It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow.
Robert H. Goddard
The First Step
In March of 1926, in Auburn, Massachusetts, USA, a moustachioed, 43-year old man wrote the following in his journal:
The first flight with a rocket using liquid propellants was made yesterday at Aunt Effie's farm.
What started here, in a cabbage patch at Aunt Effie’s farm, continues today as footprints on the moon, rovers on Mars, and a probe on its way to Pluto (via Jupiter). This man did not bring us to this place single-handedly, nor were all his ideas original, nor can we say that his original ideas would not have later been thought of by someone else. But in spite of that, when we consider modern space flight, we can't help but feel we owe a debt to him. Rightly so, I think, because although it might be difficult to say why exactly it was him and not someone else, it was him, and he did a lot of work when it was hardest: at the beginning.
The man in the cabbage patch was a physicist by the name of Robert Hutchins Goddard, a man who marked every 19th October in his diary as ‘Anniversary Day’, in memory of an event that occurred when he was 17. Not a physical event, but, far more significantly, an internal, emotional one.
On the afternoon of October 19, 1899, I climbed a tall cherry tree and, armed with a saw which I still have, and a hatchet, started to trim the dead limbs from the cherry tree. It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked towards the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars. I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.
In his early life Goddard worked hard, in the face of serious illness, to lay the theoretical groundwork for the rocket flight in the cabbage patch - including conceiving the basics of the modern rocket motor and patenting multi-stage and liquid-fuelled rockets. Goddard detailed his theories in a paper entitled A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes. This paper secured Goddard funding from the Smithsonian, and, late in 1919, it was published.
Although A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes was mostly about Goddard's theories and research, it did include a small discussion of some of the greater potentials of the technology. In particular, Goddard suggested that it might be possible to launch a rocket carrying an explosive payload so that it would impact on the moon and create a visible explosion, proving that it had arrived.
The New York Times (which regular readers will know has a habit of rubbing me up the wrong way) took particular offence at this suggestion, singling it out for a derisive editorial which accused Goddard of "intentional mistakes or oversights":
[A]fter the rocket quits our air and and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.
While I shall leave the reader to draw their own conclusions about the integrity and scientific knowledge displayed by the editors of the NYT in January of 1920, it should be noted that they did print a retraction on 17th July 1969, the day after Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.
Although Goddard was at first hurt by the public criticisms levelled at him for his work, he continued unabashed, focusing on liquid-fuelled rockets - launching one in 1926, launching another carrying a camera and barometer in 1929 and in 1932 developing modern methods of orienting and controlling a rocket. Five years before the NYT editorial, Goddard had also demonstrated, in a practical experiment, that rockets could indeed provide a propulsive force in a vacuum, as one expects from Newtonian - let alone Einsteinian - physics.
Although Goddard had started his work from a sudden desire to ascend to Mars, he died in 1945, 12 years before Sputnik orbited the Earth, 24 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and 24 years before Mariner 4 flew by Mars. He did however, live long enough to see the Nazis deploy the V2 ballistic missile, and the Americans detonate nuclear weapons.
As Carl Sagan mused, spaceflight is, in the long term, necessary for continued human survival; but in the short term, rockets carrying nuclear warheads are our quickest route to destruction. Wherever this situation may lead us, and however else we might have ended up here, it is strange to think that such an important thread of the human experience, upon which the whole thing may well pivot, includes as one of its most important events a 17 year old boy climbing a cherry tree and day-dreaming.
Read more stories of inspiration here.
A NASA fact-sheet on Goddard.
A Biographical Essay
A description of Goddard's contribution to rocket technology
The NYT Editorial in full
Robbert H. Goddard at Wikipedia