The Times regrets the error
Today in 1926, Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket.
Goddard and his team launched 34 rockets between 1926 and 1941, achieving altitudes as high as 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) and speeds as high as 885 km/h (550 mph). Six years earlier, an editorial in The New York Times scoffed at Goddard’s assertion that it’s possible to send a rocket to the Moon, and called into question his understanding of physics:
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 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.
Arthur C. Clarke in Profiles of the Future:
Right through the 1930s and 1940s, eminent scientists continued to deride the rocket pioneers—when they bothered to notice them at all… The lesson to be learned … is one that can never be repeated too often and is one that is seldom understood by laymen—who have an almost superstitious awe of mathematics. But mathematics is only a tool, though an immensely powerful one. No equations, however impressive and complex, can arrive at the truth if the initial assumptions are incorrect.
Forty-nine years after its editorial mocking Goddard, on July 17, 1969—the day after the launch of Apollo 11—The New York Times published a short item under the headline “A Correction.” The three-paragraph statement summarized its 1920 editorial, and concluded:
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 Day in Data, AI, and Learning is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.