Oct. 26th, 2016

sniffnoy: (Chu-Chu Zig)
I posted this on /r/AskHistorians over on Reddit but got no responses. I expect I'll get less of one here, but, may as well ask!

I remember as a kid always hearing about how in the early days of rocketry, when it was still primarily theoretical, most people believed rockets couldn't work in space because Newton's 3rd law doesn't work without an atmosphere to "react against".

Now that I know more physics, it seems pretty unlikely to me that any real physicist could make such a mistake, because, I mean, Newton's 3rd law and its equivalents (like, you know, conservation of momentum) are pretty tightly woven into the structure of both classical and quantum physics in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the presence of any atmosphere. And indeed when I've gone and tried to find any reference to this myth, the most I can find is one particular New York Times editorial piece from 1920 that made this claim; I haven't been able to find anything about such an idea being more generally widespread.

So was there really a "rockets can't work in space" myth among some substantial segment of the population? Or if it wasn't really a preexisting idea, were people actually convinced by this editorial to any substantial and lasting extent (before the eventual practical demonstrations that yes, rockets work fine in space)? Or is the tale of this myth itself a myth, inflated from the mistake of a few newspaper writers? Does anyone know about this?

(My suspicion is that it's the latter.)


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