Date: October 19, 2010

Title: Goddard Dream Day


Podcaster: Daniel Pendick

Organization: Geeked on Goddard!

Description: Each October 19, American rocketry pioneer Robert Hutchings Goddard marked a private holiday. He called it his “Anniversary Day,” celebrating the day he thought his greatest thought ever: that it might be possible to break free of gravity and travel to other planets. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center science writer and blogger Daniel Pendick muses on Goddard’s “dream day” and the role that big dreams play in aerospace.

Bio: Daniel Pendick is a science writer and blogger at Goddard Space Flight Center. His “Geeked On Goddard” blog takes an irreverent insider’s look at science and engineering at Goddard. His writing has appeared in Astronomy, New Scientist, Earth, Scientific American Presents, and many other science and medical publications and websites.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Alice Enevoldson.


October 19: a good day to dream big dreams

I am a science writer at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, about 11 miles northeast of the capital. And here is the funny thing: When I started here, I would tell people that I work at Goddard Space Flight Center. Reaction: awkward pause, puzzled look. Goddard what? Goddard who?

Then I figured out the magic phrase: NASA, I work at NASA. This was met with instant recognition. “You work at NASA? That’s so cool!”

Just to clear up the mystery, Goddard Space Flight Center is named after the American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard.

According to biographer David Clary, Goddard was the most famous scientist in America between the world wars.

In a nutshell, he helped to develop liquid fueled rockets. Liquid-fueled rockets took us to the moon. They take astronauts to and from the space station. And they may someday take us to asteroids and to Mars.

In his time, Goddard got more press coverage than Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein. It seems strange that the reaction today is so often “Goddard who?”

Robert Goddard is mostly of interest to aerospace historians. But there’s something about him that I think the rest of us can plug into. It’s about something that happened to Goddard on this day, October 19, in the year 1899.

On this day, when Robert Goddard was 17, he had a sort of waking dream. It happened to him as he stood on a ladder trimming dead branches from a cherry tree.

“I imagined,” he later recalled, “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 ladder. Life now had a purpose for me.”

His dream was to break free of gravity and take to the sky. And to maybe someday even go to another planet. He was not the first person to have this dream, as Clary points out in his biography of Goddard, Rocket man. But that dream, says Clary, “would not let him go.”

Goddard’s big dream was achieved eventually — well, except for the part about people going to mars. And he celebrated this day, October 19, throughout his life. The day he thought his most important and biggest thought. Let’s call it Goddard Dream Day.

At its best, NASA runs on big dreams. One of the biggest at the moment is the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s an infrared space observatory that will unfold its mirrors like flower petals, 1 million miles from Earth, and look back to the beginning of the universe. The technology is advanced and it’s risky. But without big dreams, where would we be?

It’s October 19, Robert Goddard’s dream day, and it’s a good day to dream a big dream. What’s yours?

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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