Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age, by David A. Clary. Hyperion. 368 pages. $24.95.
It's tempting, when retelling the story of the pioneers of modern science, to portray them as prescient, dedicated in the face of doubters, beloved by their peers and selfless in the pursuit of knowledge.
Not long after word got out about his first rocket experiments in a Massachusetts farm field, Americans began to regard Robert H. Goddard as such a pioneer. Sensational press coverage, which he scarcely discouraged, had people around the world anticipating that a moon shot was imminent in the 1920s. And the attention rarely waned.
After World War II, through the dogged efforts of his widow and friends, he was enshrined in the public mind as the father of rocketry and of all the Cold War missiles, artificial satellites and space exploration that rockets made possible. His place is officially acknowledged at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt.
But his real accomplishments lagged behind the public imagination, and in his new book on Goddard, David A. Clary applies a valuable reality check. While acknowledging Goddard's many engineering firsts, Clary, a former government historian who also writes on military and scientific topics, provides an unflinching assessment of the man's human and scientific shortcomings.
For example, Goddard was the first to demonstrate that a rocket could produce thrust in the vacuum of space. He also built and flew the first liquid-fueled rocket, the first with guidance systems, turbopumps and clustered engines - all key to today's launch systems.
But Clary makes clear that rocketry had other parents working hard on parallel tracks in Russia and in Nazi Germany. Nazi rocketeers were later enlisted as co-founders of America's missile and space programs.
Goddard was often his own worst enemy: stubborn, disorganized, egotistical, too slow to abandon a failed concept and too quick to put his own financial security first. Most unforgivably, he jealously refused to share all that he was learning with others the government enlisted in the effort, breaking one of the first rules of scientific research.
In the end, Goddard never launched a rocket that flew more than 9,000 feet high, and the Nazis won the race to turn the technology into weaponry.
The best parts of Clary's thorough, occasionally tedious account are those that deal most directly with this endearing, if exasperating, genius, whose single-minded optimism defied a seemingly endless series of fizzles and explosions.
Goddard was steeped in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and he wrote with almost childlike imagination about multistage rockets, solar power, ion-propulsion, multiple warheads, suspended animation for lengthy voyages and the advantages of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as fuels, all before World War I.
Clary's book bogs down too often in his exhaustive recounting of the campus politics and bureaucratic wrangles over grants and government contracts that plagued our hero.
But then, that's a reality that today's would-be scientific pioneers may find hauntingly familiar.
Frank D. Roylance, a Sun science reporter, has written about space and astronomy for more than a decade.