It is not very likely that a man from the East Coast would come to be known as a hometown hero nearly two thousand miles away in the emerging Southwest, but if you take a look around Roswell, New Mexico you will see signs all over town of the legacy left by Dr. Robert H. Goddard.
Born in Massachusetts in 1882, Goddard grew up with an interest in the great outdoors and the sciences that surrounded him, often spending his time conducting and documenting self-made experiments. As a teenager, Goddard’s interests turned to space after gaining inspiration from the H.G. Wells book, War of the Worlds. This inspiration, along with a hunger for knowledge, led him to excel in school as he took advantage of all the doors opened by higher education.
Goddard became increasingly more interested in physics, gearing his research towards developing rockets and the possibility of space travel. After receiving both his Master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics from Clark University, Goddard went on to teach at his alma mater where he had access to the physics lab and equipment necessary to carry out his experiments, specifically seeking to create liquid fueled rockets. The physicist kept detailed notes and preferred to quietly file patents on his works, but quickly began to gain attention for his experiments and ideas about humans reaching the moon. Despite receiving a lot of negative publicity for notions that were simply ahead of his time, an article that ran in the New York Times covering one of Goddard’s rocket launches caught the attention of aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Lindbergh and Goddard became fast friends leading Lindbergh to seek out funding for the physicist, eventually securing financial support to continue development of his rockets from the Guggenheim family. In July of 1930 Goddard and his wife, Esther, relocated to Roswell to set up what would be his research and testing facilities for the next decade. The seclusion of a small ranching town allowed Goddard to work in privacy, while the vastness of the open ranchland and temperate weather provided an ideal climate for conducting flight-tests on his rockets.
Goddard and Esther settled into life Mescalero Ranch northeast of town where they lived in an adobe house with a workshop built on the property. About 10 miles away, Goddard received permission to use the open ranch land at Eden Valley as a test site where he set up a 60-foot tower. Some of Goddard’s most important work was accomplished during his time living in Roswell. It was at Eden Valley that he launched the first liquid fueled rocket to exceed the speed of sound in 1935.
Seventy-seven years after Goddard’s rocket exceeded the speed of sound, a daredevil named Felix Baumgartner paid a visit to Roswell. The Austrian skydiver performed a parachuted jump from a helium balloon above a local ranch that awarded him the world record for being the first skydiver to break the sound barrier.
As a man who valued his privacy, Goddard was well respected by the local press, residents and his crew. Goddard took advantage of his new home in Roswell, even joining the Roswell Rotary Club. Occasionally he would take a break from his research to feed his artistic side painting the spacious southwest landscapes alongside his friend and celebrated artist, Peter Hurd.
Hurd was not Goddard’s only famous pal during his time experimenting in Roswell. His longtime supporter Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, payed a handful of visits to Mescalero Ranch. Lindbergh became a national celebrity after piloting the first solo transatlantic flight and he saw the potential in Goddard’s work as the future of air travel. Lindbergh made three visits his friend in Roswell over the years, bringing along Goddard’s financier Harry Guggenheim on a trip in 1935. The three men witnessed a test launch at Eden Valley, followed by a second launch three days later. Both rockets did not take off, but Lindbergh and Guggenheim recognized the importance of Goddard’s tests and the valuable progress he was making learning from his failures. It was reported that Lindbergh would leave his visits to Roswell by flying his plane around the launch tower as a salute to the rocketeer.
After conducting fifty-six tests flights at Eden Valley, Goddard said goodbye to Roswell in 1942 when he was contracted to gear his work toward aiding the war effort and sent back east. He passed away in 1945 at the age of 62 just days before the end of WWII. Although Goddard never had the chance to return to Roswell, his legacy is apparent in the community that was his home for twelve years. One of the two high schools in town and the planetarium both bare his name and the Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC) opened the Robert H. Goddard wing in 1969.
While Goddard tended to remain private about his findings, after his death his dedicated widow ensured that he receive credit for his work which was a basis for U.S. space exploration. He was credited with 214 patents, more than half of which were granted posthumously. Esther Goddard, along with the Roswell Rotary Club, was also fundamental in creating the year-round exhibit at the RMAC that showcases a replica of Goddard’s workshop in Roswell as well as equipment, rockets and photographs.
During his lifetime, Goddard’s work was often underappreciated and his dream of humans reaching the moon, dismissed. Though he had no children of his own, he would probably be pleased to know that students today are receiving an education that emphasizes a push toward the sciences. More and more schools, both public and private, are implementing a STEM curriculum (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and students are being encouraged to explore the possibilities where science can take them more than ever before. Also, the United States did make it to the moon, thanks in part to the path that Goddard paved.