Celebrating Dr Robert Goddard’s IP contributions to space exploration

Fifty-two years on from Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s momentous moon landing and the Space Race has returned to the limelight, although those leading the charge are far from seasoned astronauts. Jeff Bezos is due to become the richest man in space on 20 July when he takes fight on New Shepard – the rocket developed by his company Blue Origin, with Elon Musk’s Space-X program and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic nipping at his heels in the race to commercial space travel.

However, all of those men and women who have so boldly gone are undoubtedly indebted to the ingenuity of Dr Robert H. Goddard, who (amongst many other firsts) first theorised that rocket propulsion would work in a vacuum and could therefore achieve thrust in space, the need to use liquid rather than solid fuel, and developed gyro control mechanisms for rocket steering. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he is also known as the ‘Father of Modern Rocket Propulsion’.

On 9 June 1931, Dr Goddard was granted US Patent 1,809,271Propulsion of Aircraft. In celebration of its 90th anniversary, this article provides a brief discussion of the rocket patent.

Rocket propulsion prior to Dr Goddard’s invention relied solely upon the reaction of gases ejected from the rocket for their propulsive effect. In the patent’s introduction, Goddard recognises the inefficiencies in this method, particularly at low altitude where the air is thicker and “most of the heat energy of the fuel, or the charge of the rocket is dissipated as kinetic energy of the ejected gases” and that this leaves a “comparatively small proportion of the total energy available for [propulsion]” when compared to the speed of the gases themselves.