- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

WORCESTER, Mass.

In the end, Robert Goddard had the last laugh. In 1920, he wrote a paper suggesting a rocket could carry enough explosives to reach high into space. The Clark College professor who later continued his experiments in Annapolis, was widely ridiculed, including by the New York Times.

By the time a rocket took men to the moon in 1969, Goddard had been dead 24 years. But he had already earned an enduring legacy as the father of American rocketry.

A day after Apollo 11 launched, the New York Times ran a correction apologizing for mocking Goddard. And Buzz Aldrin carried a miniature copy of Goddard’s autobiography, “Father of the Space Age,” with him into space.

The credit-card-sized book, now housed at Clark University’s Goddard Library, boasts the astronaut’s inscription, “Flown to the moon on board APOLLO 11.”

“We never would have been able to do that without Goddard,” said Charles Agosta, chairman of the physics department at Clark, where Goddard taught physics for years.

The physicist’s interest in all things extraterrestrial began long before the press labeled him “Moony” Goddard. As a sickly child, he surrounded himself with the out-of-this-world works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Goddard’s sci-fi dreams were not confined to bookshelves for long. He developed a formula for liquid fuel as an alternative to gunpowder at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University.

Countless research papers later, Goddard launched his first liquid-fueled rocket on his aunt’s farm in nearby Auburn in 1926.

The 10-foot-long, six-pound metal contraption remained airborne for less than three seconds, traveled 184 feet and reached a height of 41 feet before it crashed into a cabbage patch.

“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 diary.

But not everyone remembered Goddard’s launches so fondly. A notorious crash in 1929 stirred panic among neighbors as nearby homes shook, balls of fire rained down and smoke filled the site.

“They thought a plane had crashed,” said Clark University archivist Fordyce Williams. “The neighbors were very miffed when they got there and it was just professor Goddard setting off his rockets.”

After a not-so-friendly reprimand from the state fire marshal, Goddard left the farm in search of greener, or at least less crater-filled, pastures.

He continued his research at the Fort Devens military base in northern Massachusetts and later in Roswell, N.M., with help from a $25,000 four-year annual grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. By the mid 1930s, Goddard’s rockets had reached altitudes of up to 1.7 miles.

Goddard came to the attention of the U.S. Navy and moved near a base in Annapolis, where he combined rocket science with airplane takeoffs.

Rocket science was nothing new, even in Goddard’s time. The Chinese had been at it long before the technology landed in the Western world, and Goddard had several counterparts in Russia and Germany. Goddard’s claim to fame stems from the first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926. He died in 1945 - 24 years before Apollo’s moon landing. NASA named its Beltsville Space Center the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, in his honor in 1959.

“Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace,” Goddard said.

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