To Infinity and Beyond: The Men Behind the Moon Landing

On this date (July 20) in 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Their accomplishment was enormous, but it came after decades of research, experiments, failures, and hopes. The first moon landing never would have succeeded without the work of many individuals including Robert H. Goddard, Charles A. Lindbergh, Harry Guggenheim, and others. We chose to emphasize the work of these men out of all those involved in the advancement of space exploration because we have some of their letters and autographs in the Littlejohn Collection at Wofford College.

Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945) was one of the fathers of the science of astronautics and a pioneer in rocketry. He obtained a degree in physics at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and received his PhD at Clark University in 1911. By 1913, his research in rocketry was underway, and he began receiving patents in 1914. Goddard believed, even this early, that it would be possible to land a person on the moon, an opinion he stated publicly in 1915. Funding for his research came from a number of sources, including the Smithsonian Institute and Clark University; however, in the 1920s and 1930s, funding was unpredictable, limiting his research. He received public notice in 1920 due to his statements claiming that his rocket technology would help rockets reach the “upper air regions” and one day even reach the moon.1 Unlike his German counterparts Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun, who were doing similar research in rocketry, Goddard deliberately designed his experiments to lay the groundworkspecifically for sending rockets to the moon.2

In the 1954 letter to Goddard’s wife Esther, Charles Lindbergh references Goddard’s July 17, 1929 test, which eventually brought Lindbergh, Guggenheim, and Goddard together. [Image of item removed for copyright reasons. The item may be viewed in person at the Wofford College Library. -Ed./Archivist]

After an unsuccessful test launch of his 11-foot, 35-pound rocket on May 17, 1929, Goddard tweaked his design and was ready for another test launch on July 17. The crew stood behind a wooden shelter, and Goddard pulled the cord to launch the rocket. Goddard did not hear the noise from the motor change, and, thinking that something was jammed, he was distracted and did not see the rocket launch. Luckily, Esther was recording the event with a Kodak camera. With a loud roar (that led one woman two miles away to believe there had been a plane crash) the rocket emitted a 20-foot exhaust flame. The rocket rose 80 feet in 19 seconds before returning to earth. The rocket suffered some damage due to the crash (the parachutes malfunctioned), but overall it was a successful launch. The noise attracted residents, two ambulances, and the media from miles away. In the following days, Goddard was in the headlines of local Worcester newspapers.3 Though he had the reputation of secretive “lonewolf,” he issued the following statement to the New York Times on July 18, 1929:

“The test this afternoon was one of a long series of experiments with rockets using entirely new propellants. There was no attempt to reach the moon, or anything of such a spectacular nature. The rocket is normally noisy, possibly enough to attract considerable attention. The test was thoroughly satisfactory; nothing exploded in the air, and there was no damage except incident to landing.”4

Watch video footage of Goddard’s experiments:

The publicity that resulted from the July 17 launch won Goddard many supporters, including Harry Guggenheim (1890-1971) and Charles A. Lindbergh (1902-1974). Goddard came to their attention whenCarol Guggenheim, Harry’s wife, gave Lindbergh a newspaper article about Goddard and his experiments. Actually, Goddard had applied for a Guggenheim Fund grant before, but was rejected as a rocketry “nut.” Lindbergh visited Goddard in November 1929. Lindbergh became interested in rocketry earlier that year and adamantly promoted a research program in rocketry. Like Goddard, Lindbergh dreamed of sending a rocket to the moon. He presented his ideas about rocketry to the DuPont corporation, suggesting that they attach a rocket to a plane to give it more take-off power. DuPont rejected his ideas, saying his dreams were impossible.5

Lindbergh did not give up on rocketry, though. When he visited Goddard on his Massachusetts farm, they discussed the possibility of reaching the moon. Lindbergh arranged for Goddard to meet with DuPont, but the company remained unimpressed. Instead, Goddard got a $5,000 grant from the Carnegie Institution, and in 1930 he received a four-year grant from Guggenheim for $25,000/year. Lindbergh continued to lobby on Goddard’s behalf until as late as 1939, working to gain the support of National Geographic and the U.S. Navy.6

Although Goddard did not live to see the 1969 moon landing, Lindbergh and Guggenheim remained interested in the project, as seen in their correspondence with Mrs. Goddard. Their dreams began to be realized in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy announced to the U.S. Congress that the United States of America would be the first nation to land a man on the moon. He set a deadline for the end of the decade and encouraged all Americans to support the effort. The president recognized the work of Goddard in his speech by stating that the technology would require alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, which was Goddard’s greatest contribution to the science of rocketry. With this speech, the space race had begun.

[Image of item depicting Buzz Aldrin in space suit removed for copyright reasons. The item may be viewed in person at the Wofford College Library. -Ed./Archivist]

On July 20, 1969, 500 million people watched on television as Neil Armstrong (1930- ) and Buzz Aldrin (1930- ) became the first humans to step on the surface of the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin, and their co-astronaut Michael Collins (1930- ), represented the best of NASA’s astronauts. Both Armstrong and Aldrin had previous experience in the military and as pilots. They were disciplined and devoted to the mission of Apollo 11. When Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module, his pride in America’s accomplishment was clear in his famous words, “That’s one small step for man … one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin followed shortly after and the two men spent two and a half hours exploring the surface of the moon, collecting samples of the dirt and rocks, and planting an American flag with a plaque that read, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. We came in peace for all mankind.”7

In this message broadcast from space, Armstrong referenced the importance of the work and dedication of Goddard and other pioneers of rocketry, as well as the support of the American people:

The responsibility for this flight lies first with history and with the giants of science who have preceded this effort. Next, with the American people, who have, through their will, indicated their desire. Next, to four administrations and their Congresses for implementing that will; and then to the agency and industry teams that built our spacecraft....To those people, tonight, we give a special thank you, and to all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you. Good night from Apollo 11.

[Image of item removed for copyright reasons. The item may be viewed in person at the Wofford College Library. -Ed./Archivist.]

When the Apollo 11 crew returned to Earth, they were given a hero’s welcome with parades, awards, and TV and radio appearances. Even today children recognize the importance of space travel, as a favorite movie character,
Buzz Lightyear, honors the name Buzz Aldrin. On a more serious note, the samples Aldrin and Armstrong collected were essential to the current scientific understanding of the moon. “The landing remains a symbol of American greatness, and images of it remain fixtures of numerous historical retrospectives. NASA, for all its accomplishments, is still best remembered as the agency that put a man on the Moon.”8

Watch NASA footage from the Apollo 11 Mission to the Moon:

On July 8, 2011, NASA launched its last shuttle into space. The shuttle, Atlantis, carried a crew of four on a 12-day mission to resupply the space station. Atlantis marks the end of the program that Goddard dreamed of and worked toward for so many years.

Watch footage of the final Atlantis launch:

- Becky Heiser ‘11 and Hannah Jarrett ‘12

1 New York Times, “Believes Rocket Can Reach the Moon: Smithsonian Institute Tells of Prof. Goddard’s Invention to Explore Upper Air. Multiple-Charge System Instruments Could Go Up 200 Miles, and Bigger Rocket Might Land on Satelite,” January 12, 1920.

2 McDougall, Walter A. ...The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1985, p. 77.

3 Clary, David A. Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age. New York: Hyperion, 2003, p. 133-135.

4 New York Times, “Meteor-Like Rocket Startles Worcester; Clark Professor’s Test of New Propellant to Explore Air Strata Brings Police to Scene,” July 18, 1929.

5 Milton, Joyce. Loss of Eden: A Biography of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993, p. 184-185.

6 Ibid.

7 "The 1969 Moon Landing: First Humans to Walk on Another World." Science and Its Times. Ed. Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale, 2009. Gale U.S. History In Context. Web. 29 June 2011.

8 Ibid.

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