Wednesday, April 1, 2009

H.J. Oberth - man to the moon!

H.J. Oberth (1894-1989)

German professor Hermann Julius Oberth (1894-1989) is the father of the idea of a space telescope. He is among the top trio of pioneers of modern rocket technology and designer of equipment needed by astronauts together with Russian Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and American Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882-1945).

Mother changed the life of her son with a wonderful birthday present. H.J. Oberth was born June 25 1894 in Hermannstadt of Siebenbűrgen in Transsylvania. When he had his 11th birthday his mother gave him as a gift the book by Jules Verne "From Earth To Moon". That book totally captivated the mind of young Herrmann and soon he knew it by heart. The seed had fallen to good ground: the technical details that Verne is presenting challenged him and two years later, when he was only 13 years old, the boy concluded that the 47 times higher gravity generated by the gun shot would crush the people inside. Something else was needed to get to the moon and this should be a missile that gains speed more slowly! 14 year old Oberth was making drawings of a space vehicle, that is able to speed up, slow down and even turn by using solid fuel.

From this time on Oberth dedciated his life to the development of a space vehicle. He went to the university of Műnchen, then to Göttingen and then to Heidelberg to study Physics. As a student he demonstrated great talent and his imagination was on level with that of the genius of Jules Verne. In 1922 he offered a doctorate that was 92 pages long and titled "Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen". Inter-planetary rockets! But the professors of Physics in this time had their feet firmly on ground and rejected the work as way too utopistic. Let us not condemn them too hard - the bicycle making Wright brothers had just recently, December 17 1903, flown 12 seconds with their simple 12 horse power engine airplane. And this student writes about heavier than air rocket that flies between Earth and the planets!

Oberth did not change his dissertation and left without a degree the University of Heidelberg. I believe that there are a few in that respectable place of studies today who would just love to see his picture on the hall of fame as a graduate. But this was not to be. He was way too much ahead of his time.

The book was published with the help of funds from the family savings that his dear wife gave him for the purpose. The general public in 1920'ies was not much more convinced than the distinguished professors about his ideas.

But Oberth had a dream!

Despite of the criticism and ridicule he published in 1929 a 492 pages thick volume on the same subject "Techniques for Space Travel". Today it is regarded one of the founding studies of modern rocket technology.

With his theoretical thinking went practical testing and innovations. In 1930 Oberth registered in Berlin patent for a turbo engine part that uses liquid oxygen. The world should have paid heed, especially those concerned with military technologies... but they did not understand what was going on in Oberth's lab.

Oberth and Werner von Braun testing a rocket

And so without much ado the famous student of H.J. Oberth, Werner von Braun (1912-1977), buil in Peeneműnde research center the first rocket to Hitler's Germany. Oberth travel there to join the work and was convinced that exactly as he had taught already as a boy, solid fuel would give the required energy for space travel. Together von Braun and Oberth created the technology for the V2 rocket that was soon to plague the citizens of London and direct the world to the missile wars and soon to intercontinental ballistic missiled. Talking about important people, Oberth is surprisingly little known by the larger public.

Oberth paid a heavy price for the testing of rocket fuels. Once there was an explotion in the lab in which he lost one of his eyes. His dear daughter was very interested in her father's profession and also became a rocket scientist. She was killed in a tragic accident while testing fuels in the research center.

During the entire Second World War Oberth was there developing for Nazi Germany better and more efficient rocket fuel and engine systems in the WASAG center near Wittenberg. Towards the end of the war he escaped with his family to Switzerland just before the closing of the border. He continued the work in Feuchte and published in 1953 a landmark study "Man in Space". Here he gives the idea of a space telescope orbiting Earth, electronic space vehicle and the suite that an astronaut would need . His son Adolf (sic!) helped him to build a rocket that was using ammonium-nitrate.

And talking about a man ahead of his time: in 1958 H.J. Oberth described a moon rover, moon catapult and various types of sound mufflers for airplanes and helicopters.

Werner von Braun moved to the United States and became the father of American space programs. In 1961 he was given the valuable Hermann Oberth price for his work as developer of rocket technology. In 1959 he had invited Oberth to the Huntsville, Alabama, research center under his direction but Oberth soon returned back to his beloved Germany continuing with great insight the development of future space travel. In 1961 he participated in San Diego in the historical meeting that launched the Apollo rocket planning.

It may be difficult to imagine how H.J. Oberth felt in June 1969 when he was sitting as a guest of honor watching the huge Saturn-Apollo rocket rising up towards a trip to the moon. As a boy he had got the dream from his mother, the science fiction book imagined by Jules Verne. As a 75 year old man he had the priviledge to see this dream come true. To a great extent thanks to him.

Read here the speech given by Prof. Ernst Stuhlinger (1913 – 2008) at the International Space Hall of Fame, Alamo Gordo, New Mexico, in October, 1976.

Stuhlinger was himself among the top rocket scientists of 20th century and a long-time colleague and friend of Hermann Oberth.


  1. How interesting history!

    It raises some thoughts. An interesting question as a christian is, how to deal with your dreams. (No I don't think I have such word changing dreams as Oberth had. A bit smaller perhaps...)

    All inventions can be for blessings or curses. Is Oberth to blaim for the bombings of London, because he made it possible to create such evil things.

    Or is it just so that you do the best you can on the place you have been put on; with the talents you have and do what you do to glory of God.

    And of course the devil tries to make use of all things there exists.

    We can state same question with all inventions. Is this for good or for evil?

    Fire, wheel, ..., electricity. radio technology, nuclear pover, computers, ..., face book

    Whatever can be used for both, good and evil.

  2. I agree with you. Albert Einstein is an example of a scientist who paved way to the discovery of nuclear power. The radioactive power released from uranium or hydrogen can be used in building the ultimate weapon of mass destruction but also applied to the service of medicine and to generate power without polluting the air.

    the world is wondering about Iran's intentions in developing nuclear capabilities in technology that has Einstein's e=mc2 written all over it.

  3. I somewhat understand the amish people while running on this treadmill of science.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. :-) yeah simplicity!
    to defend myself, this blog is somewhat complicated because I am mapping human views and ideas about cosmos from so many different points of view.

  6. Hmm. I didn't mean your blog as a treadmill of science. I, me and myself as a humble person meant my own life...

    I like the way of your blog. It's good to see things from different points of view.