Rocket Row on West Side of A&I Building, c. 1967. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Image no. 2002-12168.

The World Is Yours: Rockets and Planets

Take a listen to clips from the episode of The World Is Yours titled “Rockets and Planets.”

When looking through the list of The World Is Yours episode titles, a particular program caught my eye. About halfway down, I spotted an episode that aired on March 20, 1938 called “Rockets and Planets.” Considering that Sputnik was launched almost 20 years later, I was interested to see what the take on rockets was in the late 1930s. 

This episode is formatted differently than the previous episodes I’ve heard. Typically, “Old Timer,” the host, discusses the featured topic with a pair of visitors to the United States National Museum in between interspersed dramatizations, but this entire episode is a dramatization. It centers around a 14-year-old boy, Charlie, who is very interested in the subject of rockets and astronomy. His parents are concerned about this fascination at his age, so they ask their astronomy friend, Steven Taylor, to come over to have a conversation with the boy.

Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945)

The conversation begins with Charlie asking for Mr. Taylor for his thoughts on interplanetary travel. The teenager states that he believes humans should be able to take a rocket to Mars in a matter of years based on information he read in a fiction magazine. After a discussion about rocket fuel and how far away Mars is from the Earth, Mr. Taylor informs Charlie of just how fictional the magazine is.

Listen here as Mr. Taylor explains why the science behind rockets is so complicated. 

[Steven Taylor] Well, there’s no fuel invented which is powerful enough and yet which is small enough in bulk to enable them to take enough to fly them that far.

[Charlie] Well, how far have they flown in rockets anyway, Mr. Taylor?

[Taylor] They haven’t.

[Charlie] Huh?!

[Taylor] The only rockets ever built are small experimental things.

[Charlie] You mean nobody’s ever flown in a rocket?!

[Taylor] Nope. Why rockets aren’t even in their infancy. The practical rocket just hasn’t been born yet.

[Charlie] Gosh.

 [Taylor] You see, this rocket idea embraces so many things: chemistry, astronomy, physics, mathematics. Takes lots of money and lots of time.

[Charlie] Oh. Then you think it’ll be quite awhile before anybody flies to the Moon or a place like that, huh?

[Taylor] I doubt if it’ll happen in our lifetime, Charlie.

Robert Hutchings Goddard with Rocket

Mr. Taylor then warns Charlie he should stop reading his fiction magazine and read the works of renowned scientist Robert H. Goddard instead. He tells Charlie that if he studies hard, the boy could be a pioneer who paves the way for his great-great-grandchildren to one day fly in a rocket. In reponse, Charlie sounds just a little dejected.

From there, the conversation moves to planets and Charlie shares his theory that there is life on Venus. Mr. Taylor recounts all the reasons that is not likely, based on his observations through his telescope and spectroscopic analysis. Mr. Taylor then asks Charlie whether he thinks there is life on Mars, and they discuss the differences between Mars and Earth and how dissimilar life whould be there. Charlie gets slightly more frustrated with Mr. Taylor.

Listen here as Mr. Taylor squashes another one of Charlie's theories, this time about life on Mars. 

[Charlie] Gosh, you don’t believe anything, do you?

[Taylor] (laughing) Well, you see we have proof of all these things, Charlie. You can tell by looking at Mars that most of the time the planet’s barren of water. What little water there is there is frozen tight at the poles. When the season changes and the water at the poles melts, why the whole planet changes color as though there were vegetation growning there.

[Charlie] Oh. Then maybe there really is life there then.

[Taylor] Because the surface changes color?

[Charlie] Yes. You said yourself that the color might be trees and things.

[Taylor] Yes, might. But, how about all the rest of the long year. It’s bitter cold then. Colder than it ever gets on Earth.

[Charlie] Gosh, you disagree with everything!

The rest of their conversation centers around why there likely is not life on any of the rest of the planets, and why Mr. Taylor thinks the conditions on the Moon wouldn’t make it a fun place to visit in a rocket. Towards the end of the conversation, Charlie questions his desire to study astronomy after hearing the less-than-glamourous picture that Mr. Taylor has painted of the field. Charlie imagined that a career in astronomy would allow him to travel the planets in a rocketship, whereas Mr. Taylor described a path full of more books, studies, and theories than interplanetary travel.

Rocket Row on West Side of A&I Building

Check back next month for a look at another episode of The World Is Yours!

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