Evicting the Rocket Man: Robert Goddard Searches for Space

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.

Goddard and his rocket in Auburn, Mass. in 1926.

Goddard and his rocket in Auburn, Mass. in 1926.

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.

Goddard transporting a rocket in New Mexico.

Goddard transporting a rocket in New Mexico.

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.”



  1. Dana McPhee

    Dana McPhee

    March 16, 2014 at 10:14 am

    After Werner von Braun was captured when Germany fell in WWII, his US Army interrogators asked him about the V2 early development – he told them – “first ask your own man Goddard, who did the work”…(I forget the written source at the moment)

    “In 1963, von Braun reflected on the history of rocketry, and said of Goddard’s work: “His rockets … may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles.”[8] Goddard confirmed his work was used by von Braun in 1944, shortly before the Nazis began firing V-2s at England. A V-2 crashed in Sweden and some parts were sent to an Annapolis lab where Goddard was doing research for the Navy. If this was the so-called Bäckebo Bomb, it had been procured by the British in exchange for Spitfires; Annapolis would have received some parts from them. Goddard is reported to have recognized components he had invented, and inferred that his brainchild had been turned into a weapon.”…Von Braun went on to use the same technology to direct the Apollo Program that put Man on the Moon…Goddard was NASA’s unofficial first engineer…

  2. Mary Hill

    Mary Hill

    March 16, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    Very interesting.

  3. New England Genealogy

    New England Genealogy

    March 16, 2014 at 9:50 pm


  4. Molly Landrigan

    Molly Landrigan

    March 17, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Does this have any connection to Goddard College?

  5. Pingback: Professor Marvin Hewitt Takes a Twisting Journey from Dropout to Imposter to Rocket Scientist - New England Historical Society

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