Goddard, according to the new biography Rocket Man, was the most famous scientist in America during the early 20th century, better known than Einstein, and also the most revered inventor, more highly regarded than Edison. Newspapers headlined his every pronouncement, and were doing so years before Goddard launched the first-ever liquid-fueled rocket, sending it aloft from his aunt Effie’s cabbage patch in Auburn, Mass. Many believed, Rocket Man asserts, that “probably no figure in the history of science had a greater vision than Robert Goddard,”born a sickly boy–he didn’t graduate from high school until age 21–in a time before powered flight, and as a man attempting to design rockets that would reach the moon. The public revered Goddard even when he lost his touch in the 1930s, his prototype rockets performing poorly as the Germans leaped ahead. American setbacks in World War II were widely blamed in public debate on government failure to listen to Goddard; when, 15 years after his 1945 death, the U.S. government awarded his widow $1 million for infringing on Goddard’s patents, the decision caused a sensation. Rocket Man, by David Clary–a historian who teaches at Eastern New Mexico State University, located in Roswell, where Goddard performed many of his rocketry experiments in the years before aliens landed there–provides a solid, informative summary of Goddard’s life. It is an important work, though Clary spends too much time obsessed with the topic that obsessed Goddard himself: namely, who should get credit for the early developments in rocketry. The book is as much an attempt to weigh this topic as a biography; in its 260 pages we learn a great deal about the legal arguments over Goddard’s patents but comparatively little about Goddard himself. Goddard comes off as a self-centered, shallow person who cared only about honors and newspaper headlines. Maybe that’s what he was, but wasn’t there some sense of adventure in his heart as well? Clary makes his subject, who walked through history as few ever did, surprisingly bland.
Goddard, Clary reports, spent his boyhood and young adulthood in Massachusetts fooling around with chemicals, contraptions, and, especially, firing off hand-built versions of the short-range, solid-fueled rockets that existed at the turn of the 20th century. By 1915, he was a professor of physics at Clark University, and had designed numerous ways to improve the power and guidance of rockets. Next, Goddard proved experimentally that a rocket engine could generate thrust in a vacuum (i.e., in space), something that seems obvious now but was controversial at the time. (The New York Times demonstrated the media’s ignorance of physics in a famed wrong-headed editorial that basically called Goddard a lunatic for saying rockets could work in a vacuum, denouncing him for “lack[ing] the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.) In 1919, the Smithsonian published a paper by Goddard supposing that “extreme altitude–space–could be reached by a multiple-stage liquid-fueled rocket. This dryly written technical paper made national headlines.
The next year, Goddard announced that he was planning to hit the moon with a rocket. His announcement was front-page news around the country, taken at face value even though Goddard at the time had no rocket capable of going a few hundred feet, let alone the 238,000 miles to the moon. Goddard assiduously cultivated reporters, Rocket Man says, and developed around himself the kind of great-man aura that enabled him to talk grandly about flights to the moon and be taken seriously, without any reporter, apparently, ever saying, “Um, doc, could I get a look at this rocket?”In 1926, Goddard’s first liquid-fueled creation flew, and it was a breakthrough moment in science–for reasons that can be skipped here, liquid fuel promised a degree of power unthinkable for the fireworks-like rockets of the time. Goddard’s first flight of a liquid-fueled rocket will always be one of the leading moments in science, though the little machine, about the size of a telephone booth, barely got above the tree line.
In the years that followed, Goddard launched variations on his initial designs, moving to Roswell, a place he didn’t like, in order to have miles of open desert in which a malfunctioning prototype might fall. But though Goddard developed many technical improvements during the 1930s, his work hit a wall. It wasn’t until 1937 that he got a rocket to fly straight up one mile, and his goal of reaching space was never even close to realization. One problem was that Goddard generally worked alone, while the Germans, who by 1944 would be firing the large V-2 rocket hundreds of miles, had entire engineering teams working on each component.
The appearance in September 1944 of the V-2 sent Goddard into a fury. He believed the Germans had stolen his ideas–the V-2 looked like a pumped-up version of a 1930s Goddard design–and angrily accused them of intellectual property theft, as if this nicety would be observed by anyone during war. Goddard wrote letters to newspapers, saying that he deserved credit for the V-2. After his death, his widow spent years traveling the country, presenting a speech about Goddard’s life that asserted he should receive credit for nearly every rocket development that occurred worldwide while he was alive.
The appearance of the V-2 also sent Lindbergh into a fury. During the 1920s, he had befriended Goddard; the jet engine had not yet been invented, and Lindbergh had thought the future of aviation lay in rocket propulsion. As World War II began, Goddard wanted to head a grand effort to build a missile weapon, and was bitter when the Pentagon turned him down. (Goddard did contribute to the war effort by designing the bazooka.) After the V-2 flew, Lindbergh accused Washington of deliberately blocking Goddard’s attempt to let the allies get the long-range missile first, handing the Germans a grave advantage in the war.
Yet V-2s, while a terrifying cause of civilian deaths in London and Antwerp, had no military significance. Historians have argued that Germany would have been better off if it had never had a missile program, and had instead channeled those resources into building fighters and bombers, since the Wehrmacht ended up routed in the air war. America’s lack of an equivalent to the V-2 program may have been one reason the United States prevailed in World War II. American aviation resources were dedicated to conventional aircraft that overwhelmed the Luftwaffe; if we’d listened to Goddard and spent the money on rockets, the outcome might have been unhappy.
Lindbergh, who carried many forms of dislike for the U.S. government, campaigned after Goddard’s 1945 death on the notion that the Pentagon had committed a grievous error by allowing the Germans to get the first tactical missile. When the $1 million was eventually paid to Goddard’s widow, it was premised partly on the convoluted reasoning that the Germans stole Goddard’s ideas, which were then stolen again in the 1950s by the U.S. military, which reproduced German rocket designs.
Rocket Man takes Goddard’s side in every dispute about credit, and that is the author’s choice to make. But in order to come to the Goddard-only conclusion, Clary says little about von Braun, whose lifetime feats for two nations–from the first functioning long-range missile through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs to the 1969 landing on the moon–significantly outnumbered Goddard’s. Clary sometimes simply seems uninterested in the German side of the coin. When Rocket Man pauses to note that one of von Braun’s assistants, Arthur Rudolph, was “forced to leave the United States in 1984″after his role in Nazi slave-labor use became known, Clary does not tell readers that Rudolph was the program chief for the Saturn V that carried the astronauts to the moon. The German rocket program of the first half of the 20th century was horrifically tainted by its role in service to a wicked regime, but a book that wants to assess credit for the early achievements of rocketry should have done more to give von Braun’s crowd its due. It seems strange that Robert Goddard could have been a famed, admired man who spent years obsessed with the idea that he was not famed or admired enough. His name will never be forgotten. What more can an inventor ask? Sadly, Rocket Man does not really explain why Goddard found so little satisfaction in his own accomplishments.
Gregg Easterbrook, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is the author of The Progress Paradox, which will be published in December by Random House.