Robert H. Goddard, space pioneer

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Dr. Robert H. Goddard with rocket

Space of all kinds surround Roswell. Wide open spaces, Robert H. Goddard’s space experiments, and the crash of a UFO. Has the beginning of space exploration here been overshadowed with all the hype of the UFO crash in 1947? Probably. At the Houston Space Center and Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, Robert Hutchings Goddard is known as the Father of Space Exploration.

But it was here in Roswell in the 1930s that Dr. Goddard brought his experiments to life. They were the forerunner of the Apollo Spacecraft crew setting foot on the moon in 1969. What humans had dreamed of and had written of in fiction was now a fact. Earth had been left behind and the heavens were being explored.

Why was Roswell chosen? Because of its terrain, altitude, and climate, plus a small population of only 11,000. The name of the field where he made his test flights was known as Eden Valley. Many years later in reminiscence, Mrs. Goddard said it was truly an Eden. “Townspeople came to call, invited us to social occasions and overlooked our Eastern accents, accepting us as their own.” Those are some of the same reasons many people move to Roswell 65 years later.

While Dr. Goddard’s experiments were on hold during the Great Depression, something significant occurred that would ultimately serve as a Memorial to him. The Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) built the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, one of 67 such centers in the United States.

The background of his life offers insight into his contribution to the space program. His schooling was haphazard due to poor health, so he resorted to self-education by studying scientific and mathematical texts. When he entered high school he was two years older than his classmates.

He gave the commencement address at graduation, ending with, “It has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.” It was perhaps prophetic of his life.

Inspired by Sir Isaac Newton’s theory that to every action there is always opposed an equal reaction, he felt this principle was the key to sending up rockets.

He continued his schooling and his experiments, after one of which he became known by the derisive name “Moon Man.” This made him very hesitant to give publicity to his experiments.

One person who knew him well said, “For years he carried on his work virtually alone. He experienced frustrations of many kinds: financial difficulties, problems of health as well as the resistance of a new mechanical device to taming and development.

“What he tackled almost single handedly has since taken billions of dollars and thousands of engineers to do now. Yet he designed and built rockets that contained all the essential devices of those found in huge space rockets of today.”

Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh was interested in rocketry and was influential in obtaining financing for Dr. Goddard. He had confided to Lindbergh that if he were given $25,000 a year for four years he could accomplish in 48 months something that otherwise might take a lifetime. Colonel Lindbergh was successful in securing grants from the Guggenheim Foundation. In late 1934, the Lindberghs made a surprise visit to the Mescalero Ranch to see the Goddards, setting the whole town of Roswell abuzz.

The Navy wanted him to work on a liquid fuel, jet-assist rocket and wanted also the option to move him to Annapolis. In 1942 the Navy exercised its option, and the Goddards left Roswell for Maryland in July to work on a project at the Naval Engineering Experiment Station. Thirty-five more patents were issued while he was at Annapolis.

Harry F. Guggenheim, Dr. Robert H. Goddard, and Charles A. Lindbergh at a launching tower near Roswell

In April of 1943, Dr. Goddard contracted a cold and by the end of June his voice was extremely husky. By 1944, his crew could barely understand him. He continued his visits to the throat specialist, and his wife raised the question of cancer of the throat of which his father had died. It proved to be the cause of his huskiness and a laryngectomy was performed in July of 1945. On August 10, 1945, he died quietly and was buried in the family plot in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Shortly after his death, Mrs. Goddard sold the Mescalero Ranch in Roswell and began transcribing his notes to establish the importance of his work. It took her and two assistants nine months to complete the typescript.

The idea of the Goddard Rocket and Space Museum came into being at a dinner honoring Mrs. Goddard. During discussions following the meal she generously offered to make the fabulous collection of Goddard memorabilia available to the Roswell Museum. Her one requirement was that this vital historical collection be properly housed and displayed.

She felt the collection should be exhibited at the Museum because, “The friendly warmth of this typical western community and the vast open spaces around it afforded an ideal atmosphere for the creative efforts of my husband. He spent ten happy and fruitful years in Roswell, bringing to reality the dreams that are still so much a part of today’s efforts in space.”

The Goddard missile and rocket collection were formally offered to this non-profit, city-owned Museum on May 6, 1958. On this date the City Council authorized the enlargement of the Museum to provide the requested housing and display space.

Since Dr. Goddard had been a Rotarian, Roswell Rotarians decided to undertake the reconstruction of his shop at a cost of $15,000. The fundraising was a successful community-wide effort.

NASA presented the Museum with a scaled replica of his first successful liquid-fueled rocket. Other companies subsequently assisted in obtaining his tools and original equipment.

In conjunction with the Workshop reconstruction, the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium was constructed at the west end of the Museum and Art Center. It is the largest Planetarium in New Mexico, seating 120 people.

During the 91st Congress in 1970, a concurrent resolution recognized the Goddard Rocket and Space Museum in the Roswell Museum and Art Center as a fitting tribute to Dr. Robert H. Goddard, space pioneer, 1882-1949.

And it is here visitors and residents can walk through the replica of his workshop and marvel at what Robert Goddard used to create his rocketry.

About Phyllis Eileen Banks