More famous in his day than Einstein or Edison, the troubled, solitary genius Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945) was the American father of rocketry and space flight, launching the world's first liquid-fuel rockets and the first powered vehicles to break the sound barrier. Supported by Charles Lindbergh and Harry Guggenheim, through fiery, often explosive, experiments at Roswell, New Mexico, he invented the methods that carried men to the moon. Today, no rocket or jet plane can fly without using his inventions.
Yet he is the "forgotten man" of the space age. His own government ignored his rocketry until the Germans demonstrated its principles in the V-2 missiles of World War II. The American government usurped his 214 patents, while suppressing his contributions in the name of national security, until it was forced to pay one million dollars for patent infringement. Goddard became famous again, monuments and medals raining upon his memory. But his renewed fame soon faded, and Goddard's pivotal role in launching the Space Age has been largely forgotten.
Americans of the WWII generation will probably recognize the name of Massachusetts-born scientist Robert Goddard (1882 1945), who frequently made the pages of American newspapers and magazines in the 1930s with his rocket experiments outside Roswell, N.Mex. Baby boomers and their children, however, may never have heard of this pioneer in the construction of liquid-fuel rockets. Clary, former chief historian of the U.S. Forest Service, attempts to clean Goddard's biography of the varnish applied in earlier biographies supervised by the scientist's widow and his close friend Charles Lindbergh. Goddard emerges here as a paradoxical man who relentlessly promoted his work, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in Guggenheim grants, while shunning offers to collaborate with other scientists. Clary presents a clear and relatively straightforward narrative of his subject's life, but the book is undermined by his inclination to be a detail-oriented documentarian (describing every launch and its outcome) rather than taking the broader view of a historian. If readers skipped the book's last few pages, where the author sums up the significance of Goddard's work for rocket science, they might come away thinking that he was just another New England crank with a flair for self-promotion. Clary also fails to confront directly the question of whether Goddard's drinking habits undermined his work or just his health. Nevertheless, readers who come to this generally well-written biography with some knowledge of Goddard's significance will find much of interest to fill out their knowledge of this complex and fascinating scientist for whom NASA's Goddard Space Center is named. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.