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The New York Times trashes Robert H. Goddard in 1920

and then (sort of) regrets in ... 1969

blazing the trail Partially based on Mike Gruntman's

Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, AIAA, Reston, Va., 2004

(Winner of a 2006 Award from the International Academy of Astronautics)

And you thought that the "mainstream" media only recently developed a trait of infallibility ...

Robert H. Goddard presented the results of his rocket work in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, v. 71, N.2, 1919, a publication of the respectable Smithsonian Institution. This famous treatise of Goddard, entitled "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," outlined his ideas on rocketry and included detailed calculations of rocket dynamics and results of his various tests.

Goddard's paper included a section, "Calculation of Minimum Mass Required to Raise One Pound to an 'Infinite' Altitude." Goddard presented calculations of the initial, starting mass of a rocket capable of sending 1 lb on the "parabolic" velocity, or what we would commonly call today the "escape velocity." He was also concerned with the experimental proof that the rocket would indeed escape. Goddard wrote,

It is of interest to speculate upon the possibility of proving that such extreme altitudes had been reached even if they actually were attained. In general, the proving would be a difficult matter. Thus, even a mass of flash powder, arranged to be ignited automatically after a long interval of time, were projected vertically upward, the light would at best be very faint, and it would be difficult to foretell, even approximately, the direction in which it would be most likely to appear. The only reliable procedure would be to send the smallest mass of flash powder possible to the dark surface of the moon when in conjunction (i.e. the new "moon"), in such a way that it would be ignited on impact. The light would be visible in a powerful telescope ... .

The "moon part" of this highly technical report caught the attention of newspapers. As Goddard later observed, "from that day, the whole thing was summed up, in the public mind, in the words 'moon rocket'."

See M. Gruntman, Blazing the Trail, AIAA, 2004 for the historic and technological background and context.

Blazing the Trail, page 117 Page 117, Blazing the Trail shows the quote from the editorial comments of the The New York Times, 13 January 1920, ridiculing American rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard. The enlightened newspaper not only ridiculed the idea that rocket propulsion would work in vacuum but it questioned the integrity and professionalism of Goddard. The sensationalism and the merciless attack by the New York Times and other newspapers left a profound impression on Robert Goddard who became secretive about his work (to detriment of development of rocketry in the United States) and shied publicity.

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On 17 July 1969, when the Apollo 11 crew was on the way to the first landing of man on the Moon, The New York Times finally printed a correction:

A Correction. On Jan. 13, 1920, "Topics of the Times," and editorial-page feature of the The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows:

"That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react - to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

For the record, the 1920 "Topic of The Times" said much more than The Times presented here (see page 117 of Blazing the Trail). The correction also leaves an impression that rocket functioning in vacuum has been "definitely established" only some time after The Times attacked Robert Goddard. Nothing is also known whether the Times regretted the pain its actions inflicted on the American rocket pioneer.

No wonder that a prominent U.S. commentator calls them the "drive-by media."


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