Hermann Oberth was a German scientist who is considered to be one of the founders of modern astronautics along with Tsiolkovsky and Goddard. He is also called the German father of Rocketry. He discovered the Oberth Effect, wherein a rocket engine generates greater mechanical energy when traveling at higher speeds than at lower speeds.

Hermann Oberth
Hermann Oberth Photo Credits: Mondadori Publishers

Herman Oberth was born in 1894, in Romania. As a young man, Oberth got scarlet fever and was sent to Italy to recover. While there, he read Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.” He became intrigued with the concept of space travel and concluded that liquid-fueled rockets could be developed. By the age of 14, Oberth envisioned what he termed a “recoil rocket” that could propel itself through space by expelling exhaust gases from its base.

Hermann Oberth as a young boy, c. 1901
Hermann Oberth as a young boy, c. 1901

In 1923 he published the book, The Rocket into Interplanetary Space. In it, he discussed the feasibility of humans traveling beyond Earth, laid out the basic equations of rocketry, and described how liquid propellants could vastly exceed the performance of gunpowder rockets. Oberth’s work inspired an explosion of interest in space travel in the German-speaking world.

Until 1922, Oberth was unfamiliar with the work of Robert Goddard in the United States and until 1925, with that of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in the Soviet Union as well. After corresponding with both men, he freely acknowledged their precedence in deriving the equations associated with space flight. In 1929, Oberth’s Wege zur Raumschiffahrt (Ways to Spaceflight) won the first annual Robert Esnault-Pelterie-André Hirsch Prize, enabling him to finance his research on liquid-propellant rocket motors. In the book, Oberth anticipated by 30 years the development of electric propulsion and the ion rocket. The same year he joined the world’s largest rocket society, at the time, the Verein fur Raumshiffahrt or VfR (“Spaceflight Society”), and was soon voted its president.

 The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, book written by Hermann Oberth.
The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, a book written by Hermann Oberth.

The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, a book written by Hermann Oberth.
Oberth was helped in many of his experiments by an 18-year-old student Wernher von Braun, who would later become a well-known figure in the field of Rocketry and become the Chief Architect of the Saturn V rocket. Braun later said about Oberth —

Hermann 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.

Wernher von Braun
Hermann Oberth (center), was the mentor of Wernher von Braun (second from right). (Image credit: NASA)
Hermann Oberth (center), was the mentor of Wernher von Braun (second from right). (Image credit: NASA)

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.
Oberth on UFOs

During 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 from Earth. For example, in an article in The American Weekly magazine of 24 October 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…”

Hermann Oberth, explaining orbital mechanics to his students
Hermann Oberth, explaining orbital mechanics to his students

Some of his famous quotes:

“If there is a small rocket on top of a big one, and if the big one is jettisoned and the small one is ignited, then their speeds are added.”

“Our educational system is like an automobile which has strong rear lights, brightly illuminating the past. But looking forward things are barely discernible.”

“To make available for life every place where life is possible. To make inhabitable all worlds as yet uninhabitable, and all life purposeful.” (Describing his ultimate goals).

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