Yep… on this day in history, specifically, January 13, 1920, the venerable New York Times published an editorial flatly declaring that space flight using rockets was physically impossible.
Of course, they couldn’t print this if it wasn’t true… right?
Fake News… or just Stupid News?
The article in question was written as a rebuttal to the suggestion, by the famous rocketry pioneer, Robert H. Goddard, that rockets might one day be deployed to photograph Mars and return to Earth with the images. The Times, however, scoffed at the notion, baldly stating that, in the vacuum of space, there was nothing for a rocket’s thrust to push against and, accordingly, it wouldn’t fly.
Now, nobody ever suggested that the Times was being intentionally misleading, but there is also nobody with a shred of scientific understanding who would today recognize this article as being anything but seriously misguided. The problem, though, was not that the Times got things so egregiously wrong, but that it did so in such an aggressively insulting way.
Robert H. Goddard had a doctorate in Physics, was a Professor at Clark University, and had a research fellowship at Princeton, but the author of the article saw fit to dismiss his prediction as an ‘absurdity’, and went to say:
“Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in highs schools.”
Did the Times Retract?
Naturally, the well-respected publication demonstrated its journalistic integrity by issuing an apologetic correction…
In July of 1969 … almost 50 years later!
The actual date of the retraction was July 17, 1969, just days before Neil Armstrong made the historic first walk on the Moon. Probably, the Times thought they best address the glaring error before the public caught on to it on their own. The correction read:
“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.”
I suppose that, after forty plus years of rocket powered space flight, it was good of them to set the record straight…