Q&A Regarding 'Launching Rockets: The Story of Robert H. Goddard'
(Cricket, September 2017)
Why is Robert Goddard significant as a scientist?
Robert Goddard was a trailblazer in the field of rocket science. He not only envisioned how space travel could be possible but he turned many of his ideas into practical realities. Among his many achievements was the March 1926 launch of the first liquid-fuel rocket, a pivotal advance that helped to usher in the space age.
What challenges did Goddard face with his rocket innovations?
As is the case with many visionaries, Goddard’s work during his lifetime was often misunderstood and sometimes mocked by others. In one instance, a journalist with the New York Times criticized him for suggesting that a rocket could fly in space. “That Professor Goddard… does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to stay that would be absurd,” the reporter wrote in 1920.
Little did he know that Goddard had already proven through laboratory experiments that a rocket could fly in the vacuum of space. A rocket is propelled because its body and its exhaust push against each other, Goddard had confirmed. Nearly fifty years later, when three American astronauts were traveling in space to the moon on a Saturn 5 rocket, the Times published a note expressing regret for their long-ago statement.
What was the biggest challenge in writing about Goddard?
Since I’m not a rocket scientist and don’t have a background covering rocket developments, I found it a bit terrifying writing about early rocket science. Getting it right required a lot of research and a lot of reassurance from my editor. I read many books about Goddard and what he’d accomplished and studied how rockets work and their history. I feel so grateful now to have had this learning experience.
Was there anything you learned that you weren’t able to
include in your piece?
Yes. Because of space limitations, I wasn’t able to discuss Bob’s marriage
and his wonderfully supportive wife, Esther. She was a constant source of
strength and encouragement for Bob, assisting him and his team, serving
as his chief photographer around launch time, and helping to ensure his
legacy after he passed away. During my research, I came across a moving
newspaper photo of a boy bringing Esther flowers after Apollo 11 had
successfully returned to Earth from the moon. Happily, she had lived to
see Bob’s dream of humans landing on the moon come true.
How can someone learn more about Bob Goddard?
I'd recommend reading what books are available about him. An educational book for kids, “Rocket Man: The Story of Robert Goddard” by Tom Streissguth, has much good information. Two excellent books for grown-ups are the definitive sources: “This High Man: The Life of Robert H. Goddard” by Milton Lehman, and “Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age” by David A. Clary.
Some fun primary documents, such as Bob’s diary entry from the historic day he launched the first liquid-fuel rocket, can be found at the Clark University website here: https://www2.clarku.edu/research/archives/goddard/diary.cfm. Another great source are the various videos of many of his attempted launches, which can now be found on YouTube. Here’s one: “Rocket Experiments by Dr. Robert H. Goddard (1926 – 1945),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pq7WmrTbi-Q.
September 1, 2017
A sidewalk chalk drawing I came upon one day while out walking near my home in Los Angeles. Seeing it reminded me I needed to get to work writing Goddard’s story.
Sculptor Joseph Anthony Atchison discusses his bust of Bob Goddard with Goddard’s wife Esther, in 1961. This artwork has long been on display at NASA’s headquarters, the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA website.)