robert h goddard with rocket

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In the December 1929 issue, Popular Mechanics covered the pioneering work of the rocketeer Robert H. Goddard. Just three years earlier, Goddard became the first to launch a liquid propellant-fueled rocket. It didn’t go very far at the time, but his invention set the stage for nearly a century’s worth of exploration. On the 95th anniversary of his ground-breaking 1926 launch, we celebrate an inventor whose designs would eventually propel humanity to the stars.


Shooting a rocket from the earth to the moon is no longer merely a fantasy of the mind. In fact, the first shot has been fired in what promises to be the most spectacular “battle of the century”-man’s struggle to conquer interplanetary space.

And as a result of the success of the experiment, Prof. Robert H. Goddard, of Clark University, claims that he has now solved all the major problems of accomplishing such an amazing feat. Moreover, he declares that the first practical test, outside a laboratory, of a working model of his rocket at Worcester, Mass., proved to his own satisfaction and that of other scientists who witnessed it, that a larger rocket of similar design operating on the same principle can be constructed which will have sufficient velocity to escape the earth’s attraction and soar to any desired altitude-to the moon or any one of the planets in the solar system.

“By George, it was a tremendous thrill to watch it go.”

Startling, indeed, are such statements, even in this age of scientific wonders. Yet, coming as they do from a conservative, cautious scientist, with a high reputation at stake, and who has spent twenty years in research and experiment on the problem of reaching extreme altitudes, they must be given serious consideration.

And one needs no other stimulant to the imagination to conceive that in the not distant future passenger-carrying air planes propelled by the rocket-principle engine will shoot across the Atlantic, the Pacific, or the United States in a few hours, and that eventually man may journey to the moon, or Mars and Venus.

Professor Goddard describes the working model of his rocket as being nine feet long and two and one-half feet in diameter, with an outer shell of aluminum, highly polished and tapered at the nose to offer the least wind resistance.

Inside the shell is a highly complex mechanism, the result of many years of study and experiment, but Professor Goddard is maintaining strict secrecy as to how it works and the nature of the propellant that he is using. Explaining the reason for this secrecy he said:

“There are many things about this great undertaking which cannot be made public at this time if the United States would maintain its supremacy in this field of scientific achievement and retain secrets of physics that may prove of inestimable value in safeguarding the life of the nation in case of war.”

He said, however, that the propellant he is using is something new, a combination of liquids and gases that has taken him nine years to develop, and that the propelling force is not a series of explosions, but is continuous.

No high-powered machinery was used to give the rocket its initial lift skyward. It was launched from a sixty-foot steel tower, with guide rails, under its own power, and the initial velocity was upward of five miles per second. It carried instruments for recording the altitude which it reached and the temperature there, and the whole apparatus was brought safely back to earth by parachutes and was recovered immediately.

“By George, it was a tremendous thrill to watch it go.” exclaimed Professor Goddard. “It is almost indescribable. Naturally there is considerable noise when it is being lifted which might be mistaken for a big explosion. But the sound as it hurtles along in flight is more like the moaning of the projectile from a big gun, or a long-drawn-out rumble of thunder.

robert h goddard

Robert Goddard stands with his test rocket, the first to use liquid propellant, in Worcester, Mass., on March 16, 1926.

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Professor Goddard then stated that the term “moon rocket.” as applied to his invention, is somewhat of a misnomer, and that it would be more correct to call it a “rain rocket,” because the practical purpose of his rocket experiments is to find some method of exploring the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere for valuable meteorological data. But in the very next breath he admitted that his ultimate object, the highest goal of his ambitions, is to send an aerial messenger to the moon and then to the planets.

“But suppose you eventually succeed in developing a rocket powerful enough to reach the moon; how are you going to prove that it arrived at its destination?” he was asked.

“The only reliable procedure would be to send a charge of flash powder to the dark surface of the moon, when in conjunction that is the ‘new’ moon), in such a way that it would be ignited on impact. The light would then be visible in a powerful telescope,” he replied.

Speaking of the practical value of developing rockets by means of which the earth’s upper atmosphere can be explored, Professor Goddard pointed out that the greatest altitude at which soundings of the atmosphere have been made by balloons, is only about twenty miles-but a small fraction of the height to which the atmosphere is supposed to extend. “Above that altitude lies the most interesting, and in some ways the most important part of our atmosphere,” he said.

“Some authorities say the temperature begins to increase with height after a certain altitude is reached, and that it runs up as high as 1.000 degrees centigrade. Others say the temperature decreases tremendously. The earth’s outer atmosphere may be very hot although nearly a vacuum. But we have no direct evidence about it. Nor do we know how the pressure falls off or the composition of the air beyond a height of about twenty miles.

“Another thing is the electrical nature of the upper atmosphere. Something like sixty miles up, there is a very rarefied gas charged with electricity and without it long-distance radio transmission would have to go out of business.

“Other problems are the nature of the aurora, the nature of radioactive rays from matter in the sun, as well as the ultraviolet rays from that body.”