64. ROBERT H. GODDARD: The rocket man
Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945) was an American physicist, engineer and the father of modern rocketry. He built the first liquid-fuelled rocket and his work was directly responsible for spaceflight. The story goes like this: As a 17-year-old boy in 1899, Goddard had a life-changing experience when he climbed a cherry tree, looked up at the stars and decided he would try to build a vehicle that could reach space, specifically Mars. From that day, Goddard dedicated his life to achieving his crazy goal and celebrated that day every year as his ‘Anniversary Day’ – the day his life found its purpose.
Goddard went on to study physics, engineering and aerodynamics and spent the rest of his life calculating formula, researching data and painstakingly testing his designs. After Goddard published his most important paper in 1919, which stated the science behind his rockets and his belief that they could be used to explore space, he received harsh criticism from the press who thought his claims were a joke. After years of this type of criticism, Goddard escaped into his work, becoming more reclusive and eventually relocated to New Mexico where he could work in peace. By the time of his death in 1945, the highest altitude one of his rockets reached was a fairly modest 2.7kms, but he had filed over 200 engineering patents and laid the groundwork for all of today’s rocket engines.
What an amazing man – this guy dedicated his entire life to a goal that he knew would never be achieved in his lifetime, made him look like a fool to the general public and a pariah to his colleagues. Yet his dream and conviction was so strong that he just kept working away at a thankless endeavour, never letting what other people said break his spirits.
You can watch a nice five-minute biography of Goddard in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Click here, it starts at the 17min mark.
- Thank you to Libby for submitting this quote.
- A reader pointed out that Wernher von Braun also deserves major props for developing the rocket.