Robert H. Goddard

Robert Goddard, now considered the American father of modern rocketry, was often mocked and ridiculed by his fellow Americans during his lifetime, but was well-respected in Germany, largely because of his persuasive techniques.

Early in his rocketry research, Goddard funded his own testing, but as his work grew in scope he began to seek outside funding. However, as a publicity-shy man who tried to keep media-focus on his work instead of himself, most of his attempts to solicit financial assistance failed, with the exception of the Smithsonian Institution, which agreed to grant Goddard modest funding.

In 1917, Goddard made several proposals to the U.S. Army and Navy about the possibility of his rocket research being used in the military. Although both organizations were interested, the only one of Goddard’s proposals that he was allowed to develop was his idea for a tube-based rocket launcher to be used as a light infantry weapon. This launcher became the precursor to the bazooka.

After WWI, Goddard returned to researching rockets, and in 1919 he published a book titled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. As part of this book, he mentioned the possibility of sending rockets to the moon. At the time, this was considered an outlandish and impossible suggestion. Although this was only a small part of the book, Goddard was soon subjected to what David Lasser, the co-founder of the American Rocket Society, called the “most violent attacks.”

In 1926, Goddard successfully launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Partly due to Goddard’s poor reputation and partly due to his media-shyness, this launch was largely unnoticed. In 1929, following one of Goddard’s rocket launches, a local newspaper mockingly printed the headline “Moon rocket misses target by 238,799.5 miles”

Although Goddard had difficulty convincing Americans that his ideas were useful, his work was very persuasive to Germans, and it wasn’t long after his book was published that Goddard began receiving queries from German engineers asking about his work. Initially Goddard answered these queries (his help is even acknowledged in Hermann Oberth’s 1923 book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen) , however, increasing aggression from Germany began to worry him, and by 1940 he had stopped responding to the engineers’ questions.

Realizing that he may have inadvertently assisted in German development of long-range missiles, Goddard attempted to warn the U.S. Army and Navy about a potential German threat from rockets. Although Goddard was not able to sell his idea that long-range missiles were a possibility (both organizations considered his warnings too far-fetched to be worth contemplation), he was able to sell himself well enough that between 1942 and 1945 the Navy employed him as Director of Research in the Bureau of Aeronautics, where he worked developing experimental engines.