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From the vault: ‘Visions of Space’

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Submitted Photo Steven Weitzman, "Visions of Space," 2010, bronze. The purchase of "Visions of Space" was funded by Mainstreet New Mexico, Roswell Museum and Art Center Foundation and the Spring River Corridor Foundation.

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections

and Exhibitions

If you live in Roswell, you’ve probably passed by this sculpture at the corner of North Main and West 11th streets hundreds of times, but have you ever stopped to take a look? It depicts Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945) preparing to fire a rocket from the launch tower outside of the Roswell Museum and Art Center. His story is an important part of our community’s history, but it is especially relevant now when we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed human beings on the moon.

As a sickly young boy at the end of the 19th century, Goddard read any book he could get his hands on, but his favorite genre was science fiction. He avidly read works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells that posited amazing adventures on futuristic air, land and sea crafts. Especially fascinated by Wells’ 1898 novel, “The War of the Worlds,” Goddard “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars.” He dedicated the rest of his life to achieving this dream.

Going on to get advanced physics degrees at Clark College in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, Goddard did some careful calculations and basic experiments to determine that a properly constructed rocket probably was capable of space travel. This was a pretty new idea, so the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Army gave him several large grants to develop his research. He published his findings in 1919, but the popular press made fun of his suggestion that humankind could someday reach the moon, so he never shared the details of his work publicly again.

As Goddard continued experimenting, he discovered that solid fuels like gunpowder weren’t very efficient, so he created a liquid-fueled rocket that could produce more thrust per pound of material. He was also the inventor of the multi-stage rocket that would drop pieces in flight as they became unnecessary or too heavy. In fact, Goddard eventually designed all kinds of original inventions like oscillating tubes that made early radios, televisions and computers function, and high-speed trains that could run on magnets, like those that are used in Japan today.

On March 16, 1926, Goddard launched his first successful liquid-propellant rocket at his aunt’s farm in Massachusetts. Further experiments proved the feasibility of this technology, but also had the unfortunate side effect of setting the New England countryside on fire and frightening the neighbors. Soon, Goddard was looking for a better location from which to work: a place with open spaces, good year-round weather, and a sparse population. In the summer of 1930, Goddard moved to Roswell.

Goddard, his wife Esther, and a small crew lived in Roswell for 12 years. During that time, he made major strides in launch control, tracking and recovery of rockets. Of the 56 test flights he completed here, 17 reached an altitude of more than 1,000 feet. His pioneering work was recognized by Washington D.C., and in 1942, he was asked to help the war effort by designing rocket-assisted devices that could help heavily laden aircrafts take off. Goddard moved back east and worked until cancer took his life in 1945.

Being hesitant to publish because of his earlier humiliation, Goddard might have faded into obscurity if it wasn’t for the efforts of his widow. Esther Goddard had not only documented her husband’s work while he was alive, but worked tirelessly after his death to organize and publish all his papers. Not content with that, she filed for about 150 of his patents posthumously, and later successfully sued NASA and the Armed Services for using his work without permission. The $1 million settlement was the largest government patent settlement on record at the time. Esther Goddard was the driving force behind the Goddard Library at Clark College, the Goddard exhibit here at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, and she even got her husband’s face on a postage stamp in 1964. Those celebratory stamps are still available for sale in the museum’s gift shop.

Without Goddard’s imagination and intelligence, it’s unlikely that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have walked on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969. Through hard work, failure and perseverance, Goddard ultimately did what he set out to do, even if he didn’t live to see the results. He designed the technology that put people into space. This is why we honor Robert H. Goddard, the visionary resident of Roswell, with a sculpture on Main Street.

Join us on Tuesday, July 16 at 9 a.m., as we recognize the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11 by launching rockets of all sizes as part of a worldwide celebration. Four days later, on Saturday, July 20, we will mark the capsule’s landing with our Movie Under the Moon event. Bring blankets and join us for an outdoor showing of the 1980s classic sci-fi movie, “Space Camp.” A food truck will be available for snacks and drinks, but you’re also welcome to bring your own picnic and dine al fresco on the lawn. Craft activities start at 7 p.m.; moon gazing and the movie will begin after sunset. Visit roswellmuseum.org or @rmacroswell on Facebook for more information.