The Day Goddard Dreamed of Taking a Rocket to Mars

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This day in 1899 was the key date in the life of our country's most celebrated rocket scientist.

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I don't tend to believe most origin stories about how people came to do their life's work, but I love this one about Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, anyway. As told by Goddard Space Center science writer, Daniel Pendick, it was on this day in 1899 (!) that the scientist first decided that he wanted to "fly without wings" to Mars. He climbed up a cherry tree to do some pruning and had a vision of his/the future. 

"I imagined 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," one of his biographers, Milton Lehman, recorded. "I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive."

Apparently, Goddard celebrated October 19 for the rest of his life. 

To me, this is a story not unlike the one Becca Rosen told yesterday about a man who witnessed Abraham Lincoln's assassination turning up on a 1950s TV show, which then showed up on YouTube. In the scheme of technological development, a human life is a long time. 70 years before we landed on the moon, it was the 19th century. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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