Today, science fiction forges a weapon of war. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
If you think war drives
technology, maybe you should look at German
rocketry. The German Army ordered a study of
rockets in 1929. It began building rockets the next
year. That sounds like great foresight. I suppose
it was, but it had nothing to do with the Nazis.
Hitler didn't take over until four years later.
By 1929 the American, Goddard, and the Russians had
worked with rockets. The German military didn't
tumble to any of that. Something else happened. We
have to go back to 1923, when Hermann Oberth
published a book on rocketry.
Oberth laid out the principles of modern space
flight. He said rockets could escape Earth's
atmosphere. They could even escape gravity. They
could carry people and they could turn a profit. He
wasn't talking about war.
The book was to have been his doctoral
dissertation. But the faculty at Heidelberg
rejected it. Rockets won't work in the vacuum of
space, a professor claimed, because they have
nothing to push against.
Then a science-fiction writer named Max Valier got
his hands on Oberth's book. He became Oberth's
champion. Writings on space flight began flowing
from his pen. Valier arrested public attention.
For a while, Valier and Oberth collaborated. But
Valier didn't really understand rocketry. He tried
to improve on Oberth's hard facts. Oberth had to
end their collaboration.
But no matter: the spark had landed in the tinder
of the 1920s imagination. By 1928 Valier's
enthusiasm had caught the heir of the Opel
automobile fortunes. The fellow built a series of
rocket-powered cars. Then he flew a rocket-powered
glider. Meanwhile, Fritz Lang stopped work on the
movie Metropolis to make a film about
flying to the moon.
In the midst of all this, a German officer read
Oberth's book. Only then did he start the machinery
of military rocketry. By 1930 we find a photo of
the military rocket group. Oberth stands in front
of a small rocket. On the right we see an
18-year-old lad holding a fitting. His clear, alert
face gazes, transfixed -- not at Oberth, but at the
rocket. The young engineer is Wernher von Braun.
Fourteen years later, V-2 rockets began falling on
English civilians. They weren't the fruit of
military vision at all. They were born in Oberth's
science and Valier's fiction. They were born in the
face of young von Braun, dreaming about flying to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds