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By Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger
Member of the Alexander Order

This speech was originally given at the International Space Hall of Fame, Alamo Gordo, New Mexico, in October, 1976 by one of the top rocket scientists and a long-time colleague and friend of Hermann Oberth, Prof. Ernst Stuhlinger.



Professor Hermann Oberth (to the right of the rocket) testing one of the early models of his rocket, as his student Wernher von Braun (second from right) assists.


Around the middle of the last century, there lived in the little town of Sibiu in Hungary a physician and poet by the name of Friedrich Krasser. He was well known for his progressive thoughts, and for his love of science. In July of 1869, he held a garden party, and in a mood of exuberance, he told his friends: "You may believe it or not, but I am convinced that in a hundred years, man will travel to the moon!" In July of 1969, exactly one hundred years later to the month, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Twenty-five years after this bold prophecy, a grandson was born to Dr. Krasser; his name was, and still is, Hermann Oberth.

Hermann was an unusual child. From his earliest beginnings, he was most intent to learn, to observe, to think, to analyze, and to invent. Before he was seven, he had begun to make entries in a little Notebook of Inventions. His first invention was a huge waterwheel, big enough to accept all the water of Niagara Falls, and to transform its kinetic energy into mechanical energy. His second invention was the Lightning Factory which collected lightnings and stored their energies for later use.

When Hermann was two years old, his family moved to Schaessburg where his father, a physician, had been appointed Director of the City Hospital. Hermann's mother, Valerie, was a woman of great energy and a keen interest in technical and scientific matters. She bought and read the books of Jules Verne; when Hermann was twelve, she gave him these books to read, and she opened to him the world of the moon, the planets, and the stars, a world that was to become his own real world for all the years to come.

After reading Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon Hermann calculated the necessary velocity with which Jules Verne's space capsule had to leave the gun in order to overcome the earth's gravity and to reach the moon. He found that Jules Verne was correct, and his interest in the subject of space flight increased by leaps and bounds. Then, at the age of thirteen, he computed the force of inertia to which Jules Verne's space travelers would be exposed during acceleration in the gun barrel. "Forty-seven thousand times the earth's gravity," he concluded. "They would be flattened into pancakes. A cannon is not good for space flight. It must be done with a rocket."

Hermann loaded his rowboat with rocks, and by pushing the rocks out, he checked and reproved the rocket principle. Then he went to the local swimming pool, jumped from the diving board and even from an adjacent roof, and estimated the deceleration which he suffered when hitting the water vertically and horizontally. "A man can stand 4 to 6 times gravity well, and even 8 to 10 times gravity," he found to his satisfaction.

How should the rocket be propelled? Hermann went to the city library and studied mathematics in an effort to establish the complicated relationship between the velocity of a rocket, the velocity of its exhaust gases, and the ratio of the rocket mass at the beginning to the rocket mass at the end of the burning period. He had learned how to differentiate and integrate long before he was taught this subject in school, and he derived the famous basic rocket equation at the age of fifteen. Asked later by a friend whether he had arrived at the formulae in his book by himself, he answered: "There were no books on rockets for me to read at that time. I derived all the formulae in my book by myself."

Oberth designed his first manned rocket space ship in 1909. Talking with town people who were experts with guns and gun powder, he came to the conclusion that powder rockets are not sufficient for flights to the moon and planets. Liquid propellants must be used, he reasoned, and he boldly considered the most powerful liquid propellant combination he could think of, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. In 1912, when he was 18 years old, he designed his first hydrogen-oxygen rocket. Even with these propellants, he found out, a rocket to the moon would be tremendously large, and probably not technically feasible; so he suggested that the space rocket should have several stages, each of them to be ignited when the previous rocket had spent its fuel.

Hermann Oberth finished high school in 1912 and subsequently began to study medicine at the University of Munich. During the First World War, he served in the medical corps, mostly in Army hospitals in Hungary. His free hours, however, were filled with studies of rockets and space flight.

A happy event marks the year 1918: Hermann Oberth married his boyhood sweetheart from Schaessburg, Mathilde Hummel, known to Hermann's friends as Tilly. For almost 60 years now, Tilly has shared Hermann's life with all its triumphs and tribulations, a life filled with hard work, patience, setbacks and disappointments, but also with brilliant success and worldwide recognition.

At the end of World War I, part of Hungary with Schaessburg was given to Rumania, and the Oberths became Rumanian citizens. The following years find Hermann as a student of physics and mathematics in Klausenburg, Munich, and Goettingen. The results of his tremendous work program began to precipitate as a book, The Rocket into Interplanetary Space However, Oberth's ideas did not find acceptance among professionals. They criticized and even ridiculed his work; professors of physics told the young student that rockets do not work in empty space, that liquid propellants will explode on contact with liquid oxygen, and that flight cannot be controlled if it is faster than the speed of sound. One bright exception in this deluge of negative comments was Professor Ludwig Prandtl, the giant and genius of aerodynamics in Goettingen. He gave Hermann Oberth encouragement and praise, and he urged him to continue his work, regardless of the critics.

No publisher was willing to accept Oberth's book. None of them anticipated how much creative power would emanate from this short manuscript of 87 pages, how deep an imprint it would make on our century. Finally, Tilly took over with her wonderful sense of pragmatism and her indomitable faith in her husband. Over the years, she had consistently saved every month a small portion of her household money, and now she could finance the printing of this book which was to become the basis of modern rocket and space flight technology. The book was published in 1923, and its first edition was sold out after a few months.

What distinguished this book most was the breadth and depth which its author brought to the subject of rockets, in spite of the short length of the manuscript. Oberth discussed all facets of the modern high performance and high precision rocket: Propulsion, combustion, pump and pressure feed systems, tank design, thermal protection, air and jet vanes, gyro control, inertial guidance, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, flight mechanics, life support systems, zero-gravity effects, re-entry, meteor danger, radiations in space. Among the uses of rockets and satellites, he mentioned mail service, meteorology, earth observations, astronomy, radio relays, astronautical research, solar and planetary studies, and space sciences in general.

While the book was in print, Hermann Oberth became aware for the first time of the work of Robert Hutchins Goddard, who had published his book "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" in Washington in 1919. A correspondence between the two pioneers developed which reflected Oberth's great respect and generous recognition for Professor Goddard's work and accomplishments, and also his firm belief in open discussions and exchanges between the students of space flight. "Only by common work of the scholars of all nations can be solved this great problem," Oberth wrote to Goddard in 1922, and he signed his letter with H. Oberth, student of mathematics, Heidelberg.

In 1923, Hermann Oberth became professor of physics and mathematics at the high school in Schaessburg. Around that time, he learned about Konstantin Eduardowitch Tsiolkovskii, the great Russian rocket pioneer. Oberth and Tsiolkovskii exchanged their papers and a series of very friendly letters. Tsiolkovskii had developed many elements of the basic rocket theory years before Oberth. In the spirit of a truly great scientist, Oberth considered Goddard and Tsiolkovskii not as competitors, but as colleagues who shared with him the same profound enthusiasm for rocket flight. The fact that his own results and beliefs agreed so well with those of his colleagues gave him a strong feeling of assurance and satisfaction.

Oberth's work during the first twenty-five years of his life for rockets and space flight consisted of a few simple experiments and a host of profound theoretical studies. A first opportunity to begin the development of a real flight rocket arose in 1928 when a Berlin film studio, UFA, asked him to be scientific advisor for the science fiction movie The Woman in the Moon Oberth accepted, and he agreed to build a 2-meter gasoline-oxygen rocket that would be launched at the time when the film had its premiere. Unfortunately, the Oberth Project hit a number of snags, mainly because of difficulties in hiring coworkers and in obtaining workshop support, and Professor Oberth had to terminate the project and return to Schaessburg before a rocket could be launched. His efforts, however, did not remain without recognition. The American Ambassador in Berlin, Dr. Shurman, said in an interview in 1929: "As far as Professor Oberth's long-range rocket is concerned, it can and undoubtedly will become an important means of human progress, and I sincerely wish that his work will be successful. America is certainly most interested in Oberth's work."

Professor Oberth's second book, "Ways and Means of Space Travel," was published in 1929. It brought him the French REP-Hirsch Prize, an award for the best scientific contribution to space flight. Both Hermann and Tilly appreciated this recognition very sincerely, Hermann because it reflected an acknowledgment of the value of his work, and Tilly because it gave such a wonderful boost to the eternally precarious family budget.

During his work with the film studio in Berlin, Oberth had developed a combustion chamber and nozzle for liquid propellants and liquid oxygen, the "cone jet nozzle." He perfected this system in Schaessburg and had it officially certified in Berlin in 1930. After this success, Oberth worked for a short while at the rocket proving ground in Reinickendorf near Berlin; he assembled a small group of coworkers, and one of his enthusiastic helpers was an 18-year-old student by the name of Wernher von Braun. However, the association did not last long. Oberth had to return to Rumania, and young von Braun went to Zurich in Switzerland to study physics and engineering.

Hermann Oberth continued his development work on rocket motors in Rumania. Progress was slow because there was no technology basis on which he could build. Most of the time, the test motors lay idle because there was no liquid air. Finally, Professor Oberth moved to Vienna and started a work program at the Institute of Technology. When World War II broke out, Oberth was moved to Dresden, and in 1941, after he had acquired German citizenship, he joined Dr. von Braun's rocket development group in Peenemünde.

It was during the spring of 1943 in Peenemünde when I met Professor Oberth for the first time. One of the V-2's was test fired; many of us stood around near the launch platform and followed the V-2 with our eyes until it had disappeared in the blue sky over the Baltic Sea. When I turned my eyes back down, I saw Professor Oberth standing near, and I could not help saying" "Professor Oberth, it must be a wonderful feeling for you to see your early dreams come true in such a wonderful way!" - Professor Oberth took a long time before he answered, and then he said: "I have great respect for the engineers and technicians who made this possible. However, we have known for a long time that rockets work, if they are built right. We must not forget over this success that our goal is not the launching of rockets; it is the travel through space, and the exploration of the unknown out there."

At the end of the war, Professor Oberth moved to the city of Feucht near Nuernberg where his family had been living during the war years. To earn a modest income, he worked in a garden shop, but during his free time he wrote his next book, "Man in Space," in which he described in detail a number of space projects which he had introduced already in his first book in 1923, among them the electric rocket, orbiting space stations, and space mirrors. For brief periods, he worked in Switzerland and also in Italy, where he developed, together with his son Adolph, a smokeless ammonium nitrate rocket.

The year 1955 brought another change to Professor and Mrs. Oberth. Wernher von Braun had invited the rocket pioneer to join his rocket development center in Huntsville, Alabama. Deep respect and a warm friendship have connected Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun ever since they first met in 1931. Their mutual feelings are best expressed in their own words. Hermann Oberth dedicated one of his books to Wernher with the words "...to the ingenious organizer and engineer who brought the ideas of space flight to practical realization..." Wernher von Braun wrote of Hermann Oberth: "Not only do I owe him my first introduction to the technology of rockets and space flight; he gave me the guiding star for my whole life!"

For three years, Hermann Oberth enjoyed life and work in the United States. He contributed to the satellite studies which were underway in Dr. von Braun's group at that time, and which were to see a first culmination in the launching of Explorer I in January of 1958, one of the highlights in Professor Oberth's life. Soon afterwards, though, the 64-year-old decided to return to Feucht in West Germany in order to secure a pension which he would have lost had he not returned. On several occasions, he visited the United States again. He worked for nine months in 1961 as a consultant to Convair in San Diego, and he came to Cape Kennedy in Florida in July of 1969 to see the launching of the Saturn-Apollo rocket that was to take Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon. "This was certainly my finest hour," said Tilly Oberth who was sitting next to Hermann on the bleachers. "That was exactly what Hermann's grandfather had predicted a hundred years ago, and what had filled Hermann's dreams and work for the past 70 years!"

Since his return to Germany, Hermann Oberth has devoted his efforts mainly to studies which are reaching out beyond the world of engineering and science. In his books "Matter and Life" and "The Catechism of the Uranids," we meet a new Hermann Oberth, a philosopher and humanitarian, who is searching for subtle bridges between mind and matter. "We need more knowledge about ourselves," he said, and he is considering many ways to obtain such knowledge. "What is the power of faith?", he asks, and "What is the soul? Can it live outside the physical body? Where are the limits of our school psychology? Are there miracles? How can we reconcile the teachings of the Bible with our scientific knowledge?" Oberth has always been overflowing with innovative thoughts. Is it surprising that a wealth of new ideas springs forth when he puts his restless mind to this domain of human thought which is so rich in challenging questions, yet so inaccessible to the tools and methods of the orthodox scientist? Wernher von Braun's words come to mind with which he described Hermann Oberth twenty-five years ago: "Professor Oberth has always been 20 to 40 years ahead of the rest of us!"

When Hermann Oberth began his systematic studies of manned space flight, he said: "We are no longer willing to accept the limit of our atmosphere as the limit of our existence." - Now, he seems to say: "We are not willing to accept the limits of our physical existence as the limits of the total world in which we live."

Hermann, I feel privileged and very happy to have known you for over thirty years as a prophet and pioneer of space flight, as an inspiring teacher, as a man of flawless integrity and bold courage, and as a wonderful friend. I know that you are a little removed from all the earthly honors which you have so richly deserved and which have begun to come your way during recent years, your countless rewards and prizes, your honorary degrees, the naming of the Hermann Oberth Society in your honor. I wish to tell you that we, your students, colleagues and friends, are deeply happy about your recognition in this beautiful International Space Hall of Fame, but I wish to emphasize that besides your monument in this hall, there is another, greater monument which we, your friends, will always keep in our minds and our hearts.

Copyright 1996 PROMETHEUS
Reprinted with permission
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PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.