Wednesday, October 13, 2004

A Question of Fun             Art.7

Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882 - 1945) is popularly known as the rocket man. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1882 he was always fascinated with everything pyrotechnic. Sticks of TNT, explosives, or small firecrackers or rockets fascinated him as much, as today's kids love their PS2s. He schooled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became a professor at Clark University, teaching physics, for nearly 29 years.

At that time it was believed that propelling anything in space was technically impossible because there was no air to push against. However Goddard in his paper titled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" was able to prove that if you built a big enough rocket, with enough power then it would be possible to reach the moon. He was much ridiculed for his efforts in the media and was even quoted in the papers as "Professor Goddard, lacked the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." after he proposed the idea of space propulsion. Enraged, Goddard intensified his efforts to prove the editors wrong and went into a shell of his own private research from which he never fully recovered because it wasn't until after his demise that his technologies were proved to be correct and could be applied practically.

Goddard proved first that space flight was possible even with the absence of air. Later he realized that if he had any chance of reaching space, gun powders and other such chemical concoctions would have to be replaced by much more powerful fuels. He conceived the use of Liquid fuel like hydrogen which when mixed with liquid oxygen to act as a propellant fuel for the rockets. In fact this is the technology that still powers today's rockets. Thirdly he realized that a single stage rocket would be impossible to get in space and conceived multistage rockets. He was awarded patents for his ideas of liquid propellants and multistage rockets in 1914. Probably during this period the only commercial success that he had was the development of the "Bazooka" done for U.S. Army Signal Corps and Ordinance Department, in the Magnetic Lab (now Skull Tomb) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, at Clark University, and later at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. By 1917 he started receiving financial assistance to sustain his work from the Smithsonian Institution. Later he was to receive a lot of research funds due to the efforts of Charles Lindbergh. It was during the 1920's and the 30's that he did the bulk of his work. Much ridicule came his way, as his failed rocket experiments were difficult to hide from public eye, as they had to be performed in the open. This is probably best highlighted by this hilarious headline in a local paper " MOON ROCKET MISSES TARGET BY 238,799 1/2 MILES."

However his first major breakthrough came in 1926 when Goddard successfully launched a 10-ft rocket he called Nell from his aunt Effie's farm. That flight which lasted for 2.5 seconds launching the rocket at 60 M.P.H. was as historic in the history of modern rocketry as the Wright brothers' 12 sec flight at Kitty Hawk. That 41ft climb was the first stepping stone in Goddard's flight to success. Though in the initial stages his work went largely unnoticed in America, The German Rocket Society, formed in 1927 took considerable interest in his work. His work basically outlined what was to be the famous German V-2 ballistic missile. He indigenously developed all the technology required for flight including liquid propellant driven pumps, steering units, and gyroscopic control. It was in the month of March 1937 that he achieved an altitude of 9000 feet that was to be his highest flight. Even in World War II, Goddard services were used by the U.S. Navy to the development of practical jet assisted takeoff (JATO) and liquid propellant rocket motors capable of variable thrust. He died on August 10,1945, four days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

Robert.H.Goddard was a man who had both the creative genius to think beyond the obvious and the technical brilliance to bring these wonderful ideas into reality. He not only thought of what was then considered impossible, but also carried on with his research in the face of much public humiliation and ultimately succeeded. All the honour that he got, though belated, was richly deserved. The Congress issued a Gold medal in his name in 1959 and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland was named after him.

From that cloud of smoke from a powder rocket fired in the basement of the physics building in Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1907 as a kid, to the first 2.5 second flight on that the afternoon of March 16 in 1926, to the dizzying height of 9000 feet he achieved in 1937 Goddard's journey was truly remarkable. His genius is an inspiration for all engineers in today's 'Space Age' that would have been quite impossible without the creative genius called Robert.H.Goddard.

Additional Info :
NASA entry
TIME magazine


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