Visions Beyond an Arrow of Fire:
G. Edward Pendray, Rocket Pioneer from Wyoming
By David L. Roberts
G. Edward Pendray came from a part of America where the word “pioneer” made a lot of sense. Pendray described himself as “a product of the homestead surge of 1906-12 in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.”
In a 1926 letter with New York Herald Tribune letterhead, Pendray wrote to a Wyoming friend, “I know homesteads and homesteaders.. .I write of almost nothing else when I am in a serious mood... No matter how long I stay in New York, I shall never be anything but a Westerner. Some day I hope to figure out how to make my living in Wyoming, so I can come out to live again on my prairies.”1
Born in Nebraska in 1901, Pendray grew up on a Wyoming ranch in the Van Tassell area, between Lusk and the Nebraska community of Harrison. He attended the University of Wyoming in the early 1920s and served as editor of the campus newspaper, newly named The Branding Iron.
Pendray was a “pioneer,” but not in the way that the word traditionally had been applied to someone from the rural West. In fact, he did most of his “pioneering” efforts in the East where he became a pioneer in American rocketry and space exploration advocacy.
Upon one return to Lusk, he treated residents to a public presentation. While some people viewed him as “eccentric” and considered his ideas to be “far out,” especially for that time period, many people marveled at his knowledge and predictions about science.2
After completing graduate studies at Columbia University, Pendray went on to work for the New York Herald Tribune, serving in a number of positions: reporter, assistant city editor, picture editor and science editor. He also served as science editor for the Literary Digest magazine.
In 1936, he joined Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company as assistant to the president, developing a public relations program and a technical journal. One of Pendray’s projects was the Westinghouse World’s Fair exhibit that included a time capsule,” which, according to biographical information at the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center in Laramie, was a term he “coined.”3
He left Westinghouse to start his own public relations firm in New York. Among his other accomplishments: he served as editor of the National Public Relations Journal; he developed the Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center at California Institute of Technology and the Guggenheim Laboratories at Princeton University; he wrote non-fiction and science fiction books. His early advocacy of space flight and his pioneering work designing and experimenting with liquid propulsion rockets was truly remarkable.
Pendray and his wife, Leatrice, helped found the American Rocket Society in 1930. The first gathering of the small group of mainly writers who would begin the organization occurred in the Pendrays’ apartment in New York City. Most contributed science fiction articles to Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories.
Three years earlier, the word “astronautics” had been coined by a French science fiction writer, who also joined friends in Paris to form a committee to promote space flight.4 Like the French group, Pendray and the Americans were drawn together by the one, shared dream—the prospect of sending vehicles into space. As writers, they knew how to gain publicity for their cause. They planned promotional activities, presented information about every aspect of spaceflight at their meetings, and published related material in a publication edited by one of the society’s members.
The transition from discussion to experimentation began when the Pendrays traveled to Europe in 1931 to visit European rocket experimenters. In Germany, they observed a test firing of a liquid-fuel rocket motor and were extremely impressed. They left Berlin with an agreement that the German and American rocket organizations would exchange information.5
The American Rocket Society’s first rocket was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $49.40. In a November trial launch in New Jersey, the rocket launch failed because of the rain and other problems.
The society’s first rocket to actually lift off went up 250 feet in 1933. A more respectable showing was the organization’s last rocket, which flew to 1,338 feet in 1934. After that, the group devoted its limited resources to more practical tests in which rocket engines were fired on stands and closely observed for data collection. The testing proved fruitful in the study of a variety of techniques and devices.6
The organization became the largest professional rocket engineering group in America. It merged with another group in 1963 to form the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, tallying a membership of 20,000 from the aerospace industry.7
The rocket societies were the “roots” for the modern Space Age. Frank Winter, historian of the National Air and Space Museum’s Science and Exploration Department and author of the 1982 book Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies, 1924-1940, said the relationship between the early rocket societies and today’s space program was very important.
“These groups laid the groundwork for later rocket research in several ways,” Winter said in a 1982 article. “First, they helped to educate the scientific community and the public in general. The societies were largely responsible for keeping alive the idea of traveling into space, despite constant skepticism.
“Second, the rocket societies helped train some of the best minds around—men who became leaders in the space program a few decades later. It would be impossible to estimate how many young people were motivated by these rocket societies.”8
In 1958, Pendray was a consultant to the Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration of the U.S. House of Representatives, and aided in the establishment of NASA.
One of Pendray’s older contemporaries was Robert H. Goddard (1882-1945). Goddard is now known as the father of American rocketry, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland was named in honor of him.
By 1909, Goddard had worked out the theory of the multi-stage rocket and, with more than 200 patents from 1914 until his death, he had covered almost every conceivable aspect of rocket design, propulsion and guidance.9 However, during his lifetime, Goddard received scant recognition for his role in rocket science, largely because of his work for the Navy, which demanded secrecy, and his own preference to work as a secretive researcher. His reluctance for publicity was probably understandable, following the furor that Goddard had suffered in the 1920s. On Jan. 12, 1920, a story “Believes Rocket Can Reach Moon” in the New York Times featured an essay by Goddard.
The following day, in an editorial, the New York Times ridiculed Goddard for making the same “mistake” as science fiction author Jules Verne by suggesting that a rocket could function in a vacuum. (The Times officially apologized decades later, in 1969, when Americans landed on the moon and proved Goddard to be correct.)
By 1921, sensational news stories had featured nearly 20 people volunteering to go on a rocket to the moon. Goddard had been both praised and lampooned. In an effort to dispel the clamor and put the “human cargo” idea in practical perspective, Goddard again spoke to the press, explaining about the extreme temperatures on the moon and other problems. The resulting news story was titled, “Moon Beams Would Cremate Human Rockets,” setting off another round of sensational news articles.10
Thus, Goddard stopped granting interviews and refused to give comments about his activities.
Many of his calculations about space flight were securely put in a locked file, with instructions that they were to be “opened only by an optimist.”11
In the meantime, however, reactions overseas to his views were much different. Germany emerged with a serious interest in rocket development, thanks to Professor Hermann Oberth. Mrs. Goddard recalled, “Many foreign nations, including Russia, Japan, Germany and Italy, wrote to my husband asking for his services, but he turned them all down even though he received little support from his own government after World War 1.”12
The ridicule persisted. In 1929, Goddard launched his liquid-propellant rocket named “Nell” which successfully performed as expected. However, one newspaper headlined its story about the launch, “Moon Rocket Misses Target by 238,799 1/2 Miles.”13 So, in 1930, to escape publicity, Goddard moved his rocket experiments to the remote town of Roswell, New Mexico.
The beginnings of experimental work by Pendray and his group of rocketeers in the American Rocket Society did not stem directly from Goddard’s work. Pendray wrote, “When Goddard in his desert fastness in New Mexico proved uncommunicative, those of us who wanted to do our part in launching the space age turned to what appeared the next best source of light: the German Interplanetary Society in Berlin.14
Like others who saw Goddard as an enigma, Time magazine sourly noted in a 1944 article, “Because Goddard has published little on his findings and has experimented mostly in the privacy of a New Mexican desert, fellow rocketeers consider him a ‘mystery man’.”15 Time magazine added, “No astronaut, Professor Goddard has restricted his aim to rather low altitudes.”
In defense of Goddard, Pendray fired off a protest to the editor: “Your reporter evidently has not read Goddard’s classical report on rockets published in 1919 by the Smithsonian Institution. This is the monograph that reopened rocket experimentation and really started the modern era of rocket research.”
Pendray said that Goddard’s brilliant theoretical analyses clearly qualified him for better treatment. “Goddard was not only an ‘astronaut,’ as you call them, but actually started the whole modern cycle of astronautics. He is the spiritual leader (of all rocket experiments) in the ’20s and ’30s.” Goddard greatly appreciated Pendray’s response.
For that evaluation of Goddard, Pendray was ahead of his time. Pendray also was ahead of his time because of his belief in space travel, his rocket society leadership, and his own active work in rocket experimentation.
Later, he wrote The Coming Age of Rocket Power. With the assistance of Goddard’s widow, Pendray edited Rocket Development: Liquid-Fuel Rocket Research, 1929-1941, a book dealing with Goddard’s experimental work; and helped edit and prepare for publication, The Papers of Dr. Robert H. Goddard.16
In a chapter he wrote in the 1964 book The History of Rocket Technology, Pendray cited the successes of Goddard’s pioneering efforts:
—First to develop a rocket motor using liquid propellants (liquid oxygen and gasoline, 1920-25);
—First to design, construct, and launch successfully a liquid-fuel rocket (March 16, 1926 at Auburn, Mass.);
—First developed gyro-stabilization apparatus for rockets (1932);
—First used deflector vanes in the blast of the rocket motor as a method of stabilizing and guiding rockets (1932);
—Received the first U.S. patent on the idea of multi-stage rockets (1914);
—First explored mathematically the practicality of using rocket power to reach high altitudes and escape velocity (1912);
—First to publish in the U.S. a basic mathematical theory underlying rocket propulsion and rocket flight (1919);—First proved experimentally that a rocket will provide thrust in a vacuum (1915);
—Developed and demonstrated the basic idea of the bazooka during World War I (November 9, 1915), though his plans in the U.S. Army files were unused until World War II;
—First developed self-cooling rocket motors, variable-thrust rocket motors, practical rocket landing devices, pumps suitable for liquid rocket fuels, and forecast jet-driven airplanes, rocket-borne mail and express, and travel in space.17
Goddard flight-tested 31 rockets in New Mexico. One reached 7,500 feet in 1935; another, the same year, attained more than 700 miles an hour.18
Goddard was issued 48 patents for basic rocket hardware. After Goddard’s death in 1945, an additional 131 posthumous patents would be granted to his widow, for a total of 214 patents.19
“The work of Dr. Goddard, of course, underlies all modern development in rocketry and space flight,” Pendray wrote, adding that the efforts of the American Rocket Society’s “Experimental Committee and independent experimenters served to develop a vital body of knowledge about what will and will not work in this new field of technology.”20
Pendray said the efforts brought forth people with experience and know-how who were ready and willing to take leadership positions in the modern rocket and missile age. He wrote, “And perhaps equally important, the early rocket experiments helped to promote an ever-mounting pitch of interest and enthusiasm, and stirred large portions of the human race to desire the eventual conquest of space—thus generating the broad public support which for any great and costly new project is a vital necessity for success in a democratic society.”21
While advocates and scientists of the early 20th century, such as Goddard and Pendray, were important in laying the groundwork for the modern Space Age, by no means did they “invent” rockets. Rocket use, mainly as fireworks, dates back more than 1,000 years ago in China. The Chinese “arrows of fire” were improved upon by Arab military men about 1280 A.D. One innovation was described as an air squid or traveling land mine—the weapon would scurry across land in the manner of a squid through water.22
While the gun was the preferred firearm in Europe, war rocket use flourished in India from at least the mid-1500s. In Europe, one of the first major military uses of rockets occurred during the 1739 battle for the Isle of Chiozza in Italy, when rockets set afire an almost impenetrable fortress.23
The Congreve era of rocketry propelled the expansion of the rocket as a weapon. British Colonel William Congreve wrote, “In the year of 1804, it first occurred to me, that as the...rocket is exerted without any reaction from the point of which it is discharged, it might be necessarily applied, both afloat and ashore, as a military engine. I knew that rockets were used for military purposes in India, but that their magnitude was inconsiderable, and their range not exceeding 1,000 yards.”24
According to Frank H. Winter’s book The First Golden Age of Rocketry, Congreve discovered that, like cannon balls, ranges of rockets could be increased and predicted according to the angles at which they were discharged. He developed ways to make the rockets more exact and more powerful.... While the first use of the Congreve rockets in combat ended in failure for the British, the second combat use, against the French, proved successful....
Winter noted that there is no evidence that the Congreve rockets changed fundamental military tactics. However, the rockets did give an edge to the element of surprise. The primary tactical value was psychological—to demoralize the enemy. According to Winter, the twisting, “hissing projectiles, usually flying at threateningly low levels, terrified untrained troops, native warriors, and cavalry horses.”25
Congreve’s rockets were utilized frequently by the British against America during the War of 1812. The most famous moment was during the bombardment of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in September of 1814 when lawyer Francis Scott Key immortalized the spectacle of “the rocket’s red glare” in a verse in what later became the U.S. national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”26
Fireworks, weapon, rescue apparatus, and space vehicle—the rocket kept designers dreaming about possibilities. And the Space Age became a beneficiary of those dreams.
From Wyoming, G. Edward Pendray was one of the dreamers. He was one of the designers and experimenters.
As a boy growing up on a Wyoming ranch, Pendray must have looked with awe and wonder at the stars in the night sky. Throughout his life, he enjoyed an excitement about science and discovery.
Pendray and the other rocket experimenters envisioned more for the rocket than just an “arrow of fire.”
They looked into the future, and saw the wondrous possibilities of a path to the stars.
1 G. Edward Pendray, letter to Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, Nov. 24, 1926, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.
2 Interviews with Lusk, Wyoming, residents by the author.
3 Biographical sketch of G. Edward Pendray, June 1967, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming.
4 Frank H. Winter, Prelude to the Space Age, the Rocket Societies: 1924-40 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), 25.
5 Beryl Williams and Samuel Epstein, The Rocket Pioneers, On the Road to Space (New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1961), 177.
6 Frank H. Winter, Rockets Into Space (Cambridge, Mass.. Harvard University Press, 1990), 39.
7 Biographical sketch, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
8 Rita Bobowski, “When the Space Age was but a glimmer in a dreamer’s eye,” Research Reports, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., Spring 1982, 4-5.
9 Arthur C. Clarke, The Promise of Space (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1968), 16-17.
10 Shirley Thomas, Men of Space, Profiles of the Leaders in Space Research, Development and Exploration (Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1960), 32-33.
11 Ibid., 43.
12 Ibid., 35.
13 Ibid., 38.
14 G. Edward Pendray, author of chapter “Pioneer Rocket Development in the United States,” in Eugene M. Emme, ed. The History of Rocket Technology, Essays on Research, Development and Utility, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1964), 24.
15 Harry Wulforst, The Rocketmakers (New York: Orion Books, 1990), 148-150.
16 Biographical sketch, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
17 Emme, History of Rocket Technology, Essays on Research, Development and Utility, 21.
18 Winter, Rockets Into Space, 33.
19 Ibid., 34.
20 Emme, History of Rocket Technology, Essays on Research, Development and Utility, 27.
21 Ibid, 27.
22 Bruce Ketcham, managing editor, and Ralph C. Martin, chief editor, Rocket and Space Science Series: Volume 1—Propulsion (Indianapolis: Amateur Rocket Association, Howard W. Sams and Co., Inc., The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), 9.
23 Ibid., 9.
24 Frank H. Winter, The Golden Age of Rocketry (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 15.
25 Ibid., xiv, preface.
26 Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway III, History of Rocketry and Space Travel (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975), 31.
The author, a native of Lusk, Wyoming, was founder and publisher of the Medicine Bow Post, Medicine Bow, Wyoming. This article first appeared in Annals of Wyoming 71 (Spring, 1999), and is adapted from a chapter in his forthcoming book, Dateline: Outer Space, A History of NASA’s Journalist-in-Space Program. He currently teaches journalism at Missouri Valley College, Marshall, Missouri.