Hermann Julius Oberth (June 25, 1894 - December 28, 1989) was a German physicist and one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics.
Oberth was born in the Transylvanian city that is now Sibiu, Romania, but was at that time Hermannstadt, Siebenbürgen, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire Oberth was, along with the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and the American Robert Goddard, one of the three founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics. The three were never active collaborators: instead, their parallel achievements occurred independently of one another.
By his own account and that of many others, around the age of 11 Oberth became fascinated with the field in which he was to make his mark through the writings of Jules Verne, especially From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, re-reading them to the point of memorization. Influenced by Verne's books and ideas, Oberth constructed his first model rocket as a school student of 14. In his youthful experiments, he arrived independently at the concept of the multistage rocket, but lacked, at the time, the resources to pursue his idea on any but a theoretical level.
In 1912, Oberth undertook the study of medicine in Munich, participating afterwards in World War I as a military medic. Oberth was later to say that the most thing he learned from that experience was that he did not want to become a doctor. After the war, he remained in Germany - his home city was now part of Romania - and resumed his studies at the university, but this time studying physics.
In 1922, his doctoral dissertation on rocket science was rejected as "utopian". He had the 92-page work privately published as the controversial Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen (By Rocket into Planetary Space). (In 1929, Oberth would expand this to a 429-page work entitled Wege zur Raumschiffahrt or Ways to Spaceflight.) Oberth commented later that he made the deliberate choice not to write another doctoral dissertation: "I refrained from writing another one, thinking to myself: Never mind, I will prove that I am able to become a greater scientist than some of you, even without the title of doctor." Oberth criticized the German system of education, saying "Our educational system is like an automobile which has strong rear lights, brightly illuminating the past. But looking forward things are barely discernible."
He became a member of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR - "Spaceflight Society"), an amateur rocket group that had taken great inspiration from his book and acted as something of a mentor to the enthusiasts that made it up.
In 1928 and 1929 Oberth worked in Berlin as scientific consultant on the first film ever to have scenes set in space, Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon), directed at UFA-Film Co. by Fritz Lang. The film was of enormous value in popularizing the idea of rocket science. Oberth lost the sight in his left eye in an experiment for this film.
In autumn 1929, Oberth launched his first liquid fuel rocket, named Kegeldüse. He was helped in this experiment by his students at the Technical University of Berlin, one of whom was Wernher von Braun, who would later head the wartime project to develop the rocket officially called the A4, but far better known today as the V-2, 45 feet long, liquid-fuelled, with a one-ton warhead, capable of supersonic speed, and with an azimuth of over 50 miles. Although Oberth did not play a large direct role in that project, it incorporated many of his inventions and ideas.
In 1938 the Oberth family moved back to Sibiu, which by that time was under German occupation. Oberth himself moved on first to the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, then the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, before a stint with von Braun at Peenemünde working on the V-2. However, he soon left the V-2 project to work on solid-propellant anti-aircraft rockets at the WASAG complex near Wittenberg. At the end of the war the Oberth family moved from Sibiu to Feucht, near Nuremberg. Oberth left for Switzerland in 1948, where he worked as an independent consultant and a writer.
In 1950 he went on to Italy where, for the Italian navy, he completed the work he had begun at WASAG. In 1953 he returned to Feucht to publish his book Menschen im Weltraum (Man in Space) in which he described his ideas for a space-based reflector telescope, a space station, an electric spaceship, and space suits.
Oberth eventually came to work for his ex-student von Braun, developing space rockets in Huntsville, Alabama in the USA. Among other things, Oberth was involved in writing a study, The Development of Space Technology in the Next Ten Years. In 1958 Hermann was back in Feucht, a where he published his ideas on a lunar exploration vehicle, a "lunar catapult", and on "muffled" helicopters and airplanes. In 1960, in the US again, he went to work for Convair a a technical consultant on the Atlas rocket.
Hermann Oberth retired in 1962 at the age of 68. The 1973 energy crisis inspired him to look at alternative energy sources, including a plan for a wind power station that could utilize the jet stream. However, his main interest retirement was to turn to more abstract philosophical questions. Most notable among his several books from this period is Primer For Those Who Would Govern (ISBN 0914301063).
Oberth was married at the age of 35 to Tilli Oberth (née Hummel), with whom he had four children, among them a son who died at the front during World War II and a daughter who also died during the war, in August 1944, in a workplace accident.
Oberth died in Feucht, December 28, 1989.
Oberth is memorialized by the Hermann Oberth Space Museum in Feucht, and by the Hermann Oberth Society, which brings together scientists, researchers and astronauts from East and West in order to carry on his work in rocketry and space exploration. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock featured an Oberth-class starship in his honor.