A Russian Space Pioneer
Chronicles the Life of Oberth
The Father of Spaceflight
Boris V. Rauschenbach
Clarence, New York: West-Art, 1994
Paperback, 256 pages, $15.00
Russian Academician Boris Rauschenbach's just-released biography of German space pioneer Hermann Oberth is a unique contribution to the literature of space history. In addition to having had the advantage of knowing and speaking with Oberth, Rauschenbach is himself an early space pioneer, having worked at the famous Gas Dynamics Laboratory while a student in St. Petersburg in the 1920s.
Rauschenbach graduated from the Institute of Aviation and in 1937 joined the Moscow Scientific Rocket Research Institute, where he worked with the "Russian Wernher von Braun," Sergei P. Korolev. Rauschenbach headed the development of space vehicle control systems during the first 10 years of the Space Age, which began in the Soviet Union with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.
Having researched Oberth for How We Got to the Moon: The Story of the German Space Pioneers
, I was especially interested to see what new insights Academician Rauschenbach could bring to the history of this remarkable man.
First, he included detailed material about the periods of Oberth's life that are not generally described, since these are Oberth's times of working alone, not with von Braun and the rest of the German space pioneers. Unable to secure any financial support for his rocket experiments, in 1930 Oberth left Germany to teach in his native Romania.
Rauschenbach relates that Oberth wrote popular as well as scientific articles in the 1930s, traveled throughout Europe lecturing on spaceflight, continued very modest experiments, and evaluated the ideas of other inventors. While describing a visit to Oberth by a Soviet expert trying to engage his services in the Soviet Union, Rauschenbach takes the opportunity to describe the background of the early Soviet program, in which he participated.
Peenemünde veteran Ernst Stuhlinger, who wrote the introduction to the book, is also quoted by Rauschenbach, clarifying the details of the Peenemünde period in Oberth's career.
After World War II, the limelight shifted to the emerging U.S. and Soviet space programs and there is not much written on Oberth, who remained in Germany. Rauschenbach describes Oberth's difficulties in finding a job, his difficulties in understanding why the space program now needed engineers and technicians (and not their teachers), and how he occupied his creative mental powers in the later years of his life. By the 1970s, Hermann Oberth had certainly been overshadowed in the United States by his popular students, particularly von Braun, but he was revered in other spacefaring countries:
"In autumn of 1982 the Academy of Sciences of the USSR organized, in connection with the 25th anniversary of the launch of the first artificial satellites, a scientific conference, to which foreign scientists and astronauts were also invited. Oberth was one of those who received an invitation, although this was done more out of deep respect for the patriarch of space travel than in the hope of actually seeing him present among the guests. He was, after all, 88 years old at the time.
"As everyone had expected, a sincere thank-you for the invitation came from Germany, and the message that, because of his age and his bad health, he could not come. How great was the astonishment of the organizing committee, when, one day before the opening of the congress, a telegram arrived informing them that Oberth would be making the trip after all."
Rauschenbach recalls that Oberth later explained why he had decided to make the trip to Moscow: "There were two reasons for my decision: concern for the future of humanity, and a long-standing desire to visit the homeland of my highly esteemed colleague, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, with whom I had corresponded."
Of the three pioneers of space, only Oberth lived to see the Space Age. From the 1950's development of the intercontinental ballistic missile, Oberth was concerned that the rocket technology that he, Robert Goddard, and Tsiolkovsky had pioneered to open up the universe to manned exploration would be used by the two nuclear superpowers against the people of the Earth.
After the conference, Oberth was given a VIP tour of Russian space facilities, as well as the home and museum of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Rauschenbach's description of Oberth's trip to Russia is most memorable.
Hermann Oberth was a remarkable man who depended upon the integrity and creativity of his own mind to enable him to make contributions to mankind throughout his long life. Academician Rauschenbach's biography does full justice to its subject. Although it has been translated into English from German, and not the original Russian, it is a well-written, engaging, and informative book. The photo documentation section added by the English-language editor B. John Zavrel, who also published the book, adds a lasting image of the life of the father of spaceflight.
Copyright 1996 PROMETHEUS
Reprinted with permission