Robert Goddard's Secret Plan for the Future of Humankind in Space

On January 14, 1918—six years before he began the world's first experiments with liquid fuel rockets—Robert H. Goddard wrote an essay called "The Ultimate Migration." He asked a friend to keep it in his safe, hidden in a sealed envelope labeled "Outline of Certain Notes on High-Altitude Research."

Illustration, "Exploring Harpalus," by Chesley Bonestell

In this secret document, Goddard said he "speculated as to the last migration of the human race, as consisting of a number of expeditions sent out into the regions of thickly distributed stars, taking in a condensed form all the knowledge of the race, using either atomic energy or hydrogen, oxygen and solar energy… [It] was contained in an inner envelope which suggested that the writing inside should be read only by an optimist."

It would not appear in print until November 1972. In four pages of handwritten manuscript, Goddard considered the eventual abandonment of the solar system by humanity "when the sun and the earth have cooled to such an extent that life is no longer possible . . ."

"Will it be possible," Goddard asked, "to travel to the planets which are around the fixed stars, when the Sun and the Earth have cooled to such an extent that life is no longer possible on the Earth?" Goddard hoped that the discovery of "intra-atomic energy" would be the key. And if this proved to be impossible, he thought it might "be possible to reduce the protoplasm in the human body to the granular state, so that it can withstand the intense cold of interstellar space." Bodies would have to be freeze-dried first, "before this state could be produced. Awakening may have to be done very slowly." Goddard suggested that a special breed of human might be deliberately created specifically for this purpose.

Robert Goddard's Secret Plan for the Future of Humankind in Space

And if reducing humans to a powder isn't feasible, Goddard thought that "granular protoplasm," might be launched into interstellar space, "this protoplasm being of such a nature as to produce human beings eventually, by evolution."

If "intra-atomic energy" could be harnessed, interstellar "transportation can be a comparatively simple matter." Near-light speeds would result in "a reasonably short trip." For the spacecraft, Goddard thought that "an asteroid or a small moon" might be adapted. But after a journey lasting generations, what finally arrived at the destination might not be fully human. "There is the possibility," Goddard wrote, "that after many thousands of years, the characteristics and natures of the passengers might change, with the succeeding generations."

And if nuclear power proves impossible, mankind would have to fall back on chemical fuels or solar sails. Flights to distant stars, however, might take thousands or even millions of years. The pilot of such a ship, Goddard suggested, "should be awakened, or animated, at intervals, perhaps of 10,000 years for a passage to the nearest stars, and 1,000,000 years for great distances, or for other stellar systems." A radium-powered alarm clock would be used for this. Energy for the various operations of the ship would be produced by "radioactivity, rather than, say by super-conductors, or by chemical substances that might change with time. Probably most chemical substances would remain very inert at the low temperature of space."

And where would Goddard's colonists go? "The most desirable destination would be near a large sun or twin suns," he thought, "on a planet like the Earth." A planet would be selected that was in as stable an environment as possible, so that the human race could continue its evolution. And a destination would be chosen from that "part of the sky where the stars are thickly clustered, so that further migration would be easy..."

"With each expedition," he wrote, "there should be taken all the knowledge, literature, art (in a condensed form), and description of tools, appliances, and processes, in as condensed, light, and indestructible a form as possible, so that a new civilization could begin where the old ended."

Will this ever happen? Goddard thought so. "The only barrier to human development," he was convinced, "is ignorance, and this is not insurmountable."

Chesley Bonestell art © Bonestell LLC