Galactic Ghoul

The Galactic Ghoul (sometimes the Great Galactic Ghoul) is a monster inhabiting the spacelanes between Earth and Mars. It feasts on space probes, causing them to go bad once they get a certain distance from Earth.

I’m trying to track down when this monster was created. Wikipedia says the term was “coined in 1997 by Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff”. Well, that date is clearly wrong, since I first encountered the term in a book published in 1982.

Googling, I found this Economist article, which says ‘In 1964 a light-hearted exchange between a journalist and John Casani, a NASA scientist, spawned the idea of a “Great Galactic Ghoul”’. Assuming that the journalist in question is Neff, that date is also wrong. Neff’s webpage says he didn’t start covering NASA until 1967. Besides which, they hadn’t sent very many probes to Mars at that early date. There wasn’t enough history of failed probes at that time to warrant the creation of the monster.

The Wikipedia section is actually referenced, so we can look at those to see where they got the info. Unfortunately, the cite in question seems to be this Time Magazine article, which you have to have a subscription to the magazine to see. I suspect a simple typo in the date, perhaps swapping the last two digits so that it should be 1979. Or they mistakenly took the date of that article (which was 1997) as the date of the coinage.

So any help nailing this one down?

Carroll, M. (1993, 10). Mars: The russians are going! the russians are going! Astronomy, 21, 26.

So as early as 1965 according to this article.

Another Economist article from 1993 titled “The Ghoul” states:

So, somewhere out there is an article from 1964 wherein a journalist misattributes a quote about a Galactic Ghoul to Casani. The journalist probably had been talking to several scientists, and just attributed the wrong person to the quote.

I note that the Economist comes up twice, which means it may be repeating its own error. Factcheckers (if they still exist) would reference the earlier article assuming that IT was properly fact-checked.

It may not be an error by the Economist. From the 1993 article, someone came up with it based on only two lost probes, which is pretty slim data to extrapolate on. But journalists do that all the time.

I can’t seem to find that article online, so I wonder how Bear_Nenno found it. Lexis Nexus? If not, perhaps one of the people who have access to it can help.

I think it was at least 4 probes. Two of them failed before reaching or leaving Earth orbit. So it was starting to look like any launch to Mars was dooned. These were all secret Russian launches which the US scientists were no doubt aware of, but not allowed to talk to the public about. If the Ghoul joke came about because of the half dozen failed Russian attempts, and Casani slipped by bringing up the Ghoul joke… its little wonder why he might deny having said it. Just a thought.

I found those on my University’s research database. I will see if I can get it in a pdf or find on a webpage.