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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

Robert Goddard's Early Detractors

Dr. Goddard's troubles with the popular press began soon after his first paper, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, was published by the Smithsonian late in 1919. The paper was dry and cautious, as befits a scientific treatise. But toward the end, Goddard mentioned the possibility that one day a rocket might reach the Moon, exploding there a quantity of flash powder to signal the achievement.

This concept struck the popular imagination like a cannon shot. On Monday, 12 January 1920, it blazed from headlines of major newspapers across the nation. Examples are:

  • "Modern Jules Verne Invents Rocket to Reach Moon" -- The Boston American
  • "Claim Moon May Soon Be Reached" -- The Milwaukee Sentinel
  • "Savant Invents Rocket Which Will Hit Moon" -- The San Francisco Examiner

The following day came the editorial in the New York Times. It took Dr. Goddard to task for not knowing that rockets will not work outside the Earth's atmosphere, because there is nothing to push against in the vacuum. (The Times published an apology in 1969, just after Apollo 11 landed Armstrong and Aldrin at Mare Tranquilitatis on the Moon.)

In response to the Times and other critics, Goddard released a statement to the Associated Press toward the end of January. He also wrote an article for Scientific American, aimed at more serious questioners.

But the best refutation was a demonstration of the physical principles involved. Goddard rigged up a .22 caliber pistol on a spindle, so that it could freely rotate, with the barrel at right angles to the axis of the spindle. He then enclosed this apparatus in a sealed bell jar and pumped out the air. The pistol contained a blank cartridge, wired so it could be fired by electricity. When Goddard touched the switch, the cartridge fired and the pistol spun briskly around inside the jar, making four complete revolutions. "So much," he commented, "for the New York Times."

According to the long-defunct Geocities Web site Great Moments in Journalism, this was what the Times published:1

JULY 17, 1969: On Jan. 13, 1920, Topics of the Times, an editorial-page feature of the New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in a 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.


This information comes from the AIAA pamphlet describing their 2001 dedication of "Aunt Effie's Farm" as a Historic Aerospace Site, and from Great Moments in Journalism, a Web site devoted to chronicling errors made by American newspapers.


1 This apology still lives on the Wayback Machine, but only in one capture: the one done on 22 October 2002. Find it just below a paragraph pointing out the goof in a story about a tomato-throwing contest in Spain.
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