1st liquid-fueled rocket launches, March 16, 1926

-March 16, 2017

From a young age, physicist and engineer Robert Goddard imagined it was possible for a device to travel to space and it became his mission to build one.

On a cold winter day in Auburn, MA in 1926, he made history when a rocket he designed and built with his team became the first liquid-fueled rocket to ever fly under its own power.


Goddard poses with his rocket before the launch in 1926. Source: NASA

With the help of instrument maker Henry Sachs, Goddard built a 10-foot long rocket powered by liquified oxygen (LOX) and gasoline. It used a double-acting engine built by Sachs positioned at the top of the rocket, which Goddard thought would ensure straight flight. The LOX and fuel tanks hung below held by the fuel lines, and the LOX tank was protected from the exhaust flame by an asbestos-covered metal cone (see NASA diagram at right).

The design also featured a two-inch combustion chamber with a de Laval nozzle to maximize the conversion of heat energy to kinetic energy.

The pressure system used cotton in a cup of alcohol placed underneath the LOX tank which vaporized the LOX and drove it up to the motor and down to the gas tank so the pressurized fuel could then flow up to the motor, and cork floats to keep the pressure even in the tanks.

For the launch, an igniter made of match heads at the top of the motor was lit, as was the alcohol lamp under the LOX tank. Then a valve was turned to allow pressurized oxygen to enter the fuel system, adding to the pressure rising from the heated LOX tank. The pressure forced gas and oxygen into the combustion chamber and the rocket roared but didn't rise for 20 seconds as the motor had to burn off excess fuel before it could lift off. When it did, the rocket reached a height of 41 feet, flying for 2 seconds at an average speed of about 60 mph, before hitting the ground 184 feet away.

In 1929 Goddard would launch a scientific payload, a barometer and a camera, in a rocket flight, one of 34 rockets his team launched between 1926 and 1941, achieving altitudes as high as 1.6 mi and speeds as high as 550 mph.

Now considered the father of modern rocket propulsion, Goddard designed and tested rockets that were much more efficient than previous powder-fueled rockets, making them powerful enough to travel into space, as he always imagined.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD was established in 1959 to honor him.


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For more moments in tech history, see this blog.
EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on March 16, 2015 and edited on March 16, 2017.


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