Some Interesting History (Rocket Motor)

Like all of the things that exist in nature, the most primitive form of jet propulsion was not invented by anyone. It was observed by many people in many cultures at many different times. Toss a handful of chestnuts into a campfire. and if you are lucky, you’ll see what 1 mean. As the moisture inside the nuts turns to steam, the ones that are tightly sealed burst open with a “pop”. If one of the nuts has a tiny hole in its shell, it wiggles and dances among the hot coals with an audible “hiss”. A careful observer sees a jet of steam coming out of the hole, and notices that the nut moves in a direction opposite the jet of steam. The efforts of many people over thousands of years to duplicate, improve, and enlarge upon this, and similar natural phenomena, resulted in the gradual development of the jet propelled vehicles that we build and use today.
A rocket is a special jet propelled vehicle that, unlike other jet propelled devices, carries within itself everything that it needs to operate, and this includes all of the necessary chemicals. The rocket motor is the device that burns the chemicals, produces the jet. and thereby generates propulsion. The jet engines used in aircraft sustain combustion by taking oxygen from the surrounding air. but if oxygen is needed, a rocket motor carries its own oxygen, and can therefore operate in the vacuum of Space.

The Years 1232 to 1770

A simple steam jet like the chestnut described above is of little practical use because it ceases to function the moment it leaves the heat of the fire. With the invention of gunpowder, it first became possible to produce a self-sustaining, gas-generating reaction outside the fire, and this allowed the construction of the first jet propelled device that carried its own chemicals and made its own fire, the first true rocket motor. The logical step of attaching the motor to an arrow, which was designed to fly straight, resulted in a free-flying stick rocket, and history first records the use of these rockets in a battle at Kai-Fung-Fu in the year 1232 A.D. The Chinese used them to set fire to their Mongol attackers’ camps, and they fired them in great numbers, so it is obvious that workers already experienced in their construction had made them and stockpiled them before the battle began. Unfortunately, if any notes about those people ever existed, those notes were long ago discarded, and if a record ever existed of who made the first rocket, that record has been lost in the mists of time.
The realization that rockets were of use to the military spurred a heightened interest in making them work better, but a poor understanding of science and engineering prevented early designers from turning them into truly accurate weapons. What these primitive rockets lacked in accuracy they often made up for in size, and ongoing efforts to make them larger culminated in 1688 when an officer in the German army designed a 132-pound stick-rocket with a guide pole made of wood, and a huge motor casing made of sail cloth saturated with dried and hardened glue.
An interesting footnote in the history of rocketry is the story of Wan Hoo. Wan Hoo was a wealthy Chinese nobleman who lived around the year 1500. and reliable sources say that Wan Hoo was fascinated by rockets. In a poorly conceived effort to become the world’s first rocket pilot, he mounted two giant kites and 47 large skyrockets on a chair of his own design. At the appointed hour he strapped himself into the chair, and ordered his assistants to light the fuses. From that moment on. the descriptions of what happened and where he actually went are confusing. But I think it appropriate that astronomers have named a crater after Wan Hoo. and that the one they chose is on the far side of The Moon.

Haidar and Tippu Ali

After the battle of Kai-Fung-Fu. rockets were used in military engagements throughout the world. But because of their small size and their inherent inaccuracy, they had little effect on their intended targets. So their use was limited until the 1770s when Prince Haidar Ali. the Muslim ruler of the Mysore region in India, developed a series of rockets weighing 6 to 12 pounds with motor tubes made of iron. Until that time, motor tubes were made of things like paper or bamboo. The iron tubes had a much greater burst strength, and this allowed Haidar’s rockets to operate at a higher chamber pressure. The elevated pressure gave his rockets as much higher thrust and a far greater range, and the heavy iron tubes had a greater impact when they hit something.
These rockets were so successful that by 1780 Haidar had established a specially-trained rocket corps of 1.200 men. and following his death in 1782. his son.Tippu. increased the size of the corps to 5,000. Firing these rockets in great numbers. Tippu’s troops used them very effectively in battles against the British at Srirangapatnam in 1792 and 1799. In one engagement, it was reported that a single rocket killed three British soldiers, and wounded another four.

William Congreve

Back in England at the Woolwich Arsenal the success of Haidar’s rockets caught the attention of a young Colonel named William Congreve. Congreve realized their potential, and decided to improve and enlarge upon Haidar’s design. He began by developing a standard propellant formula and a standard production technique. Then he designed and built a large, iron stick-rocket that weighed 32 pounds, carried 7 pounds of incendiary chemicals, and flew 3.000 yards.
In 1803 the French Revolution and the “Storming of the Bastille” were just 14 years past. France was sympathetic with the recent American revolution, and ongoing hostilities between the old British monarchy and the new French republic flared into open warfare. By 1805. in preparation for an invasion of England. Napoleon had amassed a large store of troops and attack-supplies in the city of Boulogne. Boulogne was on the east coast of the English Channel, just 28 miles from England, and British anxiety over the situation was considerable. When Congreve suggested that they try a rocket attack on Boulogne, his proposal was quickly approved.
On October 18th ten English boats loaded with Congreve rockets assembled on the waters off Boulogne, but a violent storm rocked the boats, and made it impossible to aim the rockets. On November 21st they tried again. The seas were calmer, and they fired the rockets successfully, but hit nothing of value, and were greatly embarrassed when their intended French targets shouted defiant obscenities, and strutted up and down the shore waiving the burned-out rocket casings. During the Summer of 1806 there was a brief try at a peace agreement, but the accumulated hatred was too great, and in the Fall of that year the fighting began anew. In October of 1806 the British launched a third attack on Boulogne, and this time they hit their targets with devastating effect. Exact accounts of the number of rockets used vary from 200 to 2.000. but in any case, most of Boulogne was set on fire. Napoleon’s invasion supplies were destroyed, and William Congreve’s place in history was assured.
In 1807. still at war with France, and angered by Dutch collaboration with the French, the British launched 25,000 rockets against the Danish city of Copenhagen. The resulting and spectacular rain of fire almost destroyed Copenhagen. They used the rockets extensively in the U.S. vs. British “War of 1812″. and in 1814. still at war with the United States.”they used them in an unsuccessful attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. The black powder rocket propellant burned with a pink-colored flame, and a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key. who witnessed the event, described the “red glare” of the Congreve rockets in a poem titled Defence of Fort M’Henry. Liking the poem considerably, his brother-in-law (a local judge) had copies printed, and passed them out to his friends. On September 20th the Defence of Fort M’Henry was published in the Baltimore Patriot, and then in newspapers throughout the country. Shortly thereafter someone added Key’s lyrics to the music from a drinking song written by John Stafford Smith. Together they became The Star Spangled Banner, and in 1931 the U.S. Congress declared The Star Spangled Banner to be the national anthem of the United States.
Congreve eventually built rockets weighing up to 300 pounds, and in 1815 he improved their accuracy by moving the guide stick from the side of the rocket to its central axis, and surrounding it with 5 equally-spaced exhaust jets. William Congreve approached the design of his rockets with logic and good scientific thinking, and should probably be considered the world’s first, true, rocket engineer.

William Hale

Congreve rockets and the ones that preceded them used long sticks or poles to establish aerodynamic stability, but the poles were heavy and flexible. They made the rockets sensitive to cross winds, and when they whipped around in flight, they diverted the rockets from their intended path. If you could eliminate the pole, and stabilize the rocket in some other manner, you could make it more accurate. As any child knows, a gyroscope, once set in motion, maintains its orientation in space until
its spinning rotor stops. In 1846. with a clear understanding of the gyroscopic principle, a British inventor named William Hale got rid of the pole, and built a s/;/H-stabilized rocket. In his first experiments he used multiple jets like Congreve. but he angled them around the rocket’s central axis. In later designs he used multiple straight jets, but arranged them so that the exhaust from each jet passed over an angled vane. Impressed by the accuracy of Hale’s rockets, the U.S. Army bought his patent, and used them to a limited extent in the war with Mexico.
In the 1860s both Hale rockets and Congreve rockets were occasionally used in the Civil War. and thereafter in minor conflicts around the world. From 1864 through 1881 the Russians used a small version of a Congreve rocket in a long series of battles with local tribes in the mountains of Turkestan. But as these events occurred, work was progressing on other types of weaponry, and by 1890 remarkable improvements in the range and accuracy of artillery (i.e. “big guns”) had rendered even the best of these primitive rockets obsolete.

Konstantin Tsiolkovskii

To the people of the 19th Century the rocket was a firework and a weapon of war. but that limited perception would soon change. In 1866 in the Russian province of Ryasan a 9 year old boy was losing his hearing from the aftereffects of scarlet fever. He had seventeen brothers and sisters. His name was Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskii. and though he would never actually build a rocket, he would eventually be acknowledged as the father of modern spaceflight.
By the age of 10 he was deaf, and unable to attend school, he developed an impressive appetite for reading. His father was a forestry worker and an amateur inventor who nurtured his son’s interest in science. As a teenager young Konstantin moved to Moscow where he educated himself by haunting the city’s libraries. At one of those libraries he met and befriended the great Russian philosopher. Nikolai Fedorov. who took him on as a student. For a young man who was deaf, this patient and Socratic form of learning was ideal, and his private lessons with Federov were an acceptable substitute for the University lectures that his deafness prevented him from hearing. Fedorov advocated the attainment of immortality through technology, and the ultimate expansion of humanity into the cosmos: a kind of galactic manifest destiny that came to be known as “Cosmism”. Federov’s ideas plusTsiolkovskii’s love for the novels of Jules Verne solidified his direction in life. In 1874 at the age of 17 he became fascinated with the idea of spaceflight.
In 1878 he moved back to Ryasan. where he earned a teaching certificate. In 1879 he moved 50 miles south of Moscow to the citv of Borovsk. where he took a job teaching math. While in Borovsk he met and married his wife. Barbara, started a familv. and in 1881 began a lifetime of theoretical research in aeronautics, rocketry, and space travel. In 1883 in his first serious paper he described the effects of weightlessness and the basic requirements for building of a space station. In 1885 he suggested that workmen in Earth orbit could build machines for turning solar energy into electric power. In a subsequent paper he explained that spinning a space station would generate artificial gravity. In 1898 he developed a mathematical formula that determined a rocket’s speed at any moment, its rate of gas outflow, its mass, and the amount of fuel needed to put it in space. In a 1903 paper titled Investigating Space with Reaction Devices he proved mathematically that rockets would be most efficient if they were powered by the chemical reaction between liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. As of this writing, these are the exact propellants used by the main engines on the Space Shuttle.
During his lifetime he wrote 500 papers on rocketry and related topics. He suggested the use of gyroscopes for directional control, double wall living quarters for protection from meteors, air locks for entering and exiting a space ship, reclined seats to protect astronauts from G forces, space suits for working in the vacuum of space, and even self-contained space colonies. In a 1926 paper titled Plan of Space Exploration he expressed his own cosmic philosophy, and divided his plan for humanity’s future into the 16 steps that follow. 1-the creation of rocket airplanes with wings. 2-increasing the speed and altitude of these planes. 3 -the creation of rockets without wings. 4 -the ability to land them on the ocean. 5 -reaching escape velocity, and the first flight into Earth orbit. 6 -lengthening rocket flight times in space. 7-the experimental use of plants to make an artificial atmosphere. 8 -the use of pressurized space suits for working outside a spaceship. 9 -the construction of orbiting greenhouses for plants. 10 -the construction of large, orbital habitats around the Earth. 11-the use of solar energv to grow food, heat crew quarters, and for transportation throughout the solar system. 12 -the colonization of the asteroid belt. 13 -the colonization of the entire solar system. 14 -the achievement of individual and social perfection. 15 -overcrowding of the solar system followed by colonization of the galaxy, and 16 -the slow death of the Sun. and the migration of the remaining population to the stars.
Steps 1 through 8 and much of step 11 have already happened. I anxiously await number 14. and for the rest we’ll all have to wait and see. In his later years Tsiolkovskii moved south to the city of Kaluga where he continued to think and write. In 1919 he was elected to the Socialist Academy, the predecessor of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science. In the 1920s the Soviet government granted him the well-earned honor and security of a pension. Though he never built a rocket himself, his work was an inspiration to the people who did. Among them was a young man named Sergei Korolev. who would eventually become the chief architect of the modern Soviet space program, and one of the people responsible for making Yuri Gagarin the first man in space. Konstantin Tsiolkovskii died in 1935 at the age of 78.

Robert Goddard

Throughout the 19th Century the hearts of Americans were captivated by the drama of westward expansion. But by 1901 the great adventure was over, and the old wagon trails had given up their souls to the railroads. Adventurous young men were dreaming of new frontiers, and a very smart high school student named Robert Goddard was fascinated by Space. LikeTsiolkovskii. he loved the writings of Wells and Verne, but unlike Tsiolkovskii. he was mechanically gifted. Throughout his career, he was remarkably successful at getting money for his research, and he would eventually build real, working models of the things he designed.
Robert Goddard was born in Worcester. Massachusetts on October 5th. 1882. As a teenager he attended South High School. Then he then went on to college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In 1908 he started graduate school at Worcester’s Clark University, and in 1909 concluded, like Tsiolkovskii. that a rocket operating on liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen would be the most efficient. He earned a Ph D in 1911. and was immediately hired by Clark as a physics professor. From 1912 to 1913 he studied at Princeton. Then he returned to Clark in 1914. where he split his time between teaching and making both black powder and smokeless powder rockets, which he tested in a meadow near Coes Pond. Clark let him use the physics department’s machine shop, but he had to pay for the materials himself. As the rockets grew larger they cost more to build, and by 1916 he was badly in need of additional funds. Privately he dreamed of space flight, but he had the wisdom not to discuss the subject with the conservative and unimaginative scientific community of his time. Instead he wrote a proposal to develop rockets for high altitude atmospheric research. Entirely avoiding the subject of “Space “. he wisely titled it A Method of Attaining Extreme Altitudes, and submitted it to The Smithsonian Institution in September of 1916. To his great and wonderful surprise, he won a grant of S5.000. an amount that allowed him to continue his work with a new level of focus and commitment.
In 1917 America entered World War I. The Army Signal Corps, having heard of Goddard’s work, offered even more financial support if he would help them develop rocket powered weapons. When Goddard agreed, the Army sent him to the then -secluded Mount Wilson. California, and gave him an initial budget of S20.000. On the mile-high terrain above Pasadena, with the vacant land around the Solar Observatory as a test area, he quickly developed a hand-held, shoulder-mounted rocket launcher, the forerunner of the modern “Bazooka”. Immensely impressed, on November 7th. 1918. the Army asked him to start work on a rocket that could be launched from an airplane. But four days later Germany surrendered. World War I ended, and so did the Army’s interest in rocket research. Goddard returned to Worcester a few weeks later.
Back at Clark in an effort to attract new financial support, his old mentor. Dr. Arthur Webster, suggested that he let The Smithsonian actually publish A Method of Attaining Extreme Altitudes. Embarrassed by his lack of progress on the subject of this paper. Goddard refused, then reluctantly changed his mind when Webster, with benevolent intentions, threatened to do it without his permission. The first copies rolled off the press around New Years of 1920. and then, to Goddard’s great consternation and surprise, on January 12th a large headline appeared on the front page of the Boston American. It said “Modern Jules Verne Invents Rocket to Reach Moon”, and within days, newspapers across the country were calling Dr. Goddard “the moon man”.
The triggers for this publicity were a topic titled Calculation of Minimum Mass Required to Raise One Pound to an Infinite Altitude, and the casual suggestion that if a rocket actually hit the moon, a sufficient amount of flash powder might make an explosion bright enough to be seen with a telescope. The media blew Goddard’s statements all out of proportion, and his efforts to clarify what he’d said were ignored. The New York Times criticized him for not knowing that a rocket wouldn’t work in the vacuum of space {The Times was wrong’.). More than 100 people volunteered to go on the first trip. The publicity agent of the famed actress. Mary Pickford. asked him to “deliver a message from Miss Pickford to the Moon”, and worst of all. Dr. Goddard’s media-created moon-man-persona became the subject of many jokes. In disgust. Goddard returned to the University, where his spirits were marginally improved by the good news that The Smithsonian had granted him another S3.500. From 1920 to 1923 he worked at the Navy’s Indian Head Powder Factory in Maryland, and in 1922. came to the important conclusion that only a liquid-fuel rocket would have sufficient power to reach the altitudes that he wanted to explore.
In 1924. and back at Clark, he built and tested his first liquid fuel rocket motor, but it was too small and underpowered to lift its own weight. In December of 1925 he tested a motor with sufficient power to rise off the ground, and in January of 1926 he built a rocket that rose to the top of the test stand and pulled at the restraints. Knowing that this one would fly. he took it out to his Aunt Effie Ward’s farm near Auburn. Massachusetts, and on March 16th. 1926. launched it from a pipe fitting stand. The rocket rose just 41 feet, and was airborne for only 2-1/2 seconds. But it was the first time in history that a liquid-fuel rocket had lifted free of the ground, and flown under its own power. Goddard’s wife filmed the event, but sadly missed the flight itself, because the home movie cameras of that time had just 8 seconds of film. She started the camera too soon, and ran out of film before the rocket took off.
From 1926 to 1929 Goddard improved his motors’ performance, and developed new equipment for measuring their chamber pressure and thrust. His flights at Auburn continued until July of 1929 when a large and loud rocket frightened the neighbors.
who immediately complained, and had the firemarshal shut him down. This rocket carried scientific instruments, and shortly thereafter the publicity generated by the flight drew the attention of the famous aviator. Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh visited Goddard. and greatly impressed, got him a S50.000 grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. With this kind of money. Goddard could greatly increase the size and power of his rockets, but he couldn’t fly them in Massachusetts. In search of a suitable site, he took a trip out West, and in July of 1930 set up shop on a ranch near Roswell. New Mexico. While at Roswell. Goddard worked diligently on pumps, nozzles, combustion chambers, gimballed steering, and guidance systems, but the maximum altitude achieved was only 8.500 feet. Despite public perception to the contrary, the Roswell years were Goddard’s most productive. With his wife, his assistants, a remote location, and better facilities, he could work at a scale not possible before. With the exception of a two-year break from 1932 to 1933. he stayed at Roswell until 1941.
While the public awaited the achievement of a great altitude. Goddard understood that it was far more important to perfect the performance and reliability of his rocket motors’ components. In a 1937 letter to his old friend and onetime colleague. Dr. Clarence N. Hickman, he said.”It is. as you can imagine, a fascinating life. The drawback is. that until there has been a great and spectacular height reached, no laymen, and not many scientists, will concede that you have accomplished anything, and of course there is a vast amount of spade work of much importance, that must be done first” To the disappointment of the world-at-large. the rest of Goddard’s life would be characterized by this unromantic “spade work”, and it wasn’t until after his death that the importance of what he’d done was appreciated.
In 1940 Goddard and “The Guggenheim” proposed that the military explore the use of rockets for the jet-assisted takeoff of airplanes, but the idea was rejected. In 1942. having entered the war with Japan, the military predictably changed its mind. From 1942 to 1945 Goddard worked on jet-assisted takeoff and variable-thrust rocket motors at the Naval Engineering Experiment Station at Annapolis. Maryland. On June 18th. 1945 his doctor discovered a tumor in his throat. Surgeons removed it the following day. but the effort was to no avail, and he died on August 10th. 1945.
Throughout his life Goddard was secretive about his work, and unwilling to share his findings with other scientists. His early experience with the news media enhanced his reclusiveness. and from that time on he kept his thoughts about actual space flight to himself. Nevertheless, he did keep records on the subject, and in his private papers he made some useful suggestions. The most notable was the idea that a rocket approaching the Earth should come in at a tangent to the Earth’s surface, and use a horizontal reentry into the atmosphere to brake its fall. To dissipate the heat of reentry, he suggested an ablative heat shield. Both methods were later put into practice in the Mercury. Gemini, and Apollo manned spaceflight programs.
In 1959. fourteen years after his death. Congress honored Goddard with the Louis W. Hill Space Transportation Award. The Smithsonian Institution awarded him the coveted Langley Medal, and NASA named one of their main facilities The Goddard Space Flight Center. In 1960 the United States government awarded the Guggenheim Foundation and his widow. Mrs. Goddard. the sum of one million dollars in compensation for its use of more than 200 of his patents.

Pedro Paulet

Now we come to an interesting “might-have-been”. In the 1969 topic. History of Rocketry and Space Travel, the authors. Dr. Wernher von Braun and Frederick Ordway III. tell of a Peruvian chemical engineer named Pedro Paulet. From 1895 to 1897 Paulet was a student at the Institute of Applied Chemistry at the University of Paris where he claimed to have designed and tested the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket motor. The problem is that he did it at home in his spare time, and for no logical reason, he didn’t tell anyone about it until 1927.
In October of that year while living in Rome, and presumably spurred by the news of Goddard’s success, he wrote a letter to El Comercio in Lima. Peru, claiming priority for his 01177 design. El Comercio published the letter as an interesting article, which caught the attention of a young Russian engineer named Alexander Scherschevsky. Scherschevsky lived in Germany at the time, and paraphrased the article in his 1929 topic titled Die Rakete fur Fahrt und Flag, or The Rocket forTravel and Flight. According to Scherschevsky. Paulet’s motor ran on gasoline and nitrogen peroxide, and worked like a pulse jet engine operating at 5 cycles per second. Constructed of steel, it weighed about 5 pounds, used a spark plug for ignition, and generated 200 pounds of thrust. After the publication of Scherschevsky’s topic, other writers picked up on the story with the result that, at least for a while. Paulet was acknowledged as the inventor of the liquid fuel rocket motor. Unfortunately, though both his story and his unique technology seemed credible, he was never able to produce the witnesses or the documentation needed to verify the truth of what he said, and he died in 1945 with his claims unproven.
As a postscript to this story, the Museo Aeronautico Del Peru (The Aeronautic Museum of Peru) has a website on the Internet. They refer to Paulet by his Peruvian name. Pedro Paulet Mostajo. and their homepage says that visitors to the museum in Lima will learn of his life and his work. At the time of this writing I could find no details about him on the website, but perhaps in the future something will appear.

Hermann Oberth and The Germans

Hermann Oberth was born in Transylvania on June 25th. 1894. The son of a doctor, he too loved the works of Jules Verne. In his autobiography he says. “At the age of 11. I received from my mother as a gift the famous topics. From the Earth to the Moon, and Journey Around the Moon by Jules Verne, which I had read at least five or six times, and finally knew by heart.” Verne’s imaginary moonship was fired from a giant gun. but by the age of 13 young Hermann had calculated that this would subject the astronauts to an acceleration of forty seven thousand times the force of gravity! “Thev would be flattened into pancakes”, he said. “A cannon is not good for spaceflight. It must be done with a rocket!”
Like Tsiolkovskii. Oberth was a dedicated reader. By the age of 15 he had taught himself Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematics-of-change. called “Calculus”, and worked out the basic mathematics of rocket propulsion. He graduated from high school in 1912. Then he studied medicine at the University of Munich where he continued to work on rocketry in his spare time. During World War I his medical education spared him from combat, and he was assigned to hospital duty for the duration. In 1917. with a well developed sense of things to come, he proposed the development of a long range, liquid-fuel missile to the German army. Politically unsophisticated, he wasn’t nationalistic or hawkish. He wasn’t even a German citizen. In his young and naive mind he simply thought that a rocket-bomb exploding in the middle of London would cause the British to surrender, and bring about a quick end to the war. To the good fortune of the rest of Europe at the time, his suggestion was ignored.
In 1918. immediately after the war. he married his high school sweetheart. Tilly, and continued his formal education in physics and math. By 1922. in pursuit of a doctorate, he’d organized all of his previous work into a paper which he titled DieRakete zu den Planetenraumen. or The Rocket to Planetary Space. He submitted it to the University of Heidelberg as a Ph D thesis, but the University rejected it as being unrealistic. Among the reasons given, several professors who should have known better claimed, like the ill-informed New York Times, that a rocket wouldn’t work in the vacuum of space because it didn’t have anything to push against. The truth was that most of the work was beyond the faculty’s understanding, and they weren’t qualified to judge it. At about the same time. Europeans were beginning to talk about Robert Goddard. When Oberth read about him in a Heidelberg newspaper, he immediately wrote to Goddard in a broken-but-credible attempt at English, and said:
“Dear Sir:
Already many years I work at the problem to pass over the atmosphere of our earth by means of a rocket. When I was now publishing the results of my examination and calculations I learned by the newspaper that I am not alone in my inquiries and that you. dear Sir. have already done much important ^vorks at this sphere. In spite of my efforts; I did not succeed in getting your topics about this subject. Therefore I beg you. dear Sir to let them have me. At once after coming out of my work I will be honored to send it to you. fori think that only by common work of the scholars of all nations can be solved this great problem.
Yours very truly. Hermann Oberth
Stud. Math Heidelberg. Germany”
Goddard had never heard of Oberth. He was suspicious of Oberth’s interest in his work, and he reluctantly sent him a copy of A Method of Attaining Extreme Altitudes. Possibly inspired by seeing Goddard’s work in print. Oberth decided to turn The Rocket to Planetary Space into a topic, but the publishers of that time thought it to be unmarketable, and they showed no interest. Not to be deterred, his loving wife. Tilly, presented him with a modest amount of money that she’d gradually and secretly saved since the beginning of their marriage, and in late 1923 paid for the publication herself For the scientific community, the 92 page topic covered all the mathematics of a rocket’s operation, but it also contained enough nontechnical discussion to inspire the imagination of the public. The first printing sold out immediately, and the second and third printings were spoken for before they reached the topic stores.
When Oberth sent a copy to Goddard as he had promised. Goddard was very upset. Goddard had always thought himself to be working alone. He considered the study of rocketry to be his own private domain, and he was alarmed to see Oberth publishing material that he considered privileged. For a short time thereafter he corresponded with Oberth. Then he cut off all communication as he gradually developed the erroneous belief that Oberth had stolen his ideas. In early 1925 Oberth took a teaching-job in Mediash. and learned for the first time about Konstantin Tsiolkovskii. Unlike Goddard. Tsiolkovskii welcomed correspondence with other scientists, and the two exchanged a series of encouraging and supportive letters.
By 1924 the Germans were suffering badly from the financial burden of the reparations demanded by the Versailles Treaty. Economically devastated, they were quick to embrace anything that promised a happier future. By skillfully riding this
wave of German hope, a charismatic ex-aviator named MaxValier had become a popular and wealthy promoter of the glorious possibilities offered by science and technology. To attend a MaxValier lecture was like seeing Carl Sagan. Robert Redford. and RT. Barnum all played by the same actor. Valier was impressed by Oberth’s topic, and asked his permission to rewrite the topic in a nontechnical language that a layman could understand. Supportive of any effort to publicize the idea of space flight. Oberth agreed. Valier quickly finished the topic, and published it under the title. Der Vorstoss in den Weltenrauni. or The Advance into Space.
From 1925 to 1926 topics by Oberth. Valier. and other authors generated a growing interest in space travel, and by 1927. societies dedicated to the study of rocketry were forming throughout the world. In Germany the most prominent was the “Verein fur Raumschiffahrt”. or “Society for Space Travel”. The “VfR”. as it came to be called, was officially founded on June 5th. 1927. and Hermann Oberth and MaxValier were charter members. By 1928 the membership had grown to 500. prompting the stuffy and f«rf-conscious “Society of German Engineers” to publish a series of attacks on Oberth’s work.
Submitted to the Society Journal, and signed by. the society’s “Privy Councilor Professor Dr. Lorenz of Danzig”, these literary pogroms charged, among other things, that Oberth’s rockets would never escape the Earth. When Oberth wrote a mathematically-perfect rebuttal, the Society refused to publish it on the grounds that it. “didn’t have enough room in the Journal”. Many years later Oberth’s friend and colleague. Willy Ley. was told off-the-record that the real reason was that the Society could not allow the eminent Professor Dr. Lorenz to be contradicted by someone half his age. Not to worry though. On May 23rd. 1928. the Scientific Society for Aeronautics hosted a showdown debate, and the “Privy-Councilor Professor Dr. Lorenz” was so thoroughly discredited that he never spoke of rocketry again.
On the very day of the Oberth-Lorenz debate, an event occurred that disgusted serious scientists, but helped the cause of rocketry in general. For several months, and without the VfR’s knowledge. MaxValier had been working on a rocket-powered car with the German auto maker. Fritz von Opel. To avoid the time and expense of developing a liquid-fuel motor, they powered the car with standard, navy powder (i.e. solid fuel) rockets. Because the technology of these rockets was already-well-established, the project was scientifically worthless, but it was a great publicity stunt. When Fritz von Opel drove the car at 125 miles per hour in front of 2.000 spectators at the Avus Speedway, the people of Germany went wild. As reporters extolled the triumph of German technology, an absolute zoo of rocket-powered daredevils took to the roads and the air in a heated effort to capitalize on what the newspapers were now calling “raketenrummel”. or “rocket racket”.
All this rocket-racket drew the attention of Fritz Lang, the famous director of the 1927 science-fiction film classic. Metropolis. Fritz Lang was the “Stephen Spielberg” of silent films, and the most popular director of his time. In 1929 Oberth took over the leadership of the VfR. and published an expanded version of Die Rakete…. titled Wege zur Raumschiffahrt. or Road to Space Travel. Lang read the new topic. Then he commissioned his wife. Thea von Harbou. to write a fictional adventure script based on the technology described in the topic. A popular and talented actress. Thea was also a very good writer, and the author of the topic on which Metropolis was based. She titled the script Fran im Mond. or Woman in the Moon. Since Oberth was a world authority on rockets. Lang hired him as a scientific consultant on the film.
In the Fall of 1928 Lang brought Oberth to the giant UFA film studio in Berlin. All would have gone well had he limited Oberth to designing the sets. Unfortunately, someone in the publicity department got the bright idea that a real liquid-fuel rocket launch on the day of the film’s premiere would help boost ticket sales. Unaware of the problems he would face. Oberth volunteered to build the rocket, and at least for Oberth. it was all downhill from there. He was a brilliant scientist, but his engineering skills were limited. He could calculate how a theoretical rocket would perform, but he couldn’t predict what would happen to a real motor’s metal when exposed to the heat of its operation. He knew nothing about welding, and nothing about metal alloys. Oberth was in trouble, but he lacked the “hands-on” experience to realize it.
To help him with the project he hired an unemployed engineer named Rudolph Nebel. and Alexander Scherschevsky. the writer-engineer who had popularized the claims of Pedro Paulet. Scherschevsky was. at least for the moment, “a man without a country”. The Russians had sent him to Germany to study sailplanes, but he’d overstayed his assignment, and was afraid to go home. Oberth planned a rocket powered by liquid oxygen and gasoline, which he called the Kegeldiise because it had a cone-shaped combustion chamber. But several months of unexpected complications plus a rapidly-approaching deadline convinced him that such a rocket would not be practical in the short run.
With less than a month to go he switched to what he thought would be a simpler design. His saving-plan was to place sticks of carbon on-end in a tube full of liquid oxygen. The sticks would burn down from the top. and by sizing them properly, the last of the carbon would be consumed just as the oxygen ran out. It sounded like a good idea, but further complications arose, and two weeks later the carbon rocket was going nowhere. As the movie premiere loomed. Oberth’s anxiety grew. A week before the opening performance he threw up his hands and quit. Having no rocket to launch, the studio made excuses. Oberth returned to watch the premiere. Then thoroughly embarrassed, and plagued by a mounting sense of failure, he tinkered in the shop for a few more weeks, then abandoned the project for good.
Fran Im Mond opened on October 15th. 1929. Though Oberth failed to deliver the promised rocket, his movie set was. by all accounts, wonderful. Tire film was released in English-speaking countries under the titles. The Girl in the Moon. and By Rocket to the Moon. To increase the drama of the lift-off. Fritz Lang decided that the actors should count backward before the launch (i.e. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5.4. 3…etc.). and that the rocket should be fired when they reached zero. By introducing the world to this new cinematic device. Lang had assured his own place in the history of rocketry. As a strictly artistic “movie-maker”, he had unwittingly suggested a thoroughly practical launch procedure that would be adopted and used by generations of rocket scientists to-come. Fritz Lang had invented the countdown.
In 1930 the VfR began to recruit real engineers. Rudolph Nebel joined at that time, and so did the son of the German Agriculture Minister, an 18-year-old apprentice-engineer named Wernher von Braun. With Oberth’s help they perfected and finished the uncompleted Kegeldiise. and seeking the government’s acknowledgment of its potential, successfully demonstrated it to the Reich Institute for Chemistry and Technology. Soon thereafter Oberth returned to Mediash. and resumed his job as a teacher. From late 1930 to 1937 Oberth stayed in Transylvania, where he continued to teach, write, lecture, and help other inventors. He built a few more rocket motors, but the lack of a nearby source for liquid oxygen (or even liquid air) prevented him from conducting any serious tests.
In September of 1930. with Oberth back in Transylvania, the VfR moved to an abandoned complex of military storage buildings on the north edge of Berlin, which they rented for the paltry equivalent of 4 U.S. dollars per month*The site included 2 square miles of undeveloped land that Nebel. with high hopes and great imagination, called the Raketenflugplatz, or Rocket Aerodrome. At this new location they made rapid progress, and by August of 1931 were flyina a liquid fuel rocket, which they called a Repulsor. to altitudes” as high as 3.500 feet.
But as often happens to people with good intentions, a major sequence of unexpected political events was eroding the ground on which they stood. For several years prior, a dangerous and charismatic politician named Adolph Hitler had been capturing the German imagination by claiming that others were to blame for all of Germany’s troubles, and that he alone could restore Germany to its former glory. When a sudden and exponential rise in his popularity changed the political climate, more than half of the members quit. Then the VfR’s funding vanished when a major contributor withdrew his help, and another was killed in an accident while vacationing in the mountains.
The Versailles Treaty, that officially ended World War I. prohibited Germany from making or possessing most of the weapons of war. But the framers of the treaty had, ignorantly and foolishly, neglected to include ^rockets. By 1932 the German Army-had recognized this loophole, and decided to exploit it. Realizing that most of the rocket research at that time was being done by amateurs, the Army Weapons Department assigned Colonel Walter Becker to recruit Germany’s most talented amateurs into a new Army rocket program. In 1933. following a visit to the VfR. Becker offered to fund’the experiments of any member willing to work under Army supervision at the Kummersdorf proving ground. Greatly impressed bv von Braun’s work, he suggested that von Braun earn a Ph D. and he offered him the use of the Kummersdorf facilities to work-on his thesis. Of all the potential candidates for the Kummersdorf program, onlv von Braun accepted. Shortly thereafter Hitler seized control of Germany, and declared himself the Fiihrenox Leader. In 1934 Hitler’s “Gestapo” (short for “Geheimstaats Polizei”. or “Secret State Police”) closed down the VfR. and assigned most of the active members to jobs in the defense industry. In a phone conversation with the War Ministry, one of the officers in charge was heard to say “Now I’ve all the rocket people safely on ice around here and can watch what they are doing.”
At Kummersdorf. Wernher von Braun and Becker’s former assistant. Captain Walter Dornberger. headed up an excellent team of engineers. By December of 1934 they had flown a 4-1/2 foot rocket called an “A-2″ To an altitude of 7.400 feet. Greatly impressed. Colonel Becker appropriated six million reichsmarks for further research. With money no longer a problem, they started work on an A-3. But the A-3 would be 25 feet tall, and they couldn’t fly a rocket that big on the mainland. They were ten months into the search for a more remote site when something truly serendipitous occurred. While talking with his mother at Christmas, Werner Von Braun mentioned the need fofa new place to work. Mrs. von Braun suggested a Baltic island called Usedom where her father used to hunt ducks. Dornberger found it perfect. The Army bought the land, and in 1937 the entire Kummersdorf team moved to a new facility on the north side of the island near a fishing village called Peenemiinde.
After the move to Peenemiinde the Army recruited additional engineers, including many of the men who had worked at the Raketenflugplatz. In December of 1937 they launched three A-3s from the nearby island of Greifswalder Oie. but all three went off course. They were just beginning to deal with the complexities of guidance, and von Braun later said that the trouble was due to a poor understanding of the principles involved. Though the A-3s’ guidance systems failed, their motors were verx successful. One of the rockets reached an altitude of 8 miles (40.000 feet!). and”another flew 11 miles downrange before plunging into the sea. The goal of all this work was to ultimately produce what Von Braun called a real rocket, a 12 ton. 46-foot beast called an A-4. But first they needed a smaller rocket to perfect a workable guidance system. Since the A-4 designation was already taken, they called the guidance-test rocket an “A-5″. They flew the”first A-5 in the fall of 1938. By the fall of 1939 Hitler’s Germany had attacked Poland. World War II had begun, and the A-5 was a complete success.
In 1938 Hermann Oberth naively accepted an offer to work on rockets at Germany’s College of Engineering in Vienna. The pay was excellent, but the limited facilities and the way he was treated soon convinced him that the job’s only purpose was to keep him from working for another country. When he tried to quit, he was told him that he’d seen too much of Third Reich technology to be allowed to quit. He was told to chose between an engineering job with German citizenship, or a concentration camp. Reluctantly he applied for German citizenship, but the bureaucracy worked verx slowly. By the time he reached Peenemiinde. the A-4 was nearly finished, and there wasn’t much for him to do. To stay occupied, he worked up a proposal for a solid fuel antiaircraft rocket. But Peenemiinde didn’t have the facilities for solid fuel work, so the idea was
turned over to WAS AG. a famous manufacturer of commercial explosives. Oberth was then transferred to WAS AG where he worked on solid fuel rockets until the end of the war.
Von Braun’s engineers tested the first A-4 on June 13th. 1942. It exploded in a spectacular blossom of fire. They launched the second A-4 on August 16th. and it flew for 45 seconds. Then its metal fuselage ruptured, and it self-destructed inflight. On October 3rd The third A-4 flew perfectly. It reached an altitude of 60 miles and a speed of 3.300 miles per hour. Inless than 5 minutes it flew 120 miles downrange. At a celebration that evening Captain Dornberger said. “…We have invaded space with our rocket and for the first time-mark this well-have used space as a bridge between two points on the Earth. We have proved rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. To land. sea. and air may now be added infinite space as a medium of future intercontinental traffic. This third day of October 1942. is the first of a new era of transportation, that of space travel” Shortly thereafter, and tragically. Hitler renamed the A-4 his Vengeance Weapon Two. or “V2″. He ordered it fitted it with a large explosive warhead: then used it as the world’s first ballistic missile in a horrible and hateful reign of terror against England.
In 1945 after 3 years of brutal war. “The Allies” (which included England) defeated Germany, and shortly thereafter World War II ended. In May of 1945 Wernher von Braun. his brother Magnus, and dozens of other Peenemiinde engineers surrendered to the Americans. In the Fall of 1945 they were brought to the U.S. through a program called Operation Paperclip, and by February of 1946 were at work in El Paso. Texas, laying the foundations of the new American space program.
Immediately after the war Hermann Oberth joined his family in the German town of Feucht. where he worked in a garden shop while writing a topic titled Man into Space. In 1950 he finished his work at WASAG. From 1951 to 1953 he travelled through Italy and Switzerland, writing, consulting, and lecturing as he went. In 1955 Wernher von Braun. by then in charge of the”U.S. Army missile program afHuntsville. Alabama, invited Oberth to join him there. Oberth worked at Huntsville until the launch of the U.S. Explorer satellite in 1958. Then he returned to Feucht to fulfil the requirements for a pension.
In 1961 Oberth came back to the U.S.. and worked for Convair as a technical consultant on the Atlas rocket program. He retired in 1962 at the age of 68. In 1984 he wrote and published a topic titled Primer for Those Who Would Govern, in which he expressed his thoughts on how a truly democratic society should be run. His student, friend, and colleague. Dr. Wernher von Braun. once said of Oberth: 7 myself owe him a debt of gratitude, not only for being the guiding light of my life, but also for mx first contact with the theoretical and practical aspects of rocket technology and space travel.” From 1960 through 1969 Von Braun played a major role in the development of America’s giant “Saturn” rockets. Both men lived to see the completion of the Apollo Moon Project and the landing of the first men on the Moon. Herman Oberth lived to see the early-flights of the Space Shuttle. Wernher von Braun died’in 1977. and Herman Oberth died in 1989 at the age of 95.

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