Blogs & Comment

Rocket scientists and their moms & dads

Bedtime reading for my 6-year-old son last week included a childrens book on space exploration by Mary Kay Carson. As I read out loud to him, one thing that caught my attention in this nicely done tome was the similarities in the childhoods of two pioneers in space rocketry, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky(born 1857) and Robert Goddard(born 1882).
We know how important innovation is to economic growth, living standards, and the realization of human potential. Perhaps the formation and development of persons like Tsiolkovsky and Goddard may provide some clues on how a society can encourage more innovation so lets review some of the details.
Sickly as children, both spent a fair amount of time apart from other children and outside the public school system, apparently being home schooled and/or self taught. Both found some solace in books. As teenagers, they were inspiredtodevelop space rocketsby the then-new genre of science fiction — especially Jules Vernes book on traveling to the moon, From the Earth to the Moon, and H.G. Wells book on Martians invading earth, The War of the Worlds.
I have noticed before how many distinguished persons in the sciences and higher callings come from home-schooling environments or at least environments where the parents are actively involved in the education of their children (e.g. Thomas Edison and John Stuart Mill). It didnt surprise me that Canadian scientist Willard S. Boyle , a recent co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, was home schooled and attributes much of his success to his mother.
But Mary Kay Carsons book increased my awareness of another aspect: the shaping of the imagination. Both Tsiolkovsky and Goddard found vision and purpose in their lives from the imaginations of Verne and Wells. It has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow. Goddard said in the class oration at his high school graduation in 1904.
Sadly, though, the lack of imagination elsewhere gets in the way. When Goddard published A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes in 1919, the New York Times ran an editorial that ridiculed him for lacking the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools. Propulsion is not possible in the vacuum of outer space, it claimed.
Three days before man’s first walk on the moon in 1969, the New York Times printed a retraction to the 1920 editorial. It stated: it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.