Written and Edited by Cliff Lethbridge
Hermann Oberth was born on June 25, 1894 in Hermannstadt, Transylvania, Romania. Since he was born to German speaking parents and became a German citizen later in life, Oberth is traditionally considered German even though he was born in Romania.
Like Robert Goddard, Oberth became fascinated with the possibility of spaceflight at an early age by reading science fiction works by authors such as Jules Verne. He was brought up in an academic environment, and eventually became a teacher in Transylvania.
Early in his career, Oberth expressed fanciful views on rocketry and spaceflight, but later began a scientific analysis on the reaction principle. It was just prior to World War I that he became interested in war rocketry.
In 1917, Oberth proposed to the German War Department the development of liquid-fueled long-range bombardment missiles. The idea, which could have placed Oberth years ahead of Robert Goddard in the launching of a liquid-fueled rocket, was rejected by the German military out of hand.
Several years later, Oberth learned of the existence of a 1919 book by Robert Goddard entitled "A Method Of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" but was unable to locate a copy in Germany. In 1922, Oberth wrote to Goddard and suggested that the development of liquid-fueled rockets should be an international endeavor.
A year later, Oberth published the book "Die Rakete Zu Den Planetenraumen" (The Rocket Into Planetary Space) in Munich. The book included a disclaimer which stated that any similarities between his theories and the 1919 book by Robert Goddard were purely by coincidence.
The book contained theories on rocketry similar to those of Goddard, but also included speculation on the effects of spaceflight on the human body. Oberth also put forth later proven theories that a rocket could travel faster than its own exhaust and could operate in a vacuum. He also theorized on the possibility of placing satellites in space.
Oberth never admitted borrowing any of his ideas from Goddard, and claimed to have engaged in extensive research of his own. Whether or not this was true, Oberth was able to gain the necessary momentum to stimulate German experiments in liquid-fueled rocketry.
Operating under the Newtonian premise that a rocket could carry a payload into Earth-orbit if it could fly fast enough and high enough, Oberth began to experiment with a number of propellants.
He designed a basic rocket, called "Modell B" which could be used in high-altitude research. Oberth also considered the merits of using a mixture of alcohol and hydrogen as rocket fuels.
An expanded and updated version of his previous book was released in 1929 as "Wege Zur Raumschiffahrt" (The Road To Space Travel). This, coupled with distribution of his earlier work, did much to stimulate interest in rocketry throughout Germany and Europe.
Also in 1929, Oberth joined Verein Fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) and became its president.
Unlike Robert Goddard, Oberth made every practical effort to publicize his work. He became technical advisor to the Ufa Film Company and director Fritz Lang, who was filming a movie entitled "Frau Im Mond" (Girl In The Moon). Oberth was commissioned to construct a rocket which would be launched in a publicity stunt for the movie.
Aided by a young and eager scientist named Wernher von Braun, Oberth was able to construct and static test a small rocket engine on July 23, 1930. But it quickly became apparent that a rocket would not be available in time for the release of the movie, and the project was abandoned.
After this project fizzled, Oberth returned to teaching in Transylvania. In the years following World War II, Oberth came to the United States to work with his former student Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.
When it became clear that he would lose his German pension if he stayed in the United States too long, Oberth returned to Germany where he continued to author books on rocketry and space travel.
While his practical experiments in rocketry were few, he remains credited with encouraging many talented scientists to enter the field of rocketry.
Copyright © 2001 by Spaceline, Inc.