An early pioneer of the physical principles of spaceflight and designer of some of the first liquid fuel rockets.
As a youth, Hermann Julius Oberth became interested in rockets after reading Jules Verne’s novel Autour de la lune (1870; From the Earth to the Moon . . . and a Trip Around It, 1873). His later thesis Die Rackete zu den Planetenräumen (1923; the rocket into interplanetary space) was rejected at Heidelberg University, but when it was published as a book in 1923, it sold out two editions and attracted interest all over Germany.
To support his growing family, Oberth taught mathematics, physics, and chemistry at a grade school in Mediasch, Siebenburgen. In 1927, he helped found the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR), Germany’s first society for space travel, becoming its president in 1929. He went on lecture tours defending the scientific possibility of spaceflight. In collaboration with Rudolf Nebel and Wernher von Braun, who was then a student, he built and tested liquid fuel propulsion systems for rockets, using liquid oxygen and gasoline.
In 1936, the German army opened the famous installation at Peenemünde to develop ballistic missiles. At Peenemünde, Oberth and von Braun helped develop the so-called Vergeltungswaffen, or “revenge weapons,” the V-1 and V-2 rockets. In 1941, Oberth took up residence at Peenemünde under the alias Felix Hann. He patented the fuel pump used in liquid fuel rockets and also helped develop an ammonium nitrate-propelled antiaircraft rocket.
After a period of incarceration at the end of World War II, Oberth returned to rocket research in Germany and Italy, and published the book Menschen im Weltraum (1954; Man into Space, 1957), which contained novel ideas for propulsion systems. In 1955, he went to Huntsville, Alabama, where he joined von Braun, who now headed the U.S. rocket program. In 1958, Oberth returned to the town of Feucht, Germany, where he wrote prolifically on technical and philosophical subjects and moved into retirement. He died in 1989 at the age of ninety-five at a hospital in Nürnberg, Germany.
Freeman, Marsha. How We Got to the Moon: The Story of the German Space Pioneers. Washington, D.C.: Twenty-first Century Science Associates, 1993. The first part of this history treats Oberth’s early work, with photographs and an extensive bibliography. Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space. New York: Viking, 1968. An authoritative history by a participant in some of the events. Oberth, Hermann. Man into Space. New York: Harper, 1957. Translation of the eight essays and technical appendix first published in Düsseldorf. Ordway, F. I., and M. R. Sharpe. The Rocket Team. New York: Crowell, 1979. A history of rocketry and astronautics in the twentieth century, with photos of Oberth and others. Walters, Helen B. Hermann Oberth: Father of Space Travel. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Details of Oberth’s student days, his family, and his struggle for the acceptance of his ideas.
Wernher von Braun
Hermann Oberth first proved that multistage rockets could make spaceflight possible.