May 7, 1931 — Space travel pioneer Hermann Oberth launches his first liquid-propellant rocket near Berlin, Germany.

Born in 1894, as a boy Oberth was obsessed with the idea of traveling to space through reading the science fiction of Jules Verne, re-reading books like From the Earth to the Moon to the point where he memorized whole passages. After serving in World War I and starting a family, he took up the study of physics in Germany where his enthusiasm for the nascent field of rocket science ran into resistance. In 1922, Oberth’s proposed doctoral dissertation was dismissed as being too utopian. He would later write, “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.” After self-publishing a 92-page work Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space) in 1923, he went to Romania where he finally earned a doctorate in physics. (Note the Romanian stamp in the photo set.) In this period, he learned of work by fellow rocketry pioneers Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and corresponded with both.

In 1929, Oberth wrote Wege zur Raumschiffahrt (Ways to Spaceflight), a more expansive work that won him a prize affording him the chance to further finance his research into liquid-fuel rockets. Around this time, he joined the Verein fur Raumshiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), an organization inspired in part by Oberth’s writings. Soon voted its president, he became something of a mentor to many of its members, including a young enthusiast by the name of Wernher von Braun. In 1930, Oberth took a teaching job in Romania where he would receive a patent for a liquid-propellant rocket. He then came back to Germany in 1931 to test the rocket. With his teenage protégé von Braun and other members of the Spaceflight Society, Oberth launched his new design into history.

Oberth and Wernher von Braun would go on to work on the deadly German rocket programs at Peenemünde during the Second World War. This included the development of the V-2 rocket system that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel, not to mention the 12,000 forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners who perished while working on the project. After the war, Oberth continued to work as a writer and consultant on rocketry and other aspects of space travel. (He was also really into UFOs, but I’ll save that for another post.) He eventually came to the United States to work for von Braun, who was developing rockets for a young NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. Back in Germany by 1958, Oberth published more works promoting his ideas for a lunar exploration vehicle, a “lunar catapult”, and “muffled” helicopters and airplanes. In 1960, he returned to the U.S. to work for Convair as a technical advisor on the Atlas rocket program. Two years later, Oberth retired at the age of 68, though he continued to dabble in various fields for the rest of his life. In July 1969, he once again returned to America to witness the launch of Apollo 11 on its historic mission to the Moon. He later watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on October 30, 1985. He died in 1989, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

About Hermann Oberth, Wernher von Braun said: “Hermann Oberth was the first, who when thinking about the possibility of spaceships grabbed a slide-rule and presented mathematically analyzed concepts and designs…. I, myself, owe to him not only the guiding-star of my life, but also my first contact with the theoretical and practical aspects of rocketry and space travel. A place of honor should be reserved in the history of science and technology for his ground-breaking contributions in the field of astronautics.”

(Sources: NASA, New Mexico Museum of Space History, Wikipedia)

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