The Life and Legacy of Hermann Oberth, German Rocket Theorist

Hermann Oberth statue
A statue honoring Hermann Oberth, one of the fathers of modern rocketry and astronautics stands in his birthplace town in Europe. Mark Benecke, Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 4.0.

Hermann Oberth (June 25, 1894, died December 29, 1989) was one of the foremost rocket theorists of the 20th century, responsible for the theories that govern the rockets that loft payloads and people to space. He was a visionary scientist inspired by science fiction. Oberth left a mixed legacy due to his involvement in the development of V-2 rockets for Nazi Germany, which killed several thousand in Great Britain during World War II. However, in later life, Oberth helped to develop rockets for the U.S. army, and his work contributed to the development of the U.S. space program.

Early Life

Hermann Oberth was born on June 25, 1894 in the small town of Hermannstadt, Austria-Hungary (today Sibiu, Romania). At a young age, Oberth came down with scarlet fever, and spent part of his childhood recovering in Italy. During the long days of recuperation, he read the work of Jules Verne, an experience that developed his love of science fiction novels. His fascination with rockets and spaceflight led him, at the age of 14, to begin thinking about the idea of liquid-fueled rockets and how they could work to propel materials to space.

Early Theories

When he turned 18, Oberth began his college studies at the University of Munich. At his father's urging, he studied medicine instead of rockets. His academic work was interrupted by the onset of World War I, during which he served as a wartime medic.

After the war, Oberth studied physics and pursued his interest in rockets and propulsion systems largely on his own. During this period, he realized that rockets intended to reach space would need to be 'staged'; that is, they would need a first stage to lift off from Earth, and at least one or two other stages to loft payloads into orbit or out to the Moon and beyond.

In 1922, Oberth submitted his theories about rocket propulsion and motions as a Ph.D. thesis, but his theories were rejected as pure fantasy. Undaunted, Oberth published his thesis as a book called Die Rakete zu den Planetraümen (By Rocket into Planetary Space) in 1929. He patented his rocket designs and launched his first rocket two years later, with the assistance of a young Wernher von Braun.

Oberth's work inspired the formation of an amateur rocketry group called Verein für Raumschiffart, for which he served as an informal advisor. He also taught physics and math at a local high school and became one of the first scientific advisors to a movie producer, working with Fritz Lang on the film Frau im Mond in 1929. 

World War II Contributions

In the years between the two world wars, Oberth pursued his rocketry designs and made contact with two other giants in the field: Robert H. Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. In 1938, he became a faculty member at the Technical University of Vienna, then became a German citizen and went to work at Peenemünde, Germany. He worked with Wernher von Braun to develop the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany, a powerful rocket that ultimately killed 3,500 people in Great Britain during World War II.

Oberth worked on both liquid- and solid-fueled rockets. He moved to Italy in 1950 in order to work on designs for the Italian navy. In 1955, he arrived in the United States, where he worked on a team designing and building space-bound rockets for the U.S. Army.

Later Life and Legacy

Hermann Oberth eventually retired and returned to Germany in 1958, where he spent the rest of his life pursuing theoretical work in science as well as philosophy and political theory. He returned to the United States to witness the launch of Apollo 11 for the first Moon landing, and then later for the launch of Challenger on STS-61A in 1985. Oberth died on December 29, 1989, in Nürnberg, Germany.

Oberth's early insight into how rocket engines propel materials to space inspired rocket scientists to name the "Oberth effect" after him. The Oberth effect refers to the fact that rockets traveling at high speeds generate more useful energy than rockets moving at lower velocities.

Thanks to his great interest in rockets, inspired by Jules Verne, Oberth went on to imagine a number of very plausible "futuristic" space flight ideas. He wrote a book called ​The Moon Car, which detailed a way to travel to the Moon. He also suggested ideas for future space stations and a telescope orbiting the planet. Today, the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope (among others) are fulfillments of Oberth's almost-prophetic flights of scientific imagination.

Hermann Oberth Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Hermann Julius Oberth
  • Born: June 25, 1894 in Hermannstadt, Austria-Hungary
  • Died: December 29, 1989 in Nuremberg, Germany.
  • Known For: Rocket theorist who developed V-2 rockets for Nazi Germany and later contributed to the U.S. space program.
  • Spouse's Name: Mathilde Hummel
  • Children: Four

Sources

  • Dunbar, Brian. “Hermann Oberth.” NASA, NASA, 5 June 2013, www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/rocketry/home/hermann-oberth.html.
  • Redd, Nola Taylor. “Hermann Oberth: German Father of Rocketry.” Space.com, Space.com, 5 Mar. 2013, www.space.com/20063-hermann-oberth.html.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Hermann Oberth.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 Apr. 2017, www.britannica.com/biography/Hermann-Julius-Oberth.​