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STEAM Celebrity Spotlight: Robert Goddard

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

By Siri Doddapaneni


Space exploration has been a hallmark of the American spirit since the 1900s. Satellites, space stations, and the pinnacle of them all: rockets. Rockets have been propelling American astronauts and missions to space for decades. This remarkable revolution attributes to one man: Robert Goddard. Credited with inventing the first liquid-fueled and multi-stage rockets, Goddard ushered in the beginnings of a race to space.


Goddard was born in 1882 to Nahum Goddard and Fannie Hoyt in Massachusetts. With the rapid introduction of electricity to America’s societies, a young Goddard became fascinated with science, beginning when his father showed him how to generate static electricity by rubbing his feet on a carpet; he also developed an interest in flight while playing with balloons and kites. As Robert progressed in education, even becoming valedictorian at his high school, he received a B.S. in physics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908. He also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from Clark University.


Goddard’s interest in rocketry began in 1912 while working at Princeton University. In his spare time, he developed equations that allowed him to calculate a rocket’s exact position and velocity. In 1914, he received 2 patents: one for a liquid-fueled rocket and another for a two or three-stage rocket using solid fuel. Soon, Goddard began working at Clark University where he was able to conduct a test launch of a powder rocket in 1915. However, Goddard was not able to support his projects with his teacher’s salary, so when he wrote to the Smithsonian about the impressive statistics and performances of his prototypes, they obliged for a grant.


After conducting more rocket trials, publishing works in the Smithsonian’s magazine, and even building a rocket for the U.S. Army, Goddard’s big discovery came in 1925. While experimenting with liquid-fuel systems and pressure systems, Goddard tested a simple pressure-feed system. The engine was able to lift its own weight, proving that a liquid-fueled rocket was possible.


On March 16, 1926, in Auburn, Massachusetts, Goddard launched his first liquid-fueled— gasoline and liquid oxygen—rocket. Goddard described the flight of the rocket “Nell” as the following “Tried rocket at 2.30. It rose 41 feet & went 184 feet, in 2.5 secs., after the lower half of the nozzle burned off. 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.”


This flight proved to be a breakthrough for Goddard, as it garnered the attention of pilot Charles Lindbergh and the wealthy Guggenheim family who provided him with financial backing and popularity. In 1931, Goddard received more funding and gave his rocket a traditional, modern appearance. Goddard continued to experiment with different types, techniques, and parts of rockets until his death in 1945. Posthumously, Goddard was awarded 131 patents to complete his set of 214, was the namesake for a NASA facility, and received the Congressional Gold Medal. Considered the father of modern rocket propulsion, Goddard continues to impact space programs around the world with his drive for innovation and meaningful inventions.


Works Cited

Garner, Rob. “Dr. Robert H. Goddard, American Rocketry Pioneer.” NASA, 11 Feb. 2015,

www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/history/dr_goddard.html.

Lehman, Milton, and Mildred K. Lehman. “Robert Goddard.” Encyclopædia Britannica,

www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Goddard.




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