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By Wernher von Braun



Wernher von Braun


Hermann Oberth's book, Rockets Into Outer Space, was published in 1923. It is the scientific foundation upon which the technical development of astronautics has since been built.

Until the publication of this book about 60 years ago, the idea of future space travel was not much more than a figment of the imagination. Of course, Hermann Oberth had predecessors: Like all scientists, he too founded his contribution to progress on an inherited body of thought. The Frenchman Jules Verne had depicted reaching the moon with a giant cannon and even correctly calculated the required firing speed for this. The German Hermann Ganswindt and the Russian Konstantin E. Ziolkowsky had already pointed out the advantages of the rocket principle for the construction of spaceships. The American Robert H. Goddard had explained that is was possible to reach the vacuum of outer space and perhaps even to ignite a flash charge on the moon. Nevertheless, the idea of working out a scientific analysis of the problem of space travel still seemed totally eccentric and absurd to every physicist and mathematician.

Hermann Oberth was the first to go beyond the idea, to pick up a slide rule and numerically work out concepts and construction designs.

His many years of study first culminated in the book Rockets Into Outer Space , which gave us a multitude of pioneering ideas. The trains of thought and the calculations laid down here prove the technical feasibility of space travel. With prophetic clarity Hermann Oberth describes all the essential elements of our present large rockets, elements which contemporary writers often believe to be the discoveries of recent years. Beyond this he developed the theoretical bases for the principle and operation of liquid-fuel rockets, as well as the methods for guiding them.

The title alone--Rockets Into Outer Space --a sign of progress, must have seemed to be an impudently bold one at that time. Looking back, it reflects a dramatic period of development spanning an entire human life, which led from optimistic beginnings and idealistic plans, through countless technical disappointments and setbacks, and finally to the actual realization of his goal of sending rockets into outer space. The unmanned and manned satellites and service modules which orbit our earth and go to the moon, Mars, and other heavenly bodies have proven to the entire world the correctness of the theories which Oberth put forward in his book. The calculations and designs which he set down there became the point of departure for the development of large rockets in Germany and have thereby exercised a lasting effect on all later developmental work in this field in other countries as well.

In this time of organized technical progress, we are accustomed to viewing scientific and technological developments as being the natural result of million-dollar budgets and of the carefully integrated work of a large staff of specialists. It is also quite true that instituting the large-scale utilization of atomic energy or developing outer space cannot become a reality without money and an army of scientists, engineers, technicians, and skilled craftsmen. Nevertheless, Hermann Oberth's Rockets Into Outer Space should call to mind the old truism that great discoveries and new ideas cannot be financed or organized, but must be born, accompanied by all the usual labor pains, in the minds of brilliant loners. This book describes the work of one such brilliant, solitary man who pushed forward into new scientific territory independently of the opinions and views of his contemporaries. Removed from the secure environment enjoyed by the man who is part of a large organization, someone who takes care to discuss all of his ideas with his colleagues before he dares to utter them in public, Oberth took it upon himself to parry the expected attacks of those who did not understand with the only weapon available to him: his unshakable conviction of the correctness of his theories. Several decades passed before the technological developments based upon his fundamental ideas brought him the long-denied recognition he deserved.

The opening up of outer space with equipment built by human hands, as well as by man himself, is a goal the effects of which we could not envision today. Our previous successes, which have resulted in manned flights to the moon, soft landing on the planets of our solar system, and manned space stations, have given us valuable information on environmental conditions beyond the earth's atmosphere, on the composition of the moon, and on neighboring planets. The dramatic moment at which a human being first set foot on another heavenly body was a new high point in human history, a high point for which Hermann Oberth laid the foundations and created the prerequisites.

The readings in the book, Rockets Into Outer Space, and its successor, The Way to Space Travel , which provided the stimulus for this amazing development, continue to instill in us space travel enthusiasts the confidence needed to solve the many problems which still confront us. As towering as these obstacles sometimes seem, if we compare them to the difficulties which Hermann Oberth faced in 1923 when he worked out his fundamental concept, they quickly seem less daunting.

It is my sincere wish that this book will contribute to the understanding of Hermann Oberth's pioneering achievements and his trailblazing contribution to the development of space travel. I have a boundless admiration for the solitary genius which enabled him to bring into focus all of the essential elements of a gigantic concept, together with the human greatness which allowed him, in shy reserve, to bear with equanimity the "crucify hims" as well as the "hosannas" of public opinion. I myself owe him a debt of gratitude not only for being the guiding light of my life, but also for my first contact with the theoretical and practical aspects of rocket technology and space travel.

The numerous honors bestowed upon him for years, at home as well as abroad, best express the great respect he enjoys in scientific circles. His pioneering contributions to the field of astronautics deserve a place of honor in the history of science and technology.


Wernher von Braun

Copyright 1996 PROMETHEUS
Reprinted with permission

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PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.