Little Bits of History

Space Age Booster

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 16, 2014
Robert Goddard

Robert Goddard

March 16, 1926: Robert Goddard launches the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Goddard was born to a long established New England family in 1882. Electric power was just coming to American cities in the 1880s and sparked an interest in science in the young boy. When he was five, his father showed him how to make static electricity using his feet on the carpet and the child was forever smitten by the scientific world. He experimented with zinc and batteries and with chemicals, creating smoke and explosions in the house. He got a telescope and a subscription to Scientific American as a child and became interested in flight. He also began to write down all his thoughts and experiments in a diary. By age 16, he tried crafting a balloon out of aluminum. His failure did not dampen his interest.

Around the same time, Goddard read HG Wells’ classic, War of the Worlds and became interested in space. On October 19 when he was 17, he was pruning a cherry tree when he looked up and had an epiphany. He forever after celebrated it as his “Anniversary Day”. Even with all this experimentation, he was a frail and sickly boy and fell behind his classmates. However, he was a voracious reader and educated himself. With his reading, he found Samuel Langley’s papers in the Smithsonian periodical. The more he read, the more he learned about aerodynamics and his quest for space continued. His health improved and he was finally able to graduate from high school in 1904 – as valedictorian. He went on to Worcester Polytechnic Institute and earned his degree in physics in 1908. He taught for a year and in 1909 entered Clark University where he got his master’s degree in 1910 and his PhD in physics in 1911.

He had been submitting scientific articles since his teen years and was granted his first patent on November 2, 1915. Patent 1,159,209 was for the use of a vacuum tube to amplify a signal. By 1913 he was developing the mathematics to calculate both the position and velocity of a rocket in vertical flight. This needed to take into consideration the weight of the rocket and the fuel as well as the consumption of the fuel over time and the pull of gravity. And, of course, temperature would also need to be factored in along with the density of the air and the wind speed. All this was needed in order to be able to successfully launch space vehicles.

He began experimenting with liquid-fuel rockets in September 1921 and it took over two years before he was able to successfully test a liquid propellant engine. The following two years were spent developing a high-pressure piston pump which could send the liquid fuel to the combustion chamber. Funding was a problem and he had to abandon the idea. Instead he began using pressure from an inert gas and by 1925 could manage a lift on December 25. He experimented further and on this day, was able to use a gasoline and liquid oxygen fuel to launch a rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket rose 41 feet and traveled a distance of 184 feet in 2.5 seconds. Clearly more work was needed, but the space age was beginning.

It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.

Failure crowns enterprise.

[J]ust as in the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant to safely pronounce anything impossible, so for the individual, since we cannot know just what are his limitations, we can hardly say with certainty that anything is necessarily within or beyond his grasp.

March 17, 1926. The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn…. Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate. – all from Robert H. Goddard

Also on this day: Wanting to Win – In 1994, Tonya Harding pled guilty to interfering with an investigation into the Nancy Karrigan attack.
Army Corps of Engineers – In 1802, the Military Peace Establishment Act became law.
Rain, Rain Go Away – In 1952, a record rainfall hit Cilaos, Rèunion.
Aldo Moro – In 1978, the Italian politician was kidnapped.


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