The Father of Space Travel

Hermann Julius Oberth, born June 25, 1894 in the Transylvanian town of Hermannstadt, is, along with the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the American Robert Goddard, one of the three founding fathers of rocketry and modern astronautics. Interestingly, although these three pioneers arrived at many of the same conclusions about the possibility of a rocket escaping the earth’s gravitational pull, they seem to have done so without any knowledge of each other’s work.  

Oberth’s interest in rocketry was sparked at the age of 11. His mother gave him a copy of Jules Verne's From The Earth To The Moon, a book which he later recalled he read "at least five or six times and, finally, knew by heart.” It was a young Oberth, then, that discovered that many of Verne’s calculations were not simply fiction, and that the very notion of interplanetary travel was not as fantastic as had been assumed by the scientific community. 

By the age of 14 Oberth had already envisioned a “recoil rocket” that could propel itself through space by expelling exhaust gases (from a liquid fuel) from its base. He had no resources with which to test his model, but continued to develop his theories, all the while teaching himself, from various books, the mathematics that he knew he’d need if he was to ever challenge gravity’s dominion.

Oberth realized that the higher the ratio between propellant and rocket mass the faster his rocket would be able to travel. Problem: as the rocket expends fuel, its mass (not including fuel) remains the same, in essence becoming heavier and heavier in relation to the engine’s ability to provide thrust. Solution: stages. Hermann Oberth reasoned that as one section of the rocket cylinder becomes expended, and therefore also becomes dead weight, why not just get rid of it? This idea is especially important, in light of the fact that in space, velocity is additive. Oberth wrote, “the requirements for stages developed out of these formulas. If there is a small rocket on top of a big one, and if the big one is jettisoned and the small one is ignited, then their speeds are added.” 

In 1912 Hermann Oberth enrolled in the University of Munich to study medicine. His scholarly pursuits, however, were interrupted by the First World War. In an indirect way, Hermann Oberth’s participation in the war, mostly with the medical unit , was, in some ways, fortunate for the future of rocketry. Hermann Oberth stated it best when he wrote that one of the most important things he learned in his years as an enlisted medic, was that he "did not want to be a doctor”. When the war was over, Professor Oberth returned to the University of Munich, but this time to study Physics with several of the most notable scientists of the time. 

In 1922 Oberth’s doctoral thesis on rocketry was rejected. He later described his reaction: “I refrained from writing another one, thinking to myself: Never mind, I will prove that I am able to become a greater scientist than some of you, even without the title of doctor.” He continued: “In the United States, I am often addressed as a doctor. I should like to point out, however, that I am not such and shall never think of becoming one.” And on education he had this to say: “Our educational system is like an automobile which has strong rear lights, brightly illuminating the past. But looking forward things are barely discernible.”  

In 1923, the year after the rejection of his dissertation, he published the 92 page Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space). This was followed by a longer version (429 pages) in 1929, which was internationally celebrated as a work of tremendous scientific importance. That same year, he lost the sight in his left eye in an experiment while working as a technical advisor to German director Fritz Lang on his film, “Girl in the Moon.”  

In the thirties Oberth took on a young assistant who would later become one of the leading scientists in rocketry research for the German and then the United States governments; his name was Werhner von Braun. They worked together again during the Second World War, developing the V2 rocket, the “vengeance weapon” for the German Army, and again after the war, in the United States at the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. However, three years later Professor Oberth retired and returned to Germany. 

 That Hermann Oberth is one of the three founding fathers of rocketry and modern astronautics is indisputable. That all three have advanced the science of rocketry is also indisputable - Professor Oberth, though, possessed a vision that set him apart, even from these great men. In 1923 he wrote in the final chapter of Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space), “The rockets... can be built so powerfully that they could be capable of carrying a man aloft.” In 1923, then, he became the first to prove that rockets could put a man into space.  

By all accounts Hermann Oberth was a humble man (especially considering his achievements) who had, in his own words, simple goals. He outlined them in the last paragraph of his 1957 book Man into Space: “To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabitable, and all life purposeful.” 

Hermann Julius Oberth died in a Nuremberg hospital in West Germany on December 29, 1989 at the age of 95.