james oberg logo



space shuttle



Robert Goddard

Goddard: Seeing the 'Non-Obvious'

The idea that rockets can work in outer space is now so ‘obvious’ that nobody gives it a second thought – but it was once equally ‘obvious’ that it was NOT true.

Early in 1920, American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard, then a 38 year old professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, had just published a short paper with the Smithsonian Institution. It was called "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" and described his proposal for using rockets to send probes into outer space and possibly as far as the Moon.

The idea sparked wide derision from the press. On January 13, an unsigned note on the editorial page of the New York Times denounced the entire concept as purest folly, and asserted that everybody knew that rocket’s couldn’t work in a vacuum. Professor Goddard, the article claimed, sadly lacked "the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Like most other people, including most scientists of the time, the editor thought the exhaust from the vehicle would have nothing to push against in a vacuum. He didn’t know that the rocket exhaust would be acting against the inner walls of the rocket motor itself, thus creating the required reaction

Goddard went on to build the world’s first liquid-fueled rockets, and German rocketeers armed with Goddard’s patents and Oberth’s equations scaled them up into the fearsome V-2 war missile of 1944-1945. Rockets grew more powerful year by year, and in 1969 – more than 20 years after Goddard’s death – a Saturn-V rocket built by a team led by Oberth’s disciples carried the first men to land on the Moon.

The newspaper’s misstatement of half a century earlier was a source of widespread amusement by then. But being “the newspaper of record” laid a responsibility on it. So while Apollo-11 was in flight, the N.Y. times published a short ‘Correction’ on page 1.

"Further investigation and experimentation," said the item, "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."


oberg corner piece

home | profile | articles | books | lectures | jim speaks | humor
links | email

Copyright 2010 James Oberg. All Rights Reserved
Site Designed and Maintained by YoeYo.com

oberg corner piece