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Dr. Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley designed this circa 1929 rocket. - Image credit: NMMSH Archives

Dr. Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley designed this circa 1929 rocket. - Image credit: NMMSH Archives

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Realistic Film Rocket Helps Promote the Future | This Week In Space History

by michael shinabery

What is “considered to be one of the first ‘serious’ science fiction films,” according to the website beatfactor.net, premiered in Berlin on Oct. 15, 1929. Frau im Mond, or Girl (Woman) in the Moon, said todaysengineer.org, “was by far the most realistic depiction of spaceflight in film at the time.” Much of the accurate portrayal came about because director Fritz Lang not only based his script on the writings of two young men of science, physicist Hermann Oberth and science writer Willy Ley, but he also hired them to build sets and the film’s rocket.

In the story, aerospace engineers “are approached by an aging astronomer … shunned by the scientific community for his theory that there is more gold in the mountains of the moon than there is on earth,” todaysengineer.org said. As a result, “a wicked cartel of spies,” said eurekavideo.co.uk, “co-opt an experimental mission to the moon in the hope of plundering” the gold. Once on the lunar surface, the heros “find themselves stranded in a lunar labyrinth without walls – where emotions run scattershot, and the new goal becomes survival.”

For realism based on the science of the day, Lang hired Oberth as a technical advisor. Both he and Ley “helped Lang build a model of a spacecraft that looked very realistic even by today’s standards,” said “Astronautics: Book 1 – Dawn of the Space Age” (Apogee/2006). Then, “as a publicity stunt for Lang’s film,” centennialofflight.gov said “Oberth also agreed to build an actual rocket that would be launched at the (film’s) premier.” He didn’t, however, complete it.

Not only was Frau im Mond a public and scientific success, the Nazis took note as well. Todaysengineer.org said that in 1936 the “Gestapo deemed the launching scenes and production models to be too realistic (and) pulled the film from distribution and seized the production model rockets.” The movie would be “an inspiration to (Dr. Wernher von Braun’s) V-2 team, and the first successful launch of the V-2 bore the Frau im Mond logo at its base.”

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The Gestapo also had their eye on the prolific Ley, published both in his native Germany and in foreign publications. In 1935 he escaped to Britain, and then immigrated to the United States with the help of the American Interplanetary Society. He became a U.S citizen in 1944.

Frau im Mond would become “a mechanism for popularizing Oberth’s ideas,” according to Michael Neufeld in “Von Braun: Dreamer of Space/Engineer of War” (Knopf/2007). Born on June 25, 1894 in Transylvania, Romania, spaceflight entranced Oberth so completely that he gave up studying medicine for physics. He was a child when he read Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.” Ironically, his 1922 doctoral thesis on rocketry was deemed “too speculative” and was “rejected by the University of Heidelberg,” said centennialofflight.gov. Undaunted, the next year he published the dissertation as the book “Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen,” or “By Rocket to Space.” In it he “explained the mathematical theory of rocketry, applied it to possible designs for practical rockets, and considered the potential of space stations and human travel to other planets.”

“Using his wife’s household savings,” said “Dark Side of the Moon” (Norton/2009), “he produced from his dissertation manuscript a volume that made three claims far beyond the scope either of its mathematical content or any engineering knowledge of the day: first, with present technology rockets could be built to climb higher than the earth’s atmosphere; second, these rockets could carry passengers without health hazards; third, the technology could pay for itself ‘under certain economic conditions.’ This was all speculation for which Oberth had no more evidence than Verne.”

The book, though, was successful, and among the young dreamers he inspired were von Braun and Ley. Subsequently, said “Space Almanac,” Oberth’s 1929 book, “The Road to Space Travel,” “was accepted as a doctoral dissertation.”

“After 1938, Oberth was involved in a series of research projects concerning rockets for Germany,” centennialofflight.gov said. “In 1941, he became a naturalized German citizen, and during World War II he worked for Wernher von Braun in the V-2 development program.” In 1955, that relationship led von Braun – by then a U.S. citizen who had immigrated under the post-World War II Operation Paperclip – to invite Oberth to Huntsville, Ala.

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Four years later, he retired to Feucht, Germany. However, “because of his significance as the ‘godfather’ of early German rocketry, Oberth returned to the United States in July 1969 to witness the launch of the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 crew on the first lunar landing mission.”

He died in Germany on Dec. 29, 1989, “considered the founder of modern astronautics,” said “Space Almanac.”

Ley, born on Oct. 2, 1906 in Berlin, was in his early 20s when, alongside Oberth, he helped found the Society for Space Travel. At the time, Neufeld said, Ley was working “in a bank and lived with two aunts to make ends meet.” Within a year SST’s membership topped 500. Engineers, professors, and writers joined, including von Braun. A 1969 Popular Mechanics editorial reported that “in 1930 a group of engineers gathered on the outskirts of Berlin to examine … the first liquid-fuel rocket they had ever seen. They watched warily as a bushy-haired young man (Ley) set off the rocket and with awe as it shot 1500 feet into the air, then floated back to earth by parachute.

“ ‘What good is it,’ they asked?

“ ‘ Someday,’ the young man replied, ‘rockets of this type will carry men to the moon.’ ”

Ley missed science fiction becoming fact in 1969, when a heart attack killed him 26 days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon during Apollo 11.

Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at michael.shinabery@state.nm.us.

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