Julius Oberth (25 June 1894 28 December 1989) was
an Austro-Hungarian-born German physicist and engineer.
He is considered one of the founding fathers of rocketry
was born to a Transylvanian Saxon family in Sibiu (German:
Hermannstadt, Hungarian: Nagyszeben), Austria-Hungary
(today Romania). By his own account and that of many others,
around the age of 11 years old, Oberth became fascinated
with the field in which he was to make his mark through
reading the writings of Jules Verne, especially From the
Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, re-reading them
to the point of memorization. Influenced by Verne's books
and ideas, Oberth constructed his first model rocket as
a school student at the age of 14. In his youthful experiments,
he arrived independently at the concept of the multistage
rocket, but he lacked then the resources to pursue his
idea on any but a pencil-and-paper level.
Oberth as a young boy, ca. 1901.
1912, Oberth began the study of medicine in Munich, Germany,
but at the outbreak of World War I, he was drafted into
the Imperial German Army, assigned to an infantry battalion,
and sent to the Eastern Front against Russia. In 1915,
Oberth was moved into a medical unit at a hospital in
Sighis,oara (German Schäßburg, Hungarian Segesvar),
Transylvania, in Austria-Hungary (today Romania). There
he found the spare time to conduct a series of experiments
concerning weightlessness, and later resumed his rocketry
designs. By 1917, he showed how far his studies had reached
by firing a rocket with liquid propellant in a demonstration
to Hermann von Stein, the Prussian Minister of War.
July 6, 1918, Oberth married Mathilde Hummel, with whom
he had four children. Among these were a son who died
as a soldier in World War II, and a daughter who also
died during the war when there was an accidental explosion
at a liquid oxygen plant where she was in August 1944.
In 1919, Oberth once again moved to Germany, this time
to study physics, initially in Munich and later in Göttingen.
1922, Oberth's proposed doctoral dissertation on rocket
science was rejected as "utopian". He next had
his 92-page work published privately in June 1923 as the
somewhat controversial book, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen
("By Rocket into Planetary Space"). By 1929,
Oberth had expanded this work to a 429-page book titled
Wege zur Raumschiffahrt ("Ways to Spaceflight").
Oberth commented later that he made the deliberate choice
not to write another doctoral dissertation. He wrote,
"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." Oberth criticized the German
system of education, saying "Our educational system
is like an automobile which has strong rear lights, brightly
illuminating the past. But looking forward, things are
barely discernible." Hermann Oberth was finally
awarded his doctorate in physics with the same rocketry
paper that he had written before, by the University, Cluj,
Romania, under professor Augustin Maior, on May 23, 1923.
became a member of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt
(VfR) - the "Spaceflight Society" an
amateur rocketry group that had taken great inspiration
from his book, and Oberth acted as something of a mentor
to the enthusiasts who joined the Society. Oberth lacked
the opportunities to work or to teach at the college or
university level, as did many well-educated experts in
the physical sciences and engineering in the time period
of the 1920s through the 1930s with the situation
becoming much worse during the worldwide Great Depression
that started in 1929. Therefore, from 1924 through 1938,
Oberth supported himself and his family by teaching physics
and mathematics at the Stephan Ludwig Roth High School
in Medias, Romania.
and space flight
parts of 1928 and 1929, Oberth also worked in Berlin,
Germany as a scientific consultant on the first film ever
to have scenes set in outer space, Frau im Mond ("The
Woman in the Moon"), which was directed and produced
by the great film pioneer Fritz Lang at the Universum
Film AG company. This film was of enormous value in popularizing
the ideas of rocketry and space exploration. One of Oberth's
main assignments was to build and launch a rocket as a
publicity event just before the film's premiere. He also
designed the model of the "Friede", the main
rocket portrayed in the film.
June 5, 1929, Oberth won the first (Robert Esnault-Pelterie
- André-Louis Hirsch) "Rep-Hirsch Prize"
of the French Astronomical Society for the encouragement
of astronautics in his book Wege zur Raumschiffahrt ("Ways
to Spaceflight") that had expanded Die Rakete zu
den Planetenräumen to a full-length book.
the autumn of 1929, Oberth conducted a static firing of
his first liquid-fueled rocket motor, which he named the
Kegeldüse. The engine was built by Klaus Riedel in
a workshop space provided by the Reich Institution of
Chemical Technology, and although it lacked a cooling
system, it did run briefly. He was helped in this experiment
by an 18 year old student Wernher von Braun, who would
later become a giant in both German and American rocket
engineering from the 1940s onward, culminating with the
gigantic Saturn V rockets that made it possible for men
to land on the Moon in 1969 and in several following years.
Indeed Von Braun said of him:
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."
1938, the Oberth family left Sibiu, Romania, for good,
to first settle in Austria, then in Nazi Germany, then
in the United States, and finally back to a free Germany.
Oberth himself moved on first to the Technische Hochschule
in Vienna, Austria, then to the Technische Hochschule
in Dresden, Germany. (A Technische Hochschule at that
time was a technical college offering advanced professional
training in selected fields, rather than an institution
also engaged in basic research, as a university.) Oberth
moved to Peenemünde, Germany, in 1941 to work on
Nazi German rocketry projects, including the V-2 rocket
weapon, and in about September 1943, he was awarded the
Kriegsverdienstkreuz I Klasse mit Schwertern (War Merit
Cross 1st Class, with Swords) for his "outstanding,
courageous behavior ... during the attack" on Peenemünde
by Operation Hydra, part of Operation Crossbow.
later worked on solid-propellant anti-aircraft rockets
at the German WASAG military organization near Wittenberg.
Around the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945,
the Oberth family moved to the town of Feucht, near Nuremberg,
Germany, which became part of the American Zone of occupied
Germany, and also the location of the high-level war-crimes
trials of the surviving Nazi leaders. Oberth was allowed
to leave Nuremberg to move to Switzerland in 1948, where
he worked as an independent rocketry consultant and a
1950, Oberth moved on to Italy, where he completed some
of the work that he had begun at the WASAG organization
for the new Italian Navy. In 1953, Oberth returned to
Feucht, Germany, to publish his book 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.
the 1950s and 1960s, Oberth offered his opinions regarding
unidentified flying objects (UFOs). He was a supporter
of the extraterrestrial hypothesis for the origin of the
UFOs that were seen at the Earth. For example, in an article
in The American Weekly magazine of October 24, 1954, Oberth
stated, "It is my thesis that flying saucers are
real, and that they are space ships from another solar
system. I think that they possibly are manned by intelligent
observers who are members of a race that may have been
investigating our earth for centuries..." He
also wrote an article in the second edition of Flying
Saucer Review titled "They Come From Outer Space".
He discussed the history of reports of "strange luminous
objects" in the sky, mentioning that the earliest
historical case is of "Shining Shields" reported
by Pliny the Elder. He wrote, "Having weighed
all the pros and cons, I find the explanation of flying
discs from outer space the most likely one. I call this
the "Uraniden" hypothesis, because from our
viewpoint the hypothetical beings appear to come from
the sky (Greek - 'Uranos')."
eventually came to work for his former student, Wernher
von Braun, who was developing space rockets for NASA in
Huntsville, Alabama. (See also List of German rocket scientists
in the United States). Among other things, Oberth was
involved in writing the study, The Development of Space
Technology in the Next Ten Years. In 1958, Oberth was
back in Feucht, Germany, where he published his ideas
on a lunar exploration vehicle, a "lunar catapult",
and on "muffled" helicopters and airplanes.
In 1960, back in the United States again, Oberth went
to work for the Convair Corporation as a technical consultant
on the Atlas rocket program.
retired in 1962 at the age of 68. From 1965 to 1967, he
was a member of the National Democratic Party, which was
considered to be far right. In July 1969, Oberth returned
to the United States to witness the launch of the Apollo
project Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center
in Florida that carried the Apollo 11 crew on the first
landing mission to the Moon.
1973 petroleum crisis inspired Oberth to look into alternative
energy sources, including a plan for a wind power station
that could utilize the jet stream. However, his primary
interest during his retirement years was to turn to more
abstract philosophical questions. Most notable among his
several books from this period is Primer For Those Who
returned to the United States to view the launch of 61A,
the space shuttle Challenger launched October 30, 1985.
died in Nuremberg, West Germany, on 28 December 1989,
just shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain that had
for so long divided Germany into two countries.
Oberth is memorialized by the Hermann Oberth Space Travel
Museum in Feucht, Germany, and by the Hermann Oberth Society.
The museum brings together scientists, researchers, engineers,
and astronauts from the East and the West to carry on
his work in rocketry and space exploration.
Oberth effect, in which a rocket engine when traveling
at high speed generates more useful energy than one traveling
at low speed, is named after him.
is also a crater on the Moon and asteroid 9253 Oberth
named after him.
science-fiction movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
mentions the Oberth-class of starships hypothetically
to be in his honor. Later on, this same class of starships
is mentioned in several episodes of the American TV series
Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa features Hermann
Oberth as the "teacher" of the movie's protagonist,
Edward Elric. Oberth is also mentioned in the last episode
of the TV series Fullmetal Alchemist. In this episode,
Elric has heard of a great scientist, named "Oberth",
with curious theories (The English dub explicitly states
his name and research into rocketry). The last moments
of the series depict Elric on board a train on his way
to meet Oberth, determined to study rocketry with him.
mecha anime series The Super Dimension Fortress Macross
from the early eighties featured a type of military spacecraft
used by the U.N. Spacy Earth forces called the Oberth
Class Space Destroyer. A character from the series, Captain
Bruno J. Global, was supposedly the first to engage another
space combat vessel with this type of ship using nuclear