Rocket Man Robert Goddard

Robert GoddardOn this day in 1882, the great scientist Robert Goddard was born. Given that yesterday we did Sputnik 1, it just makes sense to do America’s most famous “rocket man” today. It reminds me of an old cartoon where a man walks up to two men who are trying to fix a car. The man says, “May I help? I am a rocket scientist!” Well, that was Goddard. He is best known for having build the first liquid-fueled rocket. The first of these was launched in 1926.

In his lifetime, he patented 214 inventions. One, of course, was the liquid-fueled rocket. But of equal importance to the future of space flight was the multistage rocket. If you are old enough to remember the Apollo missions, you will recall the the rockets got shorter and shorter as the flight progressed. The reason for this is so that the mass of the rocket gets smaller as it runs out of fuel, and so takes less fuel to accelerate. Goddard was the first man to propose that idea.

Goddard was ahead of his time and this led to his often being mocked in the press. For example, The New York Times mocked his idea that a rocket could propel itself in the vacuum of space without having anything to push against. Of course, this was well known by Newton. It is about the most basic concept in mechanics: conservation of momentum. So Goddard was being mocked about even the most rock solid of science that he proposed. The New York Times later printed a retraction, 49 years later — long after Goddard’s death — the day after the launch of Apollo 11.

As a result of this, Goddard tended to work alone with his own technicians. This undoubtedly slowed the speed of innovation in the field. Small minds — especially those with large audiences — have a tendency to do that. In the 1920s, The New York Times had the power to slow innovation in rocket and space science. Today, Fox News and other ring wing media outlets (along with a strong assist from mainstream media outlets) have the power to stop serious public debate about the unquestioned findings of climate science. Back then, we had to fear small minds. Today we have to fear a total lack of minds.

But Goddard was a great man and if it weren’t for him, Sputnik 1 would doubtless have been delayed by years or even decades. Although the circumstances of his life and work were not optimal, Goddard shows that science and scientists will not be denied. Great minds will flourish if given the smallest opportunity. Sadly, there are many in this country who want to deprive even the smallest of opportunities.

Happy birthday Robert Goddard!

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