Esther Goddard and Robert Goddard: Lessons in Entrepreneurial Greatness from the Early Rocketry Pioneers

As a small child, growing up in a rural farming town on the central coast of California with the largest cities located over 200 miles away, I didn’t really have a good sense of what sort of careers existed in the world, or even what type of work was considered ambitious or routine. Most people simply worked to pay the bills and enjoyed whatever extra free time they had.

As luck would have it, one of the people who did shape my sense of what was possible was a ninety-year-old man named Percy Roope. Percy lived next door to us in a simple manufactured home and spent most of his time feeding the neighborhood blue jays. Despite his simple life, what most people didn’t realize was that Percy was actually somewhat famous—in his younger days, Percy was the assistant to Dr. Robert M. Goddard, the inventor of the world’s first liquid-fueled rockets credited with launching the Space Age.

As a child, I remember listening to Percy describe the spectacular failures and successes of their early days of rocketry near Clark University, and later, in White Sands, New Mexico. Percy would show me yellowed papers, black-and-white photos, and various medals and awards he and the Goddards had received carefully stored away in old shoe boxes. In this sense, even before I was old enough to go to school or form opinions about what was possible or impossible to do in the world, Percy demonstrated that anyone could work on the most extraordinary of projects as if it were a completely normal thing to expect of oneself.

white sands

A few years ago, I was thinking about Percy and discovered that Clark University had saved a number of his historical papers, “The Percy Roope Papers.” Curious, I wrote to their librarian, who sent me a thick packet of photocopied materials in the mail.

While the papers were certainly interesting and entertaining to read—lists of the original supplies Percy and Dr. Goddard ordered to build their first rockets, or stories of how they hid their explosives from the university fire inspectors and local police—what really struck me was how Percy described the role of Esther Goddard, the wife of Dr. Goddard, in the overall rocketry work. In particular, Esther Goddard had learned rocketry and participated in the scientific side of the work.

In one of the papers, a transcript of a 1966 oral interview with Percy and his wife for a Reader’s Digest article, “Interview of Dr. Percy Roope“ written by David L. Murphy1, Murphy asked both Percy and his wife to recount more about Esther Goddard’s involvement in the rocketry work.

In the interview (pages 68-70), Murphy first raised the topic by asking Mrs. Roope if Esther Goddard was part of the faculty wives club, to which Mrs. Roope responded she was usually too busy.

Then Murphy delicately asked Percy, “Percy, what—maybe this puts you on the spot, but I don’t mean to do that—what—how big an impact did Mrs. Goddard have, do you think, on Dr. Goddard on a personal basis?—I mean, she worked with him and she was close to him, you know, and helped him—”

Percy, not at all hesitant about naming her contributions, responded:

“Well, certainly Mrs. Goddard gave him a great opportunity to do the work that he wanted to do. He didn’t take—in fact, not only did she help in that sense, but she helped with the actual scientific side of the work, and there were very few women who could or would do this.

(By Mrs. Roope) She did it in a way that was—well, they were complete in the way they worked. It was quite a marvelous thing—the way they worked together.

(By Dr. Roope, continuing) Any success that he had was just as great—of just as great an interest—to her. It was her success too.

She really lived this with him.

She lived it with him; every test was important to her as well as to him.

She seems to have become very knowledgeable about this whole thing—I’m not sure of the depth to which her technical information goes, but—

Well, she has knowledge—she knows what’s going on—she knows the fundamentals of rocketry, and she knows the people in the field—she certainly—

(By Mrs. Roope) I think she’s very pleasant—

(By Dr. Roope, continuing)—she certainly knew everything about his work, and she’s done a wonderful piece of work since he’s been gone.

(By Mrs. Roope): I think he wouldn’t have—well, he was very modest, and I don’t think he would have pushed at all, but she was so interested that she made his work interesting to other people, and I’m not so sure Physics, as a rule, is too interesting for other people, because they don’t understand it.”

Robert Goddard

Image Credit: NASA

Overall, I have found it very difficult to find information about Esther Goddard’s actual role in the rocketry work (at least searching what is available online). Her New York Times obituary was extremely short and only contained a few lines about how she photographed her husband’s work.

The Goddard Memorial Association website gives a few more clues, noting “Esther deciphered his notes, which she alone could read, photographed his work, stamped out the brush fires that were the results of his launchings, kept his account books, sewed the parachutes he used in his launchings and never wavered in her life long relationship of support.”

According to the Goddard Memorial Association, she was also involved in hosting and building relationships with their financial supporters and influential friends, including the Guggenheims and Lindberghs, and secured 131 of Goddard’s patents posthumously (out of a total of 214).

If I could go back in time, I would ask Percy specifically what sort of “scientific work” Esther Goddard did. I do remember that when Percy would tell stories of the rocketry work, he would usually say “the Goddards” as if they we were one unit conducting their work.

In thinking about her work today—learning rocketry (a field they were inventing at the time and where every new piece of knowledge gained was through their experiments), documenting the results of the rocket launches, filing the patents, managing the finances, sewing the parachute rocket recovery systems, helping manage the funding relationships, it’s clear that she was at least an important team member and what we would even call a “co-founder” in today’s world.

In reading through Percy’s papers, the Goddard Memorial Association website, and Goddard’s Wikipedia page, it also seems Dr. Goddard suffered from ill health (tuberculosis and a childhood illness), was shy, was a bit reluctant to interact with the public having been ridiculed and scoffed at by major media outfits for claiming a rocket could go to the moon, and relied on Esther Goddard to manage many of their social and professional relationships.

One must also remember the scarce and harsh conditions they were working under—there was no field of aerospace (only the field of physics), and they had to teach everyone what they were doing from scratch. There were no venture capitalists, startup accelerators, or entrepreneurial pathways to support their work. They were completely on their own.

Furthermore, just as they were getting started, the Great Depression hit. In the early days, Percy would often teach Goddard’s morning classes, which paid their salaries, and then, in the afternoons, join Esther Goddard and Dr. Goddard, who had been out in the farm fields all morning preparing the experiments.

My guess is that Esther Goddard not only enjoyed and was good at her work, but her contributions were vital given how tight resources were. We should remember her as critical to the overall success of the early rocketry work and as a pioneer of the Space Age in her own right.

But this is only part of the story. The Goddards’ work was unique not only because of Esther Goddard’s involvement, but also because of the spirit in which they conducted their work.

Stereotypes of Silicon Valley today often portray entrepreneurship as two young men working in hoodies in their garages, sipping Soylent in stealth mode in a cut-throat race against the competition, often in a frat boy like culture, living off credit cards, hoping to make it big. This portrayal drives away not only female entrepreneurs but also older entrepreneurs and other non-traditional innovators. It may also be linked to the mental health challenges entrepreneurs are now facing. But the Goddards show us a different way, a more gentle approach to entrepreneurship that includes family, friends, and community, and dare I even say is grounded in love and kindness.

For while the Goddards faced the most difficult of circumstances—ridicule for their work, significant personal health challenges, trying to survive the Great Depression, constant fear of others stealing their ideas, Esther Goddard having to fight to enforce some of their patents in the later years—they were also known for their incredible warmth, generosity, and dedication to uplifting others even as they made their own journey.

In the Murphy interview, Percy and Mrs. Roope shared that the Goddards would often host Sunday breakfasts where they would welcome people from the community to informally drop by, and they also took a huge interest in their students’ lives, inviting them over to talk about the rocketry work, and also just to relax and play games.

Percy shared that Dr. Goddard was a tremendous and selfless teacher. He made a great deal of effort to not only share traditional existing knowledge with his students, but also to bring experiments into the classroom (something unusual in those days), and as such he truly empowered his students to follow their own ideas and dreams rather than simply support his goals or further his own work or reputation:

“I want to say another word or two about Dr. Goddard as a teacher because there’s no question but what he was the greatest teacher that I have ever known, and I am quite certain that many others would agree that he was the greatest teacher they had known.” (Page 7)

“It wasn’t the material, the subject matter that counted, it was just the matter of talking to us; talking as though we were equals and not children, you might say.” (Page 4)

“You have an idea, and so you’d have to go down to see Dr. Goddard—he would be in the shop—and I don’t think he ever turned anybody down with an idea, no matter what it was—at least try it—and he’d give hints, and you were free.” (Page 62)

“The great thing about Goddard—about being with Goddard—was the pleasantness of working with him. As a young instructor, I could do the awfulest things and smash up some nice equipment, and never a word—’too bad, we’ll see if we can’t fix it’ or ‘we’ll see if we can’t do something else.’” (Page 26)

“I never saw him discouraged. There were ups and downs—slight, perhaps—but so very slight. We could go out on a trial, and the rocket could explode, and some of us standing around would say, ‘Gee, this is terrible,’ and Goddard would say, ‘Well, we learned a lot today,’ and so that’s the way it went. ‘We learned something today—we won’t make this mistake again—we’ll correct it,’ and this is the way it went—so cheerful in the midst of all these difficulties, but of course this, in part, is research anyway.” (Pages 26-27)

Robert Goddard

Image Credit: NASA

Dr. Goddard was also a deeply kind person. Despite the demands on his time and resources, he gave freely of his time and money to whomever needed it.

Percy continues:

“As a matter of fact, Goddard spent a tremendous amount of time trying to help students; to get jobs for students. Money came hard in those days for a great many students and he was a great help to them. He hired a number of students to do odd jobs for him. One job was merely cutting up circles of extremely heavy cardboard, but he tried to help students—this is just an incident here, one instance, one incident.” (Page 10)

“.. and on occasion Dr. Goddard wrote thousands of recommendations for his students. He would write recommendations until a man was fitted to a job. If the first one wasn’t the right job, then he’d try again, ‘Let’s see now, let’s look a little closer and see if we can’t do something.’” (Page 30)

“Goddard knew his students; he knew their homes; he knew where they came from; he knew what they were doing; the difficulties in getting through college. He knew their troubles…” (Page 21)

When you think about how ambitious their project was, and how difficult their circumstances, I often wonder if it was their strength of their character, their friends, and their community that helped them succeed against such impossible odds.

I found a hint to this question’s answer when Murphy was asking Percy about Goddard’s personality trait of extreme patience. (Pages 27-28)

Murphy asked, “His patience carried over to his work with other people, didn’t it—his work with students, and things?”

Percy responded, “His work certainly with students, and the group that worked with him out in New Mexico—certainly a wonderful group of people—and they stuck right with him. They had the same enthusiasm for it as he did. Why, they’d work overtime—anything—to make it possible to do what he wanted to do.”

Murphy followed up, “Were they dedicated to Dr. Goddard, or to what they were working on, or both?”

Percy responded, “Well it was primarily the man. I think perhaps if it hadn’t been Goddard, I just wonder if they would have worked out there so far away from their homes—out in the desert so long—I just wonder.”

Murphy, “They didn’t make any money—?”

Percy, “No they didn’t make any money, but still if you speak to any of them, they are still enthusiastic.”

Esther Goddard

Image Credit: NASA

Or consider how Robert Goddard would find ways to financially support his students in need by inventing a “job” cutting holes in cardboard or literally writing thousands of letters of recommendation for his students until they had secured jobs in which they flourished.

I believe we have a great deal to learn from the Goddards and their greatness as human beings and how they conducted their entrepreneurship with such kindness, respect, and sense of community. For example, setting aside the public’s lack of awareness of Esther Goddard’s work, it’s remarkable that in the 1920s, Dr. Goddard, Percy, and their funders so deeply respected her role in the work and she didn’t encounter the challenges that women face today.

And then consider how years later, the team worked for him for free in the desert sands of New Mexico when money was scarce. Or consider the high rates of mental illness now being documented in entrepreneurs, partially from isolation and alienation, and how the Goddards would open their home to the community for Sunday morning breakfasts offering warmth, belonging, and connection.

Kindness, respect, and community-building are not traits one hears about at the top of investors’ lists in this day and age, but it may be one of the most important qualities innovators need to succeed today. After all, how else does one get started or overcome challenges or get through hard times without the support of others?

For myself, I am glad that my earliest glimpses of what entrepreneurship could be included tackling the most ambitious of projects also with the highest standards of warmth, love, generosity, and kindness. May Percy and the Goddards continue to show us what is possible and that we should all expect such greatness from ourselves.


Main Image Credit: NASA

1Murphy, David L (1966, April 20). Interview of Dr. Percy Roope. [Transcript of two tape recordings]. The Percy Roope Papers. Clark University Archive. Clark University. Worcester, MA.