81 years of the Space Age

On March 16th, 1926, mankind truly entered the Space Age. When we think of the Space Age, we usually think of the launch of Sputnik as the beginning, and in the obvious ways, that’s very true, but it was back in 1926 that it first became physically conceivable to put human objects into space when Robert Goddard successfully tested the first liquid-fuel rocket on his Aunt’s farm in Connecticut. While this first flight only went 41 feet into the air, it marks the very first successful test of the technology that would take Apollo astronauts to the moon some 43 years later.

Sir Isaac Newton was the one who formulated the theory of space travel, but prior to Goddard, there was no practical way to achieve that theory … it was Goddard who created the basic tool required for our firstprimitive steps into space, and the March 16, 1926 launch was the very first step on that path , even as he was ridiculed by his contemporaries. In one of the more infamous stories about newspaper editorials gone horribly wrong, the Jan 13th, 1920 New York Times, an editorial ridiculed recent statements by Goddard that spoke of sending a rocket to the moon as proof that escape velocity could be reached.

… After the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey [to the moon], its flight would neither be accelerate nor maintained bythe [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 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.

From a Jan 13th, 1920 New York Times Editorial reprinted in M. Gruuntman’s Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry, P. 117, on the web in PDF at Astronautics Now

It was only 6 years later that Goddard made that first small flight, and even then it did nothing to refute the preposterous claims in the Times editorial. Far from Goddard lacking “the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools” it was the Times editorial staff who needed the science lesson, of course … thepower of rocket propulsion (and in fact the very law of dynamics they are talking about) comes not from”pushing against” anything, but rather from the momentum of matter moving in the opposite direction. As every orbiting craft since Sputnik has proven, rocketry works just fine in a vacuum, and anyone with even a passing understanding of Newton in 1920 would have known that … it was an unforgivable error by the Times, one which wasn’t corrected until they finally printed a retraction the day after the launch of Apollo 11, July 17th, 1969. The Times’ retraction is one of the better examples of dry sarcasm …

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.

The New York Times, reprinted on http://www.chris-winter.com/RHGoddard/NaySayer.html

Werner von Braun, the father of both the German V-2 terror rockets, and the American monster Saturn-V rockets that put men on the moon, spoke of Goddard as the father of modern rocketry, and that first test in 1926 is where it all began. Like the inauspicious start to aviation a couple of decades earlier at Kitty Hawk, Goddard’s first launch wasn’t spectacular in the modern sense of the Space Shuttle, or the older Saturn-V, but it signaled a clear beginning to a new form of travel. Without his contribution on this day back in 1926, and, of course, all those that came after it, the world never could have gone to the moon in 1969 … its worth remembering Goddard if only for that reason. But there’s another reason to re-tell this story today, beyond the contribution to space science … its a reminder amidst all the discussion about the performance of the NYT and its reporters in various recent news events, like the run up to the Iraq war (Judith Miller anyone?) as one example, that the Times has a long history getting the facts wrong and admitting it late. Just ask Mr. Goddard.

(Picture from NASA biography of Goddard)

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