135 years ago today, the Rocket Age began


Robert Goddard is as important to rocketry as the Wright Brothers are to powered flight, writes Tim Wallace.


Robert Goddard in his workshop with a rocket in 1935.
Robert Goddard in his workshop with a rocket in 1935.
Bettmann / Getty

“Light this candle!” So astronaut Alan Shepard is credited with exclaiming after hours of sitting atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket waiting for the launch sequence that would propel him into history as the first American, and second human, in space in May 1961.

“Light those candles!” is what we at Cosmos exclaim to celebrate the birthday of Robert H. Goddard, revered as the father of modern rocket propulsion. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is named in his honour.

Born on 5 October, 1882, Goddard became fascinated by the possibilities of flight, and space, at a young age, inspired in part by H. G. Wells' science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds.

In 1907 he attracted attention after firing off a gunpowder-fuelled rocket in the basement of the physics building at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. By 1914 he had already registered and received two patents – one for a rocket powered by liquid fuel, the other for a multi-stage rocket (using solid fuel). Both ideas were significant steps to making space flight a reality.

Goddard built and successfully tested the first liquid-fuelled rocket on 16 March, 1926 in Auburn, Massachusetts. Though the rocket, burning a mixture of liquid oxygen and gasoline, flew for less than three seconds and gained an altitude of just 12 metres, its launch is regarded as no less significant in the history of human flight as the work of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

This archival film footage, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, shows Goddard conducting rocket experiments in the New Mexico desert in the 1930s.



Light those candles!

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