Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How One Man Overcame Ridicule and Changed Rocket Science Forever

The images of Pluto are amazing. The New Horizons space probe has been on a decade long mission to reach the dwarf planet. It would seem that this is just the first waypoint. Next on the itinerary is a Kuiper Belt object, 1 billion miles away.

Imagine for a moment how complex the New Horizons project has been. Persisting for over a decade with such a specific purpose. But in many ways the first part of the journey was the hardest. Leaving our Earth’s atmosphere is hard – gravity will do that for you.

Robert Goddard is now considered one of the founding fathers of modern rocket science. He was visionary. It is due to his discoveries and his own form of persistence that we even have inter planetary missions.

One of the reasons I share the story with you, is that it wasn’t such a smooth ride for Robert Goddard. The number of doubters speaking out against him at times must have felt like a gravitational force he may never draw away from. The creative conflict in his story is intriguing. We may add his tale to many who were considered ahead of their time, but ostracised for their originality.

Inspiration and Support

Robert was captivated by the allure of space. This came primarily from reading The War of Worlds by HG Wells – he was hooked. Fast forward twenty years and he was making pioneering discoveries in rocket propulsion. His contemporaries did not understand him and he found it almost impossible to gain financial backing to continue his work. In 1915 he even considered abandoning his efforts in the face of such continued challenge and isolation.

The Assistant Secretary of The Smithsonian, Charles Greeley Abbot, did not hold the same opinion. After reviewing an application for support from Goddard he provided a grant of $5,000 in 1917 to accelerate his efforts. This proved pivotal to Robert Goddard, encouraging him to persist when so many around him were full of doubt.

Squashing Ideas

In 1919, the Smithsonian published Goddard’s classic treatise “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections” (Vol. 71, No. 2). This scientific report exacerbated the challenge and doubt from his peers. Goddard had outlined a proposal for a rocket leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. His proposed rocket flight to The Moon drew wider public ridicule from the press. Everyone doubted his theory, and the press made a mockery of his ideas.

This had a profound effect on Goddard’s perspective and disposition. He became more guarded and isolated in his work. The list of those he trusted with his thinking dwindled. At the time a peer at the Californian Institute of Technology highlighted the challenges of not collaborating:

The trouble with secrecy is that one can easily go in the wrong direction and never know it.

Despite this on March 16, 1926, Goddard constructed and successfully tested the first rocket using liquid fuel. A flight as significant to history as that of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.

He never got to see the fruit of his labours and died in 1945 from throat cancer. He was posthumously awarded over 200 patents for his discoveries and pioneering thinking in the field of rocket propulsion. Nowadays he is a celebrated creative scientist who paved the way for human exploration.

Creative Traits

In my opinion one of the most important traits of creative individuals is Vision. It is clear that due to Goddard’s unique insight into the field he brought the horizon closer much more quickly than others. It is perhaps his Tenacity and Courage in the face of such widespread doubt that defines his creative spirit.

A further element that is clear within this story is the impact of the people around him. The negative voices were there from the start and they persisted. But it is the people that championed his ideas and said, “Yes!” that had the crucial impact. His wife continued to share and celebrate his work after his death, raising awareness and appreciation for his foresight. The support he received throughout his career from the Smithsonian in finances and belief is likely to be regarded as having the most impact. When others doubted, Charles Abbot believed. Perhaps mirroring the foresight that Goddard showed himself. In Goddard’s own words of appreciation:

I am particularly grateful for your interest, encouragement, and far-sightedness. I feel that I cannot overestimate the value of your backing, at times when hardly anyone else in the world could see anything of importance in the undertaking.

Your Next Steps

Ideas do not exist in a vacuum and the story of Robert Goddard is as much about those who encouraged him. The open mindedness to encourage and nurture nascent ideas is a critical dynamic as new thinking develops. Yes we may need to show Courage and Tenacity when our ideas are out there, but new ideas rely on the courage of others too.

  • Something we can do, with our colleagues and students, when developing new creative ideas is to say “Yes“. It changes everything and signals an openness to what might be next. It signals encouragement.
  • When we know that ideas are at an early phase we need to adjust our critique appropriately. In other words when we hear new thinking we must be more delicate and encouraging as they take their first steps into the wild.
  • Hold your ideas lightly“, is a good way to explain the mindset we need to have when sharing early ideas too. As the bearer of those new ideas we have to be willing and open to others helping to make them better.

Just imagine the conversation fifteen, maybe twenty years ago:

“I think we should try and send a probe into the furthest reaches of our solar system. To Pluto.”

“That’s over 4.6 billion miles away.”

“Yes and the technology has not been invented yet and it will take us over a decade to get there.”

“Yes, great. We’ll call it the Decadal Survey. Let’s start.”

Goddard would have cherished the opportunity to see the images of our solar system and those from the New Horizons mission. I am certain he would have quietly approved of the tenacity and conviction of those who held the early theories and ideas. But also he would have recognised the value of those who showed similar “far-sightedness” in their unwavering support and encouragement.


See New Horizons’ Entire Pluto Flyby in 23 Seconds.” 2015.
Robert H. Goddard: American Rocket Pioneer | Smithsonian …” 2012.
Robert H. Goddard – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” 2011.
NASA – Dr. Robert H. Goddard, American Rocketry Pioneer.” 2004.

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