Roswell Incidents.

Updated: 30 Sept 2002
In the Thirties, a series of events crucial to the development of space flight occurred at Roswell, New Mexico, USA. The first liquid-fueled rockets were launched by Robert Goddard.
This is nothing to do with flying saucers. Nothing to do with 1947... This is more interesting, because it is true.

I was struck by the fact that Roswell, allegedly the location of all sorts of flying saucery, had been the place where Goddard conducted his pioneer work 15 years before. Coincidence? Some more subtle link? The real reason is that New Mexico has a lot of open space. It was suitable for Goddard's rocketry, and also for Roswell Army Air Field, where the 509th Bomb Group was based in 1947. The 509th was at the time the only nuclear bomb group in the world.

Robert Hutchings Goddard. (1882-1945)

Robert Goddard is one of the most remarkable figures in the development of space flight. Inspired by Jules Verne and HG Wells, the possibility of interplanetary travel was the mainspring of Goddard's pioneering studies in rocketry. Goddard was not the kind of man to sit around and wait for technologies to be handed down by aliens. He found out for himself how to build the most advanced rockets the world had ever seen.

Goddard's rockets may appear at first to have had a very modest performance. His achievments were not so much in height reached or mass lifted, but in developing all the initial technology required to build liquid-fuelled rockets. He introduced liquid fuel, gyroscopic guidance, and steering by vanes in the exhaust stream.

16 March 1926. Robert Goddard stands beside the first ever liquid-fueled rocket, at his aunt's farm in Massachusetts.

The rocket motor is at the top, and the fuel tanks below, with a conical exhaust shield. This configuration, with the weight at the bottom, is relatively stable without guidance. The length of the rocket was 3.4 metres. Empty weight was 2.6kg, and launch weight was 4.6kg

The slanting structure to the left is a windshield.

The rocket remained on the launch stand for 20 seconds, until the thrust overcame the dimishing weight of fuel, and then flew for 2.5 seconds, reaching a height of 12.5 metres. It landed 56 metres from the launch point. The estimated thrust of the motor was 40 Newtons. One Newton is roughly the downward gravitational force on an apple; this is (I hope) purely coincidental.

The Massachusetts site after the launch.

Farm buildings in the background.


1882 Robert Goddard is born in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA.

1902 Submits article on space-flight to Popular Science Monthly. It is rejected.

1908 Graduates from Worcester Polytechnic.

1911 Receives doctorate from Clark University, MA.

1912-13 Studies At Princeton.

1913-1914 Goddard ill with tuberculosis.

1914 Granted patents covering combustion chambers, nozzles, etc. US Patent 1,102,653: Liquid-fuel gun rocket. US Patent 1103503: A multistage step rocket.

1915 Goddard gives first experimental proof that rockets provide thrust in a vacuum.

1917 Granted $5000 to begin practical work by Smithsonian Institution.

1918 Working on the forerunner of the WW2 bazooka in California. Successfully demonstrated at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Nov 10, 1918.

1920-1923 Part-time consultant on solid-propellant rocket weapons for U.S. Government at Indian Head, Maryland.

1924 Marries Esther Christine Kisk, his secretary at Clark University.

1925 A liquid-fuel rocket lifts its own weight for the first time in a static test at Clark University.

1926 Robert Goddard launches the first liquid-fuelled rocket at his aunt Effie's farm at Auburn, MA.

1929 Reports of Goddard's experiments reach pilot Charles Lindbergh, and he arranges $50,000 of further funding from the Daniel Guggenheim Fund.

1930 Goddard moves operations to Mescalero Ranch, near Roswell, NM.

1930-32 First series of launches at Roswell.

1932-34 Laboratory work at Camp Devens, Worcester

1934 Further Guggenheim Funding permits a return to Roswell for a second series of launches.

1934-40 Second series of launches at Roswell.

1942-1945 Goddard is Director of Research, Navy Dept., Bureau of Aeronautics developing jet-assisted takeoff & variable-thrust liquid-propellant rockets, at Roswell, NM & Annapolis, MD

1944-1945 Goddard is Director of the American Rocket Society

1945 Goddard dies in Baltimore on 10th August.

At Roswell in Nov 1935. In the foreground is Goddard's brother-in-law, Albert Fisk. Standing in the tower is Nils Ljungquist, the mechanic. On the ladder is Charles Mansur, the welder, watched by Goddard on the ground.

Preparations are being made for a static test of a K-series rocket. Judging by the clothing of those present, the weather was cold.

The simple instrument panel in the foreground seems to consist mostly of pressure gauges, though the two lower dials are electrical meters. The function of of the small funnel on top is wholly obscure, to me at least.
The machine in the extreme foreground appears to be a motor-driven pump or compressor.

A thrust of 2270 Newton was achieved in February, 1936.

The Move to Roswell.
When Goddard received the first $50,000 of funding, it was clear that Massachusetts was too heavily populated to accomodate the kind of rocket tests now possible. He went West in search of a suitable location, and settled on Mescalero Ranch, near Roswell, NM.

Incidents at Roswell: 1930-32.
Max height
30 Dec 1930
First launch of rocket at Roswell
27 Oct 1931
First launch with new petrol valve.
400 metres

At Roswell, 1930-32.

The rocket is the vertical line of three tanks in the centre; the vertical girders form the launching frame.
The curved white object appears to be an insulated hose for filling the liquid oxygen tank.

By the middle of 1932, the Guggenheim funding was exhausted, and Goddard moved back to his old teaching and research post at Clark University. From 1932 to 1934 Goddard was working on many areas of new technology; materials, gyroscopes, propellant pumps and combustion chambers, aided by a small grant from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1935 further Guggenheim funding was found and Goddard and his team returned to Roswell for another six and a half year's work.

Incidents at Roswell: 1934-40.
Max height
08 Mar 1935
An A-series rocket exceeds 1130 kph, possibly going supersonic.
28 Mar 1935
An A-series rocket reaches an altitude of 1460 metres.
Nov 1935 - Feb 1936
Static tests
26 Mar 1937
The L13 rocket reaches an altitude of 2.4-2.7 km
20 April 1938
Rocket carrying barograph reaches 1260 metres.
25.3 sec
Nov 1938 - Aug 1941
Static tests on rockets with turbopumps
09 Aug 1940
First flight of turbopumps
8 May 1941
Second flight of turbopumps

Construction and operation of the first liquid-fuel rocket.

Petrol and liquid oxygen are forced out of their tanks by the pressure of gaseous oxygen from the external bottle, the cork pistons moving down the tanks as the contents are used. Just before launch, the oxygen bottle was disconnected, the check valve maintaining the gas pressure in the rocket.

A blowtorch on a long rod was used to heat and ignite the gunpowder charge at the top of the rocket motor; effective ignition was essential to prevent a destructive explosion in the combustion chamber. This problem (then called a "hard-start") was still being tackled in the Viking sounding-rocket program from 1947 onwards. (That year again!)

Goddard's researches at Roswell ended in 1941. The advent of the Second World War saw him working on research contracts for the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics and the Army Air Corps, culminating in the production of a variable-thrust rocket motor. Variable thrust (or throttleable engines, to use a more common term) are essential for serious rocket work. Without throttling during launch a rocket would exceed aerodynamically safe speeds while still in relatively thick atmosphere.

Summary of Roswell Launches.
Static tests
Flight tests
Flight successes*
First series
Series-A rockets
Series-K rockets
Series-L rockets
Fuel pump tests
Gas generator tests
Turbopump tests

* ie Rocket cleared the launch tower.


Aeronautics Learning Laboratory.
The Life of Robert Goddard.
Robert Goddard and His Rockets.
Clark University, Mass.
Roswell Visitor Bureau
They are very proud of Robert Goddard in Roswell.
Liquid-fuelled rockets.
NASA Goddard
More on Goddard.