Science & Technology

The Father of Modern Spaceflight Was Originally Mocked By The New York Times

Bold ideas are at risk of ridicule. Galileo spent his last years in prison for his support of heliocentrism. Ignaz Semmelweis went through such mockery for asking his fellow surgeons to wash their hands that he suffered a nervous breakdown. And Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry who now has an entire NASA facility named after him, was ridiculed by the New York Times for his early plans for spaceflight. Et tu, NYT?

Dreams of Flight

It all started with a dry scientific report to the Smithsonian Institution. As a young boy, Robert Goddard was enchanted by the H.G. Wells sci-fi novel "The War of the Worlds," and was forever taken with the desire to build a machine that could go to space. As he grew up, he began experimenting with rockets — which at that time relied on explosive gunpowder — and eventually became a physics professor. In 1914, he received two patents: one for a liquid-fueled rocket, another for a solid-fuel rocket with multiple "stages," or engines that engage one at a time to help propel the craft ever higher.

A few years later, he wrote a proposal for research funding, which was eventually published along with his subsequent research in a Smithsonian Miscellaneous Publication in 1920 under the title "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes." It's more than 70 pages of jargon, math equations, and diagrams about how he used the funding, but within it lies research that would change the world: he laid out one way a rocket might reach the moon and explode a flash of powder to let scientists on Earth know it made the journey. And then disaster struck: the press picked up the story.

Goddard Burn Center

The 1920 commentary in the New York Times' "Topics of the Times" section started out nice enough. "As a method of sending a missle to the higher, and even to the highest, part of the earth's atmospheric envelope, Professor Goddard's multiple-charge rocket is a practicable, and therefore promising, device ..." it began. But soon, the author started laying out all of the possible problems. What about when it came down? Surely you couldn't expect it to come back to its launch point. It might land on an innocent bystander!

And then: "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." Burn.

When asked about his plan by a reporter, Goddard said solemnly, "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace." You got this, Bob.

Who's Laughing Now?

Of course, we all knew who won that one. On March 16, 1926, Goddard led the world's first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket, which reached 41 feet (12 meters) in the air. And, as Michio Kaku writes about the debacle in "The Future of Humanity," "Newton's third law, which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, governs space travel." When you eject propellant from one end of a rocket, it moves in the opposite direction, vacuum or no vacuum.

Goddard died in 1945, four years before the first rocket entered space. Even worse, he didn't live long enough to see the apology published in the New York Times after the Apollo moon landing in 1969: "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."

Robert Goddard had a fascinating life. To read more about it, check out "Rocket Man: Robert H. Goddard and the Birth of the Space Age" by David A. Clary. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Robert Goddard, Original Rocket Scientist

Written by Ashley Hamer March 12, 2018

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