NewsStreet Scribe

Rocket-Builder Robert Goddard Set the Stage for Apollo 11

Fifty years ago this week, men from Earth were on their way to the moon. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin maneuvered their small landing craft to a suspenseful touchdown on the lunar surface while their cosmic comrade, Michael Collins, orbited above in the Apollo mother ship. All the world watched and wondered as the first humans landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Here in Athens, and around the world, interest in the moon voyage was high, and media coverage was intense, as the mission captured the imaginations of millions in a world that was, then as now, beset by war and poverty. 

Athens had two daily newspapers 50 years ago: the morning Daily News and the afternoon Banner-Herald. Both papers ran stories trumpeting the moon voyage for days before the mission lifted off from its seaside Cape Canaveral rocket rookery. “Apollo Speeds Unerringly Toward Lunar Touchdown” was the headline on the front page of the Daily News on July 17, 1969, the day after the moon mission thundered aloft from its Florida launch pad. A story on local reactions to the flight included a quote from an Athens-area woman who said, “If God had meant for us to be there on the moon, he would have put us there in the first place.” Another local woman told the paper that “she felt that the trip to the moon was being faked by the government.” Lynn Wilkins, a 12-year-old girl in Athens who was born when the space age began with Russia’s Sputnik satellite in 1957, voiced a more science-minded view, saying that she was glad but not surprised that people were going to the moon. “When I was born, they were already thinking about it,” she told the Daily News.

She was right. This year is also the 100th anniversary of the publication of a treatise by American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard that mentioned the possibility of sending a rocket to the moon. The Smithsonian Institution published Dr. Goddard’s academic treatise with the understated title “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” in 1919. When it was published a century ago, automobiles and airplanes were new technology, movies were silent, and radio had not yet spanned the nation and girdled the globe. Television and computer networks were the stuff of science fiction. Goddard was ridiculed for his work, most notably by The New York Times, which said that he “seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Disgusted but not discouraged, Goddard continued his work on rocketry. In 1926, he launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket from a farm in his home state of Massachusetts, putting the roar of a rocket into the decade called the Roaring Twenties. Goddard’s rockets increased in size and complexity during the 1930s, when his unmanned creations soared as high as 9,000 feet at speeds approaching supersonic. Goddard died in 1945, but his widow, Esther, who had filmed her husband’s historic launches, was later awarded $1 million by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the space agency’s use of concepts and hardware that had been developed by the formerly maligned scientist. German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who had masterminded the death-dealing Nazi V-2 rockets of World War II and the American Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon, called Goddard “a visionary dreamer.”  

When astronauts landed on the moon 50 years ago, The New York Times issued a belated editorial apology to Goddard, and the headline on the front page of the Banner-Herald shouted sentiments about the lunar landing shared by many here and around the world: “It Was Unforgettable!” A copy of Goddard’s “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes” was carried aboard an Apollo spacecraft that orbited Earth in 1975, a true tribute to an American space pioneer whose work should be remembered in this age when science is often disrespected and surly cynicism often trumps healthy skepticism. Nearly a century ago, Robert Goddard wrote in his diary words that were true then and still are true today: “When old dreams die, new ones come to take their place. God pity a one-dream man.”