Why did they mock Robert Goddard's dream of space flight?

Illustration for article titled Why did they mock Robert Goddards dream of space flight?

Robert Goddard was one of the pioneers of rocketry. But during his lifetime, he was either mocked or ignored. And sadly, he died before he could be applauded for the visionary he was. But why did people think space flight was so impossible?


If you've ever heard of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, you already know the ending of one of the great tales of vindication in space history. Robert Goddard first came up with the idea of space flight when he was pruning cherry trees on a farm. He looked up and thought of a rocket that could fly all the way to Mars. For the rest of his life, he laid the groundwork to ensure that that could really happen.

By the time he died, in 1945, Goddard had filed over 200 patents on rocket equipment, from fuel systems to exhaust nozzles, as he slowly worked to make his dream a reality. He did some experimentation with different rockets configurations, but really focused on different fuels. Experimenting with both solid and liquid fuels, he worked with a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, before settling on a mix of liquid oxygen and gasoline as his fuel of choice. In 1920, after over a decade of research, he published a scholarly paper entitled, "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes." When word got out about it, he was widely mocked, and called "The Moon Man."

Illustration for article titled Why did they mock Robert Goddards dream of space flight?

Certainly, he had an ambitious goal, and one that would take decades of focused research to reach, but why were people so convinced that it could never work? The reason, now that we've lived through the Space Age, seems bizarre.

People didn't believe that rockets could be propelled through a vacuum, without air to push against and through. Goddard was convinced that, as long as rockets pushed propellant out behind them, they could move just fine. Today we know that he's right, but he went against some of the best thinking of his time. The idea wasn't tested, and there was no way to test it unless Goddard actually managed to get a rocket to space in the first place, so the fixed idea remained. Fuels wouldn't work in space, case closed.

On March 16, 1926, on his Aunt Effie's farm, Goddard launched the first liquid-propelled rocket. It flew up no more than forty-one feet, and worked less well than gunpowder-powered rockets, but it worked. Some would say it worked too well, since the V-2 Rocket, used against England in World War II, was inspired by Goddard's research. Goddard broke off rocket research in 1941, to work on other projects for the military. Sadly, he died just a few days before Victory in the Pacific Day, on August 10, 1945. Even more sadly, he didn't live to see the decades of successful rocket innovation that came just after his death, leading to the launch of Apollo 11.


Just after the launch, the New York Times, one of the papers that was openly skeptical of Goddard's plans, printed a retraction, stating, "It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."

Top Image: NASA

[Via NASA, Wired, Spaceline]


Share This Story

Get our newsletter



Don't know how prevalent it was, but as a kid in the early fifties, I distinctly remember writing a letter to the newspaper trying to refute another letter insisting on the "no air to push against" theory.

For supersonic flight, too many people were insisting the sonic barrier would destroy everything trying to go through it, even as bullets routinely traveled faster than sound. And rockets, descending from space, were busily blowing up parts of London while people were still insisting on "no air to push against".

What we have here is limited knowledge and cognitive dissonance. Counterexamples simply do not have as much power as they should.