A Different Boy

Robert Goddard was the father of American rocketry, or maybe something more like the crazy uncle. Like Tsiolkovsky in Russia and von Braun in Germany, he not only cobbled together working rockets, he was inspired by a compelling inspiration to fly to other planets, which was crazy talk in his day, and I mean people called Goddard crazy, but not at all in a joking way. Even though he could build flying rockets, most people thought of them as toys and Goddard as a raving nutjob, totally whacko, out of his freaking gourd to think he could ever fly to the moon on one.

He didn’t take it too well. To avoid any further harsh criticism, he packed up his rockets and moved from the east coast to the desert of New Mexico, and didn’t share the results of his experiments with anybody else. Fine, then, I’ll just take my rockets and go!

Goddard might have been a trifle insecure about his calling, but he was a romantic right down to his bones. Here’s a story I’d never heard about him before I read it in First Man, the biography of Neil Armstrong:

At age seventeen, Goddard climbed to the top of his backyard cherry tree. “It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England,” recalled Goddard in notes for his autobiography, “and as I looked toward the fields to the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet … I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”

For the rest of his life, Goddard celebrated October 19 as his “Anniversary Day.” After his marriage in 1924, he lived with his wife in a house near where the cherry tree stood. When he subsequently moved his rocket-testing experiments from Massachusetts to New Mexico, he visited the tree whenever he could.

Oct 19, 1927: “Got rocket weighed and ready, in afternoon. Stopped at cherry tree at 6 p.m.”

Oct 19, 1928: “Took out trailer to farm, with Sachs. Went out to cherry tree.”

Oct 19, 1932: “Worked on flow patterns in afternoon. Went to cherry tree — Anniversary Day.”

In the fall of 1938, Goddard received a letter from a Massachusetts friend informing him that his cherry tree had been uprooted in a nor’easter. In his journal that night, the father of American rocketry wrote, “Cherry tree down — have to carry on alone.”

One comment

  1. The Seanster · December 9, 2010

    “Cherry tree down–have to carry on alone”.

    Aw…how sad, and poignant.


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