75 years since the first liquid-fueled rocket launch

Dr Robert H. Goddard
Dr Robert H. Goddard
16 March 2001

It is exactly 75 years since Dr Robert H. Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on 16 March 1926. In his biography of Dr Goddard, Milton Lehman referred to this event as "a feat as epochal in history as that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk".

According to William Townsend, Deputy Director of the NASA facility named after the rocket pioneer, the Goddard Space Flight Center, "That flight became the underpinning of everything that we are able to do in space today and which we take for granted".

By the time Dr Goddard was 21 in 1903, he had already visualized flight in outer space, although it took him until 1926 to achieve his monumental accomplishment. Liquid-fueled rockets make it possible to reach the high frontiers of space. Dr Goddard recognised before virtually anyone else that developing this technology was critical to space exploration.

His first 3-metre long rocket used petrol and liquid oxygen to reach a height of just over 12 metres. Even though this first rocket weighed only 4.5 kg, the basic technology was the same as that used to carry the 2,727,000-kg Saturn V rocket 384,000 km to the moon.

Ariane-5
Ariane-5

The majority of unmanned rockets that deliver spacecraft and satellites to Earth orbit or on inter-planetary expeditions use a liquid propulsion system. This includes the highly successful Ariane launches developed by ESA.

According to Jean Jacques Dordain, the Director of ESA's Launchers Programme, “Dr Goddard is truly one of the founding fathers of space exploration, without his innovative vision it is unlikely that we would have reached the stage we are at today, where rocket launches and space exploration are almost an everyday occurrence”.

During his lifetime Dr Goddard designed, built and launched 35 rockets of increasing sophistication. This work included improving the rockets' designs, developing turbo-pump systems; gyro-stabilization; aerodynamic and jet-deflector flight controls; automatic sequencing launch systems; flight trajectory tracking and recording devices; gimbal-mounted clustered rocket motors; and parachute recovery systems.

This 75th anniversary of the launch of the first liquid-fuelled rocket is a fitting moment to remember Dr Goddard’s famous words, words which were the foundation of his life’s work: “The dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow”.

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