Centenary of the Lunar Project

BIS Odyssey

Developing Goddard’s dream into reality. Published by Faber & Faber 1956. Cover image shows the take-off of Viking 9 in December 1952 in an official US Navy photo.

With all the forthcoming celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the first manned Moon landing, we should not forget a significant event that occurred one hundred years ago – the publication of Robert Goddard’s seminal report A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections. The consequences of this document for space travel were immense.

In his 1953 book Into Space, the founder of the British Interplanetary Society Philip E Cleator identified its publication date as 26th May 1919, explaining how Goddard had attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Institute with his early experiments with rockets, and received its financial backing. The results of his experiments were outlined in the 1919 document, which suggested that it should be possible to send a rocket to the Moon. Up to that stage, he had confined his work to rockets with powder fuel, but then he turned his attention to rockets powered by liquid fuels.

To be fair, he had been anticipated in the theory by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Reaction Devices from 1903 firmly established his position as a pioneer of space flight by discussing the use of liquid fuel multi-stage rockets. However, Dr Goddard was the first to carry out experiments which proved that the theory could be translated into practice.

Dr Goddard’s report wasn’t released to the public until sometime later, but it had certainly been issued by January 1920 when it came in for some degree of ridicule in the press. Perhaps that was only to be expected but, sadly, it is said to have resulted in him becoming something of a recluse. However, its longer-term impact for American rocket development was undoubted, and it was given full credit in the 1956 book The Viking Rocket Story by Milton W Rosen, who was involved in the development of both the Viking and Vanguard rockets, and later the definition of the Saturn rocket programme which was so essential for the Apollo missions to the Moon.

In that book, Rosen observed that “in this one brief paper, Goddard developed a valid theory of rocket action” and pointed out the developments that would lead to a practical high-altitude rocket. But it was the event on 16 March 1926 in the small town of Auburn, Massachusetts that receives his main focus; “this place and this date are as significant to the present and future of rockets as is the Wright brothers’ flight to aircraft.” For on that day “Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket from the snow-covered ground of a relative’s farm.” The flight only lasted two and a half seconds, but Rosen had no doubts about its significance for future rocket programmes.

Unfortunately, Dr Goddard did not receive the recognition he deserved in his home country, though his work was a clear influence on the German rocket programme. German rocket experts brought to the USA after the Second World War was said to be astonished by the way he had been virtually ignored there. And let’s not forget that his research is also credited as one of the influences on the BIS Lunar Spaceship project in 1938. He only really received due recognition after his death in 1945.

It has been suggested that reading HG Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds was one of the inspirations behind Dr Goddard’s work, and we can be fairly certain that the publicity at the time of his report, adverse though much of it may have been, only added to the growth in imaginative space exploration. Tsiolkovsky, who wrote science fiction as well as his scientific publications, described travel to the Moon by rocket, as well as space habitats in orbit around the Earth, in his 1920 novel Beyond the Planet Earth, and before long the enthusiasm for space travel was really taking off.

A hundred years ago, the stage was being set, and fifty years ago the drama reached fulfilment.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Fiftieth Anniversary of a Crazy Notion | The Lure of the Otherworldly

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