Goddard developed a fascination with flight, first with kites and then with balloons. He also became a thorough diarist and documenter of his own work, a skill that would greatly benefit his later career. These interests merged at age 16, when Goddard attempted to construct a balloon made from aluminum, shaping the raw metal in his home workshop. After nearly five weeks of methodical, documented efforts, he finally abandoned the project; his remarks on it read, "Failior [sic] crowns enterprise." However, the lesson of this failure did not restrain Goddard's growing determination and confidence in his work.
He became interested in space when he read H.G. Wells's science fiction classic The War of the Worlds when he was 16 years old. His dedication to pursuing rocketry became fixed on October 19, 1899. While climbing a cherry tree to cut off dead limbs, he imagined, as he later wrote, "how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet." For the rest of his life he observed October 19 as "Anniversary Day," a private commemoration of the day of his greatest inspiration.
His social activities continued at Worcester. He joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and began a long courtship with Miriam Olmstead, an honor student who was second in his high school class. Eventually, she and Goddard were engaged, but they drifted apart, and the engagement ended around 1909.
While still an undergraduate, Goddard wrote a paper proposing a method for "balancing aeroplanes", and submitted the idea to Scientific American, which published the paper in 1907. Goddard later wrote in his diaries that he believed his paper was the first proposal of a way to stabilize aircraft in flight. His proposal came around the same time as other scientists were making breakthroughs in developing functional gyroscopes.
Goddard received his B.S. in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908, and then enrolled at Clark University in the fall of that year.
His first writing on the possibility of a liquid-fueled rocket came in February 1909. Goddard had begun to study ways of increasing a rocket’s energy efficiency using methods alternative to conventional, powder rockets. He wrote in his journal about an idea of using liquid hydrogen as a fuel with liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. He believed a 50 percent efficiency could be achieved with liquid fuel.
Goddard received his M.A. from Clark University in 1910, and then completed his Ph.D. at Clark in 1911. In 1912, he accepted a research fellowship at Princeton University.
In early 1913, Goddard became seriously ill with tuberculosis, and he was forced to leave his position at Princeton. He returned to Worcester, where he began a prolonged process of recovery.
It was during this recuperative period that Goddard began to produce his most important work. In 1914, his first two landmark patents were accepted and registered. The first, , described a multi-stage rocket. The second, , described a rocket fueled with gasoline and liquid nitrous oxide. The two patents would become important milestones in the history of rocketry.
From 1916-1917, Goddard built and experimented with ion thrusters, which he imagined could be used for propulsion at near-vacuum conditions at very high altitudes. The small glass engines he built were tested at atmospheric pressure, where they generated a stream of ionized air.
Not all of Goddard's early work was geared towards space travel. He developed the basic idea of the bazooka and, using a music rack for a launcher, demonstrated the weapon at Aberdeen Proving Ground two days before the Armistice that ended World War I. Another Clark University researcher continued Goddard's work on the bazooka, leading to the weapon used in World War II.
Goddard described extensive experiments with solid-fuel rocket engines burning high grade nitrocellulose "smokeless" powder. A critical breakthrough was to use the steam turbine nozzle that had been invented by the Swedish inventor Gustaf de Laval. The de Laval nozzle allows the most efficient ("isentropic") conversion of the energy of hot gases into forward motion. By means of this nozzle, Goddard increased the efficiency of his rocket engines from 2 percent to 64 percent and obtained supersonic exhaust speeds of over Mach 7. This greatly reduced the amount of rocket fuel required to lift a given mass and thus made interplanetary travel practical.
Though most of this work concerns the theoretical and experimental relations between propellant, rocket mass, thrust and velocity, a final section (pp. 54-57) titled Calculation of minimum mass required to raise one pound to an "infinite" altitude discussed the possible uses of rockets, not only to reach the upper atmosphere, but to escape from Earth's gravitation altogether. Included as a thought experiment was the idea of launching a rocket to the moon and igniting a mass of flash powder on its surface, so as to be visible through a telescope. He discussed the matter seriously, down to an estimate of the amount of powder required; Goddard's conclusion was that a rocket with starting mass of 3.21 tons could produce a flash "just visible" from Earth.
Goddard eschewed publicity, and his imaginative ideas about space travel were only shared with private groups. In a letter to the Smithsonian dated March 1920, he discussed: photographing the Moon and planets from rocket powered flyby probes, sending messages to distance civilizations on inscribed metal plates, the use of solar energy in space, and the idea of high-velocity ion propulsion. In that same letter, Goddard clearly describes the concept of the ablative heat shield, suggesting the landing apparatus be covered with "layers of a very infusible hard substance with layers of a poor heat conductor between" designed to erode in the same way as the surface of a meteor.
As a result, Goddard became increasingly suspicious of others and often worked alone, which limited the ripple effect from his work. His unsociability was a result of the harsh criticism that he received from the media and from other scientists, who doubted the viability of rocket travel in space. After one of his experiments in 1929, a local Worcester newspaper carried the mocking headline "Moon rocket misses target by 238,799 1/2 miles."
On January 12, 1920 a front-page story in The New York Times, "Believes Rocket Can Reach Moon," reported a Smithsonian press release about a "multiple charge high efficiency rocket." The chief application seen was "the possibility of sending recording apparatus to moderate and extreme altitudes within the earth's atmosphere," the advantage over balloon-carried instruments being ease of recovery since "the new rocket apparatus would go straight up and come straight down." But it also mentioned a proposal "to [send] to the dark part of the new moon a sufficiently large amount of the most brilliant flash powder which, in being ignited on impact, would be plainly visible in a powerful telescope. This would be the only way of proving that the rocket had really left the attraction of the earth as the apparatus would never come back.
The next day, an unsigned New York Times editorial delighted in heaping scorn on the proposal. The editorial writer attacked the instrumentation application by questioning whether "the instruments would return to the point of departure... for parachutes drift just as balloons do. And the rocket, or what was left of it after the last explosion, would need to be aimed with amazing skill, and in a dead calm, to fall on the spot whence it started. But that is a slight inconvenience...though it might be serious enough from the [standpoint] of the always innocent bystander...a few thousand yards from the firing line."
The full weight of scorn, however, was reserved for the lunar proposal: "after the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey it will neither be accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that." It expressed disbelief that Professor Goddard actually "does not know of the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react" and even talked of "such things as intentional mistakes or oversights." Goddard, the Times declared, apparently suggesting bad faith, "only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
Forty nine years afterward, on July 17, 1969, the day after the launch of Apollo 11, The New York Times published a short item under the headline "A Correction," summarizing its 1920 editorial mocking Goddard, and concluding: "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."
Goddard began experimenting with liquid oxygen and liquid-fueled rockets in September 1921, and bench tested the first liquid-fueled engine in November 1923. It had a cylindrical combustion chamber, using impinging jets to mix and atomize liquid oxygen and gasoline. An engine using regenerative cooling was constructed that year, which circulated liquid oxygen around the combustion chamber, but the design was rejected as too complex.
He launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on March 16, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts. His journal entry of the event was notable for its laconic understatement: "The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie's farm." (The launch site is now a National Historic Landmark, the Goddard Rocket Launching Site.)
The rocket, which was dubbed "Nell", rose just 41 feet during a 2.5-second flight that ended in a cabbage field, but it was an important demonstration that liquid-fuel propellants were possible.
Viewers familiar with more modern rocket designs may find it difficult, on viewing the well-known picture of "Nell", to distinguish the rocket from its launching apparatus. The complete rocket is significantly taller than Goddard, but does not include the pyramidal support structure which he grasps.
The rocket's combustion chamber is the small cylinder at the top; the nozzle is visible beneath it. The fuel tank, which is also part of the rocket, is the larger cylinder opposite Goddard's torso. The fuel tank is directly beneath the nozzle, and is protected from the motor's exhaust by an asbestos cone.
Asbestos-wrapped aluminum tubes connect the motor to the tanks, providing both support and fuel transport. This layout is no longer used, since the Pendulum Rocket Fallacy showed that this was no more stable than placing the rocket engine at the base. After a series of modifications, by May, the engine was placed in the classic position, at the lower end of the rocket to simplify the plumbing.
By late 1929, Goddard had been attracting additional notoriety with each rocket launch. He was finding it increasingly difficult to conduct his research without unwanted distractions. Lindbergh discussed finding additional financing for Goddard's work, and put his famous name to work for Goddard. Into 1930, Lindbergh made several proposals to industry and private investors for funding, which proved all but impossible to find following the recent U.S. stock market crash in October 1929.
Lindbergh finally found an ally in the Guggenheim family. Financier Daniel Guggenheim agreed to fund Goddard's research over the next four years for a total of $100,000. The Guggenheim family, especially Harry Guggenheim, would continue to support Goddard's work in the years to follow.
With new financial backing, Goddard eventually relocated to Roswell, New Mexico in 1930, where he worked in near isolation and secrecy for a dozen years. By September 1931, Goddard's rockets had a classic aerodynamic appearance of smooth casing and tail fins. He began experimenting with gyroscopy guidance and made an unsuccessful flight test of such a system in April 1932. A gyroscope on gimbals electrically controlled steering vanes in the exhaust, similar to the V-2 over 10 years later.
A temporary loss of funding from the Guggenheims forced Goddard to return to Clark University until 1934, when funding resumed. Upon his return to Roswell, he began work on his A series or rockets 4 to 4.5 meters long, powered by gasoline and liquid oxygen pressurized with nitrogen. The gyroscopic control system was housed in the middle of the rocket, between the propellant tanks. In March 28, 1935, the A-5 successfully flew to an altitude of 1.46 km using his guidance system. This rocket also achieved supersonic velocity.
In 1936-1939, Goddard began work on the K and L series rockets, which are much more massive and designed to reach very high altitude. This work was plagued by trouble with engine burn-through. Ironically, Goddard had built a regeneratively cooled engine in 1922, but deemed the idea too complicated. Subsequently he used fuel curtain cooling, spraying excess gasoline on the inside of the combustion chamber, but this was not working well, and the large rockets failed. Returning to a smaller design again, the L-13 reached an altitude of 2.7 km, the highest of any of Goddard's rockets. Weight was reduced by using thin-walled fuel tanks wound with high tensile strength wire.
From 1940-1941, work was done on the P series of rockets, which used propellant turbopumps (also powered by gasoline and LOX). Higher fuel pressure permitted a more powerful engine, but two launches both ended in crashes after only reaching an altitude of several hundred meters.
Though he brought his work in rocketry to the attention of the United States Army, he was rebuffed, since the Army largely failed to grasp the military application of rockets.
In Nazi Germany, however, Wernher von Braun took Goddard's plans from various journals and incorporated them into building the early 1930s A-1 and A2 prototypes of the Aggregate series that later, designated A4 or V-2, constantly struck at Europe in the last two years of World War II. In 1963, von Braun, reflecting on the history of rocketry, said of Goddard: "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".
German Intelligence kept an eye on Goddard's work. Military attached in the US, Friedrich von Boetticher sent a four-page report in 1936, and the spy Gustav Guellich sent mixture of facts and made-up information, claiming to have visited Roswell and witnessed a launch.
Goddard was nonetheless extremely secretive. In August 1936, he was visited by Frank Malina, who was then studying rocketry at the California Institute of Technology. Goddard declined to discuss any of his research, other than that which had already been published in Liquid-Propellant Rocket Development. This deeply troubled Theodore von Kármán, who was at that time Malina's mentor. Later, von Kármán wrote, "Naturally we at Cal Tech wanted as much information as we could get from Goddard for our mutual benefit. But Goddard believed in secrecy.... The trouble with secrecy is that one can easily go in the wrong direction and never know it." By 1939, von Kármán's Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Cal Tech had received Army Air Corps funding to develop rockets to assist in aircraft take-off. Goddard learned of this in 1940, and openly expressed his displeasure.
After his offer to develop rockets for the Army was declined, Goddard temporarily gave up his preferred field to work on experimental aircraft for the U.S. Navy. After the war ended, Goddard was able to inspect captured German V-2s, many components of which he recognized. However, Goddard would not design any more rockets of his own.
Goddard was awarded 214 patents for his work, 83 of which came during his lifetime. The Goddard Space Flight Center, established in 1959, is named in his honor. Goddard crater, on the Moon, is also named in his honor.
His home town of Worcester established the Goddard School of Science and Technology, an elementary school, in 1992.
The Dr. Robert H. Goddard Collection and the Robert Goddard Exhibition Room are housed in the Archives and Special Collections area of Clark University's Robert H. Goddard Library, named in his honor. Outside the library lies a structure depicting the flight path of Goddard's first liquid fuel rocket.
The Chemical Engineering department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is housed in Goddard Hall, which is named in his honor.
In 1967 Robert H. Goddard High School (9-12) was built in Roswell, NM. The school's mascot is appropriately titled "Rockets." Robert H. Goddard Middle School (Grades 6-8) is located in Glendora, CA. The school's mascot is the Titan IIIC missile. Goddard Middle School is also located in Littleton, Colorado. Their nickname is the Vikings. A different Middle School is also named Robert Goddard Middle School located in Prince Georges County, Maryland.
The Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program promotion to Cadet Chief Master Sergeant is named after Goddard.
Now Pakachoag golf course in Auburn, MA, at the site where Goddard launched the very first liquid-propelled rocket, holds a small memorial with a statue in his name.