rocket history
Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy
Hermann Oberth
Robert H. Goddard
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Hermann Oberth

Oberth teaching a class
Hermann Oberth was an early member of the Society for Space Travel (Verein fuer Raumschiffahrt or VfR) formed in 1927.

Hermann Oberth was one of the most significant rocketry pioneers of the 20th-century, by birth a Romanian but by nationality a German. Born on June 25, 1894, in Hermannstadt, Romania, Oberth became mesmerized by Jules Verne's novel, From Earth to the Moon as an 11-year-old boy. He recalled reading the book “five or six times and, finally, knew it by heart.” This book, and other spaceflight literature that he devoured in the coming years led Oberth to intensive study of the technical aspects of interplanetary travel.

Although he studied for a career in medicine, Oberth never could shake his obsession with spaceflight and finally switched his emphasis to physics. He wrote a dissertation on the problem of rocket-powered flight but his work was rejected by the University of Heidelberg in 1922 for being too speculative. This dissertation, however, became the basis for his classic 1923 book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space). The book explained the mathematical theory of rocketry, applied it to possible designs for practical rockets, and considered the potential of space stations and human travel to other planets.

The success of the 1923 book prompted Oberth to consider writing a more popular, and less technical, treatise on the possibilities of spaceflight, but because of his teaching load in a secondary school, German spaceflight enthusiast Max Valier condensed and published one for him. This book inspired a number of new rocket clubs to spring up all over Germany as hardcore rocket enthusiasts tried to translate Oberth's theories into practical space vehicles. The most important of these clubs was the Verein fur Raumschiffarht (Rocket Society) or the VfR. Oberth became something of a godfather for the VfR during the 1920s, encouraging the efforts of Valier, Willy Ley, and the young Wernher von Braun.

In 1929 Oberth published another major work, Wege Zur Raumschiffahrt (The Road to Space Travel), in which he envisioned the development of ion propulsion and electric rockets. This book won an award established by the French rocket pioneer, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, and Oberth used the prize money to buy rocket motors for the VfR.

One man who foresaw a vision with the space program was the silent moviemaker Fritz Lang. After reading Oberth's book, he decided to film an adventure story about space travel. The result was the 1929 feature, Die Frau Im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). Lang wanted his movie set to be technically correct so he called upon Herman Oberth to be his main technical advisor. Oberth and Willy Ley helped Lang with his sets and built a spacecraft that looked very realistic. Ever the dramatist, Lang even invented the countdown to increase the tension for the audience and to add drama to the rocket flight.

As a publicity stunt for Lang's film, Oberth also agreed to build an actual rocket that would be launched at the premier of Die Frau Im Mond. Two days before the premier, however, Oberth discovered that he would not have the rocket completed in time. At that point, he went to Romania to soothe his nerves. After 1938, Oberth was involved in a series of research projects concerning rockets for Germany. In 1941, he became a naturalized German citizen, and during World War II he worked for Wernher von Braun in the V-2 development program but never held an important position in the project. At the end of the war, Oberth was interrogated by American captors and then released. He settled in Feucht, West Germany, near Nuremberg.

In 1955 Wernher von Braun, by this time the head of a U.S. army ballistic missile effort at Huntsville, Alabama, invited Oberth to work for him on his program. Oberth worked for a short time on these efforts, but in 1959 he retired and returned to Feucht, where he lived the rest of his life. Because of his significance as the “godfather” of early German rocketry, Oberth returned to the United States in July 1969 to witness the launch of the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 crew on the first lunar landing mission. He then returned to Germany where he died on December 29, 1989, having helped to create and sustain spaceflight and witness many of the major events of space exploration in the latter half of the 20th century.