Oberth, Hermann

views updated Jun 27 2018

Hermann Oberth

Born June 25, 1894 (Hermannstadt, Transylvania)

Died December 29, 1989 (Nuremberg, West Germany)

Austro-Hungarian-born German scientist

German scientist Hermann Oberth ranks with Russian aerospace engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935; see entry) and American physicist Robert Goddard (1882–1945; see entry) as one of the founders of space flight. Tsiolkovsky and Goddard made many discoveries before Oberth, but Oberth's writings on a variety of subjects reached a wider audience. His most important contributions were two books that led first to the development of the German V-2 long-range guided missile (a rocket that carries a weapon) and then to human spaceflight. Oberth also published and expressed intriguing but often controversial views. These included claims that unidentified flying objects could be space vehicles carrying intelligent people from beyond our world.

"Because that is the goal: To secure any place on which life can exist and prosper, give life to any dead world, and to give purpose to any living world."

Becomes fascinated by spaceflight

Hermann Julius Oberth was born on June 25, 1894, in the German town of Hermannstadt, Transylvania; formerly a part of Austria-Hungary, the town is now known as Sibiu, Romania. His father, Julius Gotthold Oberth, was a medical doctor who was the director and chief surgeon of the county hospital

in Schässburg, Transylvania, where Oberth grew up. His mother, Valerie Emma (Krassner) Oberth, was the daughter of a doctor who had prophesied accurately in July 1869 that humans would land on the Moon in a hundred years. In an autobiographical piece published in Astronautics journal, Oberth recalled that "at the age of eleven, I received from my mother as a gift the famous books, From the Earth to the Moon and Travel to the Moon by Jules Verne [1828–1905], which I … read at least five or six times and, finally, knew by heart." Fascinated by space flight as a child, he began to perform various calculations about how humans could travel to the Moon. Although Oberth learned infinitesimal calculus (calculus is a variety of methods of mathematical calculation using symbols) at the Schässburg secondary school, he taught himself differential calculus, and he successfully verified the magnitude of escape velocity (the minimum force needed to propel a rocket out of Earth orbit into space).

Oberth began studying medicine at the University of Munich in Germany in 1913, but he also attended lectures in physics (the study of energy and matter and their interactions) and related subjects at the nearby technical institute. His education was interrupted by World War I (1914–18), in which he served with an infantry regiment (soldiers trained and armed to fight on foot). After being wounded in 1916, he was assigned to a reserve hospital, where he continued experiments with weightlessness that he had begun as a teenager. He also experimented on himself with drugs, including scopolamine, which is still used to treat motion sickness.

When Oberth left the army he worked on solutions to the problems posed by space flight. In 1918 he submitted a proposal to the German Ministry of Armament for a long-range rocket that could be used as a weapon. Powered by ethyl alcohol, water, and liquid air, the rocket was larger and less complicated than the V-2 missile, which Oberth later developed with engineer Wernher von Braun (1912–1977; see entry). The ministry turned down Oberth's proposal. On June 6, 1918, Oberth married Mathilde Hummel, with whom he later had four children. Two of the children died during World War II (1939–45).

Publishes rocket theories

In 1919 Oberth resumed his schooling, this time studying physics at the University of Klausenburg in Transylvania. He soon returned to the University of Munich and the nearby technical institute, then he attended the University of Göttingen, and finally he completed his studies for a Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg. He submitted his doctoral dissertation (a long research paper on a specialized topic) on rockets and spaceflight theory at Heidelberg, but it was not accepted. From 1922 until 1938 Oberth taught physics and mathematics at secondary schools in Transylvania. In 1923 the University of Klausenburg granted him the title of professor. Five years later Oberth published his doctoral dissertation as a book titled Die Rakete zu den Planeträumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space).

From the Earth to the Moon

Hermann Oberth enjoyed reading science fiction. One of his favorite works was From the Earth to the Moon: Passage Direct in Ninety-seven Hours and Twenty Minutes, (1865) by the French novelist Jules Verne (1828–1905). It is a tale about the adventures of members of the Baltimore Gun Club, who travel to the Moon onboard a gigantic cannon that they had made into a rocket. In the final chapter the cannon becomes a satellite (an object that orbits in space), an event that is witnessed by their friends J. Belfast and J. T. Maston "thanks to the gigantic reflector of Long's Peak!" Belfast sends a note of confirmation to the Observatory of Cambridge. At the close of the chapter Maston contemplates the significance of the Gun Club's achievement:

When the dispatch from Long's Peak had once become known, there was but one universal feeling of surprise and alarm. Was it possible to go to the aid of these bold travelers? No! for they had placed themselves beyond the pale of humanity, by crossing the limits imposed by the Creator on his earthly creatures. They had air enough for two months; they had victuals enough for twelve;—but after that? There was only one man who would not admit that the situation was desperate—he alone had confidence; and that was their devoted friend J. T. Maston.

Besides, he never let them get out of sight. His home was henceforth the post at Long's Peak; his horizon, the mirror of that immense reflector. As soon as the moon rose above the horizon, he immediately caught her in the field of the telescope; he never let her go for an instant out of his sight, and followed her assiduously [steadily worked at tracking the Moon] in her course through the stellar spaces. He watched with untiring patience the passage of the projectile across her silvery disc, and really the worthy man remained in perpetual communication with his three friends, whom he did not despair of seeing again some day.

"Those three men [members of the Gun Club], " said he, "have carried into space all the resources of art, science, and industry. With that, one can do anything; and you will see that, some day, they will come out all right."

Although filled with complicated equations, Oberth's book sold well. He set forth the basic principles of space flight and discussed possible solutions to a number of specific problems. For instance, he examined such matters as liquid-propellant rocket construction and the use of propellants for different stages of rockets. (A liquid-propellant rocket is fired with liquid fuel. Prior to the twentieth century rockets were fired with gun powder, known as solid fuel.) He discussed the use of pumps to inject propellants into a rocket's combustion chamber and speculated on the effects of space flight upon humans. He also proposed the idea of a space station. In 1929 Oberth published a considerably expanded version of this book, now titled Wege zur Raumschiffahrt (Ways to Spaceflight). Both the German version and the English translation of the book provided inspiration to other spaceflight pioneers. One of the most important consequences was the German Rocket Society (Verein für Raumschiffahrt), which was founded in 1927 to raise money for Oberth's rocket experiments. Oberth served as president from 1929 until 1930.

The German Rocket Society provided practical training in rocketry to several of its members. Among them was von Braun, who later joined the German army's rocket center at Peenemünde, where he participated in developing the V-2 guided missile. As public interest in space flight increased, the German film director Fritz Lang (1890–1976) made the movie Frau im Mond (Woman on the Moon), with Oberth as the technical advisor. Lang and his film company also provided funds for Oberth to construct a liquid-propellant rocket that would be launched at the movie's premier. Oberth was unable to meet the deadline. During production of the film Oberth lost the sight in his left eye while conducting an experiment. He went on to build a rocket that never flew, but it did undergo a static test on July 23, 1930. Although his rocket design was certified by the Government Institute for Chemistry and Technology, Oberth returned to teaching in Romania when he could not obtain funding to develop it. The German Rocket Society continued its work, benefiting from the certification of Oberth's design.

Describes space ships

After 1930 Oberth resumed liquid-propellant rocket experiments. He succeeded in launching one rocket in 1935, but he remained outside the mainstream of rocket development. In 1938 he received an appointment to the Technical Institute in Vienna, Austria, to work on liquid-propellant rockets under a contract with the German Air Force. He was unable to accomplish anything of significance because he did not have adequate facilities or sufficient staff. In 1940 he was transferred to the Technical Institute of Dresden in Germany to develop a fuel pump for what turned out to be the V-2 rocket. The rocket system, including a fuel pump, had already been designed, so Oberth went to Peenemünde to work with von Braun. By this time, however, the V-2 rocket was essentially developed. Since Oberth had become a German citizen in 1941, he was put in charge examining patents and other technical information for possible use on rockets. After doing some analytical work with a supersonic wind tunnel at Peenemünde in 1943, he began work on an anti-aircraft rocket, using a solid propellant. He was then transferred to a firm that dealt in solid fuels, Westfälisch-Anhaltische Sprengstoff A.G., where he remained until the end of the war.

After World War II, Oberth moved to Feucht in what became West Germany. In 1948 he took a position in Switzerland as an advisor and technical writer on matters related to rocketry. Two years later he was hired by the Italian navy to develop a solid-propellant rocket, but the project was discontinued in 1953. Returning to Feucht, he published Menschen im Weltraum (Man into Space) the following year. In the book he discussed electric spaceships and a vehicle for moving about on the Moon, as well as many of the topics covered in his previous books. In 1955 Oberth published Das Mondauto (The Moon Car), in which he elaborated on his conception for a vehicle to operate on the Moon. That year Oberth also went to the United States to work with von Braun at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. Shortly before the war ended in 1945, von Braun and 112 of his Peenemünde colleagues had surrendered to American military forces. They had been taken to the United States to work on rockets for the U.S. weapons and space programs, and von Braun was now head of the ABMA.

Contributes to Moon exploration

At ABMA, Oberth was involved in advanced planning for projects in space, including electrical and thermonuclear (energy produced from the nucleus of an atom with high temperatures) propulsion for rockets, guidance devices, and vehicles for the Moon. Von Braun believed that Oberth had inspired the roving vehicle used on the Apollo 15 flight to the Moon. Inspiration is what best characterizes Oberth's other designs at Huntsville as well, for they seem to have contributed little directly to the space effort. In 1958 he returned to Feucht, where he resided for the rest of his life. He returned briefly to the United States in July 1969 to witness the launch of Apollo 11, which carried the first humans to the Moon (see Buzz Aldrin [1930–] and Neil Armstrong [1930–] entries).

In recognition of his contributions to space flight, Oberth was the first recipient of the international R. E. P. Hirsch Astronautics Prize in 1929. He also received the Diesel medal of the Association of German Inventors in 1954, the American Astronautical Society Award in 1955, and the Federal Service Cross First Class from the German Federal Republic in 1961. Of the three preeminent founders of spaceflight, Oberth alone lived to witness the results of his early ideas. He died at age ninety-five in Nuremberg, West Germany, on December 29, 1989. Throughout his life he remained committed to the dream of human exploration of space. In 1954, thirty-five years before his death, he wrote in Men into Space, "Because that is the goal: To secure any place on which life can exist and prosper, give life to any dead world, and to give purpose to any living world."

For More Information


Freeman, Marsha, Christina Huth, and Konrad Dannenberg, eds. How We Got to the Moon: The Story of German Space Pioneers. Washington, DC: Twenty-First Century Science Associates, 1994.

Heppenheimer, T.A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987.

Oberth, Hermann. Men into Space. Translated by G.P.H. De Freville. New York: Harper, 1957.

Oberth, Hermann. The Moon Car. Translated by Willy Ley. New York: Harper, 1959.

Walters, Helen B. Hermann Oberth: Father of Space Travel. New York: Macmillan, 1962; 2003.


Frazier, Allison. "They Gave Us Space: Space Pioneers of the 20th Century." Ad Astra (January/February 2000): pp. 25–26.

Oberth, Hermann. "From My Life." Astronautics (June 1959): pp. 38–39, 100–105.

Winter, Frank H. "Was Hermann Oberth the True Father of Spaceflight?" Ad Astra (November/December 1996): pp. 40+.

Yeomans, Donald. "'Space Travel Is Utter Bilge.'" Astronomy (January 2004): pp. 48+.

Web Sites

The Hermann Oberth Raumfahrt Museum.http://www.oberth-museum.org/index_e.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Lethbridge, Cliff. "History of Rocketry Chapter 3: Early 20th Century—Hermann Oberth." Spaceline.http://spaceline.org/history/25.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Strange, Christiaan. "Hermann Oberth: Father of Space Travel." http://www.kiosek.com/oberth (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Verne, Jules. "Chapter 28. The Star." From the Earth to the Moon.http://vesuvius.jsc.nasa.gov/er/seh/chapter28.htm (accessed June 29, 2004).

Oberth, Hermann

views updated May 23 2018

Oberth, Hermann

Austro-Hungarian Physicist 1894-1989

Hermann Julius Oberth, who was born on June 25, 1894, in the Transylvanian town of Hermannstadt, is considered a founding father of rocketry and astronautics. In the 1920s Oberth, whose childhood fantasies had been inspired by the novels of Jules Verne, wrote an influential publication The Rocket into Planetary Space, which discussed many aspects of rocket travel. Later he expanded that work into a larger volume, The Road to Space Travel, which won wide recognition.

After World War I, Oberth studied physics at the University of Munich, where he realized that the key to space travel was the development of multistage rockets. Despite this important insight, Oberth's doctoral thesis on rocketry was rejected in 1922. However, in 1923, he published The Rocket into Planetary Space, which was followed by a longer version in 1929. In the final chapter Oberth foresaw "rockets so [powerful] that they could be capable of carrying a man aloft."

In the 1930s, Oberth proposed to the German War Department the development of liquid-fueled, long-range rockets. Oberth worked with the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun during World War II to develop the V-2 rocket for the German army. During this period Robert Goddard waslaunching liquid-fueled rockets in the United States. After the war Oberth and von Braun collaborated again at the U.S. Army's Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. Oberth contributed many important ideas regarding spaceflight, including the advantages of an orbiting telescope. Oberth died in 1989 at the age of 95.

see also Goddard, Robert Hutchings (volume 1); Verne, Jules (volume 1); von Braun, Wernher (volume 3).

John F. Kross


Friedman, Herbert. The Amazing Universe. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1975.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley &Sons, 1997.

McDonough, Thomas R. Space: The Next Twenty-Five Years. New York: John Wiley& Sons, 1987.

Ordway, Frederick I., and Mitchell R. Sharpe. The Rocket Team. New York: ThomasY. Crowell, 1979.

Internet Resources

Hermann Oberth: Father of Space Travel. <http://www.kiosek.com/oberth/>.

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