindbergh successfully approached Harry Guggenheim, who had been a World War I aviator and had persuaded his wealthy father to establish the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. Lindbergh obtained a grant of $50,000 for Goddard to pay for the next two years of research.

Goddard needed an isolated site for testing as well as a climate that was good for his tuberculosis-damaged lungs. The site he selected, in New Mexico, has become famous for theories about space travel, although many believe that the thinking is less scientific than Goddard's work.

Over the next decade of the 1930s and leading up to World War II, American rocket research was essentially confined to the work that Goddard was performing with the assistance of his wife, Esther, and a few machinists in Roswell, N.M. He successfully demonstrated using vanes in the rocket motor blast for guidance coupled to gyroscopes for control and using the evaporating liquid oxygen for nozzle cooling.

Goddard's attempts to procure government funding were rejected by a United States military that did not recognize any value of rockets beyond the possibility of assistance at takeoff for aircraft . Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler's German Rocket Research Center at Peenemunde under the direction of Wernher von Braun was implementing crucial features of Goddard's technology in the V-I and V-2 rockets.

Germany surrendered in May 1945, and von Braun negotiated his own surrender along with hundreds of rockets. He expressed surprise that the United States had not converted Goddard's pioneering work into a weapons delivery system. Goddard had the opportunity to inspect a surrendered rocket and angrily recognized how in large measure it was based upon his patents and designs.

Atomic bombs were dropped by airplane on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki on August 9. Robert Goddard died the next day. He was buried in Worcester on August 14, which happened to be the day that Japan surrendered on the Battleship Missouri.

In the subsequent Cold War, the major military powers would combine nuclear weapons with rocket delivery systems that could be launched from land, sea, or air, and that resulted in the doctrine of an uneasy peace based upon assured mass destruction.

The Soviets started a space race between the superpowers by using rockets to launch the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. This raised fears ofa Soviet attack from space. The United States responded with the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1961, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center was dedicated in Greenbelt, Md. A giant three-stage Saturn rocket that produced a peak 180 million horsepower launched the astronauts to the moon in 1969.

Rockets increasingly are supporting the marvels of our post-Cold War information revolution. In 1947, the science fiction writer Arthur Clarke predicted there would be rocket-launched communications satellites by the year 2000. It only took until 1962. Rocket-launched scientific missions have been flown to every planet. The satellite-based Global Positioning System has brought the most sophisticated navigation system into the personal automobile.

Within the century, Robert Goddard's vision and life's work begat far more than he could have imagined.

This Goddard rocket was launched on April 19, 1932. From left: Lawrence Mansur, Albert Kisk, Charles Mansur, Goddard, and Nils Ljungquist.

Grahic Jump LocationThis Goddard rocket was launched on April 19, 1932. From left: Lawrence Mansur, Albert Kisk, Charles Mansur, Goddard, and Nils Ljungquist.

Copyright © 2000 by ASME
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