News
16 Mar 2016

First liquid fuel rocket launched 90 years ago

On his Aunt Effie's farm in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket – and with it, modern space exploration. Belinda Smith reports.

 
Robert Goddard stands next to his first liquid-fuelled rocket prior to its launch on 16 March 1926.Credit: Clark University Robert H. Goddard Archive

The father of modern rocket propulsion launched the first liquid-fuelled rocket on this day 90 years ago.

Most rockets today use liquid fuel because it provides more bang for its buck, and gives engineers an accurate idea of how long they'll last.

Their inventor, Robert Goddard, spent a good chunk of his life testing, refining and retesting his grand idea. But he wasn't taken seriously by everyone. Some of his ideas about reaching outer space were ridiculed during his lifetime.

A physicist at Massachusetts, he wasn't fazed. He self-funded his forays into rockets from the early 1900s. In 1914, he received two US patents. One for a rocket using liquid fuel.

Until then, rockets used solid fuels, such as gunpowder, to get off the ground. But Goddard knew solid propellants had their limits. He began experimenting with liquid fuels, such as liquid gasoline and oxygen.

But it was a slow process. Each step, he encountered a problem. How do you mix gasoline and oxygen, and feed it continually into the engine, so it burns quickly enough to provide enough thrust to lift the weight of the rocket off the ground? 

Finally, on 16 March 1926, Goddard successfully launched his creation from his Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Employees at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, recreated the first liquid-fuelled rocket launch in front of Building 8 in 1976. Credit: NASA / Goddard / Robert Garner

"It looked almost magical as it rose, without any appreciably greater noise or flame, as if it said, 'I've been here long enough; I think I'll be going somewhere else, if you don't mind'," Goddard wrote in his journal the next day.

He continued to invent. When he died on 10 August 1945, he'd been awarded more than 200 patents.

But his widow, Esther Goddard, was present for the formal dedication of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre on 16 March 1961, 35 years to the day after her husband's world-changing rocket launch in rural Massachusetts.

Belinda Smith is Cosmos deputy news editor.