As a 17-year old boy, Worcester’s Robert Goddard climbed a tree on his family farm in October of 1899 and dreamed of building a rocket that would fly as far away as Mars. He envisioned that day the principles of rocket propulsion that would, in fact, take a rocket to space. But the journey from dream to reality was not an easy one.
Beginning even before he first launched a rocket from a relative’s farm in Auburn, Mass., Goddard’s theories about how to fuel a rocket to space and then propel it in the vacuum of space were controversial. Scientists debated the merits of his proposals. The New York Times sniffed at the theories of a scientist from western Massachusetts:
“That Professor Goddard, with his "chair" in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”
Goddard was undeterred. He did, however, tend to keep his work quiet after the early controversies to avoid wasting time defending himself against his less knowledgeable critics. On March 16, 1926, he launched his first rocket on farm land in Auburn, Mass. that he borrowed from a distant relative. The first flight, just 41-feet high, inspired him to try more, and he would continue using the Asa Ward farm in Auburn for several more launches.
The noise of the rockets, however, and their tendency to go astray and land with a thud generated more and more police calls. A newspaper headline from the day after a July 17, 1929 launch told the story: “Giant Rocket Alarms Many”
A rocket is a noisy thing, Goddard explained, but there was no damage caused by the test. Nevertheless, state fire marshal George Neal ordered there would be no more tests. Goddard next successfully persuaded the military to let him use the grounds at Camp Devens for his tests, which put him outside the reach of the state authorities and he worked there for roughly a year.
But another party had also taken notice of Goddard’s work. Aviator Charles Lindbergh was impressed by Goddard’s ideas. Lindbergh checked him out and then began turning to his wealthy friends to find support. Lindbergh would convince the Harry Guggenheim (of Guggenheim Foundation fame) to support Goddard, and with Guggenheim’s funding Goddard was able to find an environment that was much more practical for his test launches: Roswell, NM.
Over the next dozen years, Goddard’s research and the work of many other contributors would lead to the creation of rockets capable of traveling into space. Though he would have to sue the US government to collect money owed him for the use of his early patents, Goddard would finally be acknowledged as the father or modern rocketry.
In 1969, long after his death in 1945, Goddard would have been pleased to note the final capitulation of his critics. Forty-nine years after its first editorial criticizing Goddard’s lack of understanding of basic physics, The New York Times wrote a correction in 1969, the day after the Apollo 11 moon launch that used Goddard’s inventions:
“Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”