This park honors Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945), whose lifetime of work in the field of rocketry forever altered the course of scientific and military history. Goddard was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His fascination with the physical sciences turned into a determination to carve a scientific identity for himself; to invent a device that could reach Mars.
After graduating from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1908, Goddard enrolled in the doctoral program at Clark University, where he later taught and conducted rocketry experiments. Along with testing various types of rocket fuel, Goddard made the groundbreaking discovery that thrust can occur in a vacuum, creating an equal and opposite force of propulsion despite the absence of air.
In 1919, Goddard published his seminal work, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, wherein he first proposed the possibility of building a rocket capable of reaching the moon. In March 1926, Goddard launched Nell, the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, which achieved an altitude of 41 feet. The public remained skeptical of Goddard’s work, as evidenced by his nickname Moony, and by such headlines as “Moon Rocket Misses Target by 238,799 Miles” in a Worcester newspaper after a 1929 launch. After moving his research facilities to Roswell, New Mexico, Goddard experimented with steering mechanisms and multistage rockets. These innovations allowed Goddard’s rockets to reach an altitude of a mile and a half and, in 1935, to exceed the speed of sound.
Throughout the 1930s, Goddard corresponded with German scientists who were working on rockets of their own. The period of cooperation came to an end on the eve of World War II (1939-1945); Goddard feared that the Germans were planning to use rockets in the war effort. This apprehension was due in part to Goddard’s own unsuccessful attempt to convince the United States military that rockets could be launched at an angle and used as weapons. Goddard’s fears were realized during the war as the Germans aimed more than 1,100 destructive V-2 missiles at London. Asked about their design, a captured German scientist reportedly said, “Why don’t you ask your own Dr. Goddard?” Indeed, upon inspecting some of the V-2s, Goddard realized that they were essentially the same as his earlier models; the Germans with whom he had shared his ideas during peacetime had used them just as he had feared they would in war.
In 1945, Goddard succumbed to throat cancer, just at the dawn of the space age that he helped usher in. American and German-émigré scientists continued to improve upon the Goddard-inspired V-2 rocket to create the Redstone rocket, which carried the first Americans into space. In 1959, NASA recognized Goddard’s pioneering work by establishing the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. As America moved into the space age, Goddard gained more recognition for his work. When the United States sent the first men to the moon in 1969, the New York Times made amends for a mocking editorial that it had published about Goddard in 1920. The Times wrote, “Further investigation and experimentation have established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.” Thus, more than twenty years after his death, society finally acknowledged the work of Professor Goddard, the original rocket scientist.
The City acquired the property for Junior High School 202, also known as Robert H. Goddard Junior High School, in 1960. The park originally opened as Junior High School 202 Playground on June 1, 1965, and is jointly operated by Parks and the Board of Education. In 1985, Commissioner Stern renamed the park to honor Robert Hutchings Goddard.
Goddard Park underwent a $87,000 renovation in 2000, with funds allocated by Mayor Giuliani. The safety surfacing was refurbished and other site work was completed. Today, many potential rocket scientists from Goddard Junior High School and the surrounding community can be seen enjoying themselves in Rocket Park.