Rockets in Space

There were still questions that, as yet, no one could solve with any certainty. Could thrust be attained in the vacuum of space? Would rocket propellant burn in the absence of oxygen? The answers to these questions were essential to the furthering of space flight. Nearly all physicists said no to both. First, if a rocket had nothing to thrust against, namely atmosphere, it would go nowhere, and second, a rocket propellant would not burn in a vacuum without the presence of oxygen. Goddard knew that propellant compounds carried their own oxygen and in theory were very capable of burning within a vacuum.

To counter the skeptics, he built a vacuum chamber, pumped it empty of air, and mounted a rocket inside. Amazingly, after more than 50 tests, Goddard was able to prove that not only did a rocket work in a vacuum, it achieved roughly 20 percent more thrust than in the atmosphere! Even with this evidence, experts were not convinced, and they treated Goddard as a laughingstock, dismissing his work. This caused the already shy professor to withdraw from public scrutiny. Yet in order to continue, he needed funding; therefore his work would require outside attention if he expected to receive it. He could not keep it a secret and still expect outside sponsorship.

In September 1916, Goddard wrote a letter and sent proof of his work to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, asking for financial support in building rocketry capable of high altitudes. The Smithsonian awarded him a grant of $5,000, marking a turning point in Goddard's life and creating jealousy among other scientists. Goddard was able to continue with his experimental rocket designs.

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