Launching Rocketry

  • Prosperity
  • 1930

Robert Goddard was the world’s greatest genius in rocketry, which only existed in science fiction when he penned his first articles about it in high school. After he earned a doctorate in physics at Clark University in 1911, his rocketry research expenses overwhelmed his salary, and he began fundraising. Goddard received scant financial backing and little interest from government or his fellow scientists, and the media (especially the New York Times) attacked his ideas so mercilessly he shunned publicity. In 1929, though, he was befriended by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who persuaded philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim to provide Goddard with a $100,000 grant. For the next 11 years, the Guggenheim family were Goddard’s primary supporters, providing the salary, research funds, and materials with which Goddard created his many breakthroughs in rocket and jet propulsion.

Freed by these donations from the demands of fundraising or teaching, Goddard made bold progress on a range of problems and set the stage for the jet and rocket revolutions—and space exploration, including the multistage boosters that allowed the U.S. to be the first nation to land men on the moon. Subsequent Guggenheim-funded labs eventually yielded the Mars lander, and probes which traveled to Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond. “Today,” notes historian Claire Gaudiani, “all rockets and planes depend on some of Goddard’s 300 separate aeronautical inventions.” Indeed, the federal government (which had largely ignored Goddard’s work) agreed after his death to pay his widow and his philanthropic patrons at the Guggenheim Foundation $1 million for infringing on the master scientist’s 214 patents during World War II.

  • Claire Gaudiani, The Greater Good (Times Books, 2003) pp. 112-113
  • Milton Lehman, The Life of Robert H. Goddard (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1963)