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Hermann Julius Oberth was born in Hermannstadt, Romania, on June 25, 1894, the son of a doctor. His interest in rocketry was sparked when, at the age of 11, his mother gave him copies of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Journey Around the Moon, both of which he came to know by heart. By the time he was 14 he had developed a theoretical model for a "recoil rocket" that could propel itself through space by expelling exhaust gases (from the burning of a liquid fuel) from its base. By studying every higher mathematics book he could get a hold of, he also came to realize that the higher the ratio between propellant and rocket mass the faster his rocket would be able to travel. There was one major problem, however; as the rocket expends fuel, its mass (not including the fuel) remains the same, in essence becoming heavier and heavier in relation to the engines ability to provide thrust. Oberth believed that a multi-stage rocket would solve that problem, but he lacked the resources to pursue his idea beyond the design phase.
In 1912, Oberth moved to Germany and enrolled in the University of Munich to study medicine. His studies were interrupted by World War I, however. As a member of a medical unit for the Austro-Hungarian Army, he soon decided that he no longer wanted to be a doctor. After the war, he returned to his former love and studied astronautics at the University of Heidelberg. On July 6, 1918, he married Mathilde Hummel, with whom he had four children.
In 1922, Oberth's doctoral thesis on rocketry was rejected by the university on the grounds that his ideas were too fanciful. Undeterred, he had the dissertation privately published the following year, and his 92-page Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space) sparked so much public interest that rocket clubs soon began springing up all over Germany. His 429-page version of the work was published under the title of Wege Zur Raumschiffahrt (Ways to Space Travel) in 1929. He spent the intervening years experimenting with various rocket designs and acting as something of a mentor to the Verein fuer Raumschiffart (Society for Space Travel). To support his family, he taught mathematics and physics at the Stephan Ludwig Roth High School in Medias, Romania.
In 1928-1929, Oberth worked in Berlin as a scientific consultant on, Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon), which was directed and produced by Fritz Lang. The first film ever to show the countdown to launch of a rocket, the use of liquid rocket fuel, a two-stage rocket, and zero gravity in space, it was an enormous publicity boom for the ideas of rocketry and space exploration. Oberth designed the model of the Friede, the main rocket portrayed in the film, and also built and launched a rocket as a publicity stunt for the film's premiere.
In the autumn of 1929, Oberth conducted a static firing of his first liquid-fueled rocket motor, which he named the Kegeldüse. Built in workshop space provided by the Reich Institution of Chemical Technology, the rocket developed a thrust of 70 newtons (about 10 newtons will lift 1 kg). He was helped in this experiment by 18-year-old student Wernher von Braun. He conducted his first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket near Berlin on May 7, 1931. By 1932 he was flying rockets that generated up to 600 newtons.
Leaving Romania in 1938, Oberth went first to the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, Austria, and then to the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. In 1941, he was recruited into the experimental rocket center at Peenemünde, Germany, where, among other jobs, he worked on the V2 Rocket program. He later worked on solid-propellant anti-aircraft rockets at the German WASAG military organization near Wittenberg. In May of 1945, Oberth moved his family to the town of Feucht, near Nuremberg, Germany, which subsequently became part of the American Zone of Occupied Germany. In 1948, he was allowed to move to Switzerland, where he worked as an independent rocketry consultant and a writer. In 1950, he moved to Italy, where he worked on anti-aircraft rockets for the Italian Navy. In 1953, he returned to Feucht to publish Menschen im Weltraum (Men in Space), in which he described his ideas for space-based reflecting telescopes, space stations, electric-powered spaceships, and space suits.
In 1955, former assistant Wehrner von Braun invited Oberth to join him at the United States Army's Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Alabama. While there, he collaborated on the study, The Development of Space Technology in the Next Ten Years. After returning to Feucht in 1958, he published papers on the technological possibilities of a "moon car," a "moon catapult." a "muffled airplane," a "muffled helicopter," etc. He returned to the United States in 1960, this time as a technical consultant for the Convair Corporation during the development of the Atlas rocket.
Oberth retired from rocket research in 1962, but remained interested in the field's progress until his death. In July of 1969, he returned to the United States to witness the launch of the Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center that carried the Apollo 11 crew on the first landing mission to the Moon. The Energy Crisis of 1973 inspired him to look into alternative energy sources, including a plan for a wind power station that took advantage of the Jet Stream. On October 30, 1985, he was at Cape Kennedy fir the inaugural launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia. His primary concerns during his final years were philosophical in nature. He published his last work at the age of 90; in Primer For Those Who Would Govern, he summed up all of his insights into showing what mistakes could lead to the downfall of democratic governments and called for an honest, unbiased political education of the voter.
Hermann Oberth died in a Nuremberg, Germany, hospital on December 29, 1989.
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This page was last updated on May 15, 2017.