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Robert H. Goddard Story

The New York Times trashes Robert H. Goddard in 1920

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

blazing the trail Based, in part, 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)

In case you thought that the "mainstream" media had only recently developed a trait of infallibility ...

Goddard, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections Robert H. Goddard presented the results of his rocket work in Publication 2540 of the highly respectable Smithsonian Institution. (It later appeared in Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, v. 71, N.2, 1921). 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.

This Goddard's work and he personally got under vicious attack by the New York Times, followed by other media outlets.

Blazing the Trail, page 117 Page 117, Blazing the Trail quoted editorial comments of the The New York Times, 13 January 1920, personally attacking the 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.

Goddard, New York Times, 1920 ... After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey [to the moon], its flight would be neither accelerated not maintained by the [proposed by Goddard solid rocket based on] explosion of the charges ... To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

... That Professor Goddard with his "chair" in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and 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.

... As it happens, Jules Verne, who also knew a thing or two in assorted sciences ... deliberately seemed to make the same mistake that Professor Goddard seems to make. For the Frenchman, having get his travellers to or toward the moon into the desperate fix of riding a tiny satellite of the satellite, saved them from circling it forever by means of explosion, rocket fashion, where an explosion would not have had in the slightest degree the effect of releasing them from their dreadful slavery. That was one of Verne's few scientific slips, or else it was a deliberate step aside from scientific accuracy, pardonable enough in him as a romancer, but its like is not so easily explained when made by a savant who isn't writing a novel of adventure.

The sensationalism and the merciless attack by the New York Times and other newspapers left a profound impression on Robert Goddard. He became secretive about his work (to detriment of development of rocketry in the United States) and shied publicity.

Goddard, New York Times, 1969 On 17 July 1969 the Apollo 11 crew was on the way to the first landing of man on the Moon. That day the New York Times had a special 20-page section on all things related to spaceflight and rocketry. There, it finally printed a sort-of apologetic correction:

A Correction. On Jan. 13, 1920, "Topics of the Times," an 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" that smeared Goddard said much more than shown above (see page 117 of Blazing the Trail).

The 1969 correction leaves an impression that the fact that a rocket can function in vacuum has been "definitely established" only some time after The New York Times attacked Robert Goddard.

Nothing is also known whether The New York Times regretted the pain its actions inflicted on the American rocket pioneer.

No wonder that a prominent U.S. political and social commentator, Rush Limbaugh, coined the "drive-by media" term.

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About Mike Gruntman

Mike Gruntman is professor of astronautics at the University of Southern California. He is an accomplished space scientist, engineer, educator, and historian with more more than 300 scholarly publications, including 4 books, in various areas of science and technology.

Mike's book Blazing the Trail. The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry (published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2004) received the 2006 Luigi Napolitano Award from the International Academy of Astronautics. More than 750 major libraries worldwide hold this book in their collections. Another his book, From Astronautics to Cosmonautics, 2007, was nominated (2008) for the Emme Award of the American Astronautical Society.

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