Valier Envisions Rocketry Through Engineering and Sci-Fi | This Week In Space History
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story
by michael shinabery
By day, Max was a rocket scientist, inventing technology the world had never before seen. By night, he dreamed of rocketing to distant places that his imagination, hitching a ride on his inventions, might take him. To get there, he put pen to paper to contrive some of science fiction’s earliest yarns.
“A Daring Trip to Mars” was one such tale, which the pulp magazine Wonder Stories published in July 1931. Unfortunately, Max Valier, who was born on Feb. 9, 1895 in Bozen, Austria-Hungary, never saw it printed. Fourteen months earlier, an explosion during a test had killed him.
“The present story was written shortly before his death, and contains many of his ideas about the interplanetary journey which have never appeared in print in English,” Editor Hugo Gernsback declared of the tale. “Valier’s command of the interplanetary problem is evident throughout this realistic tale, and his ingenuity in mastering the difficulties of space flight is remarkable.”
In the story, reporter Tom Sackett inquires of a rocket engineer: “Then you are not going to the moon at all!” The man responds: “Oh, yes, for we unfortunately have to use it as a filling station. … We know that on the moon there is to be found what we need in order to produce our fuel by means of solar power. There is ice, which we shall decompose electrolytically into its components, hydrogen and oxygen.”
Sackett then asks: “I wonder whether everything will work out as you think.” To which the engineer replies: “It must, for otherwise we cannot get back again!”
Valier was known the world over as the man who “built the world’s first rocket car,” initially powered by solid fuel, said his biography at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
“Valier was not only one of the most distinguished of the German rocket experimenters and enthusiasts, but also the first man to give his life to rocketry,” Gernsback wrote in the introduction to “A Daring Trip to Mars.” “His death in the summer of 1930, occurring by an explosion of an oxygen tank during a test, was a great blow to the rocket pioneers.”
Valier did not start out to be a rocket scientist. He “differ(ed) basically from the other people concerned with rockets in that he was an astronomer,” said “Max Valier – A Pioneer of Space Travel” (NASA, 1976, translated from the German publication). “He has never worked on the rocket for a Ministry of War nor for war purposes. He believed that he was serving peace on earth whilst directing people’s gaze into the vastness of the universe. In this way he hoped that they would forget quarrels and wars.”
In addition to astronomy, his biography said, he studied “mathematics, and physics at the University of Innsbruck”; in World War I he “enlisted in an (Army) aviation unit.” Post-war “he attended schools in Vienna and Munich. Although he never received an advanced degree he became a successful writer on scientific matters.”
Valier’s first rocket car test took place on March 15, 1928. The New York Times reported beforehand, stating in the March 1 edition: “Max Valier, pioneer of the use of the rocket motor, informs your correspondent that his Spring program includes the launching of a new rocket automobile at a speed of 300 miles an hour. If he survives this exhibition – he intends to drive the car himself – his next stunt, which is booked for early Summer, will be a cross-channel flight from Calais to Dover in a rocket airplane.”
Valier told the reporter: “I have already demonstrated the principle of a rocket flight. I am most optimistic as to the future of the rocket propeller.”
Rocketcityspacepioneers.com said the driver was Kurt Volkhart steering an Opel. “The engine had been removed … and replaced with solid-fuel rockets at the rear. The rockets were lit, and the vehicle screamed down the track at a top speed of 47 miles per hour.”
Records document that the next month, on April 11, 1928, Valier demonstrated the vehicle in a 40-second test. J. Kuhr Huddle, the American consul to the Department of State, summarized the results in an April 17 memorandum, which in 1970 was published in “The Papers of Robert H. Goddard Vol. II.” Huddle wrote that observers described “an astonishing demonstration of the practicality of rocket-propelled apparatus which its sponsors claim is capable of overcoming the force of the earth’s gravity.” He included a Der Mittag newspaper story that described the rocket car as a “peculiar vehicle (with) a low, light racing car without motor. … Its rear is a steel box with twelve round openings from which project the steel nozzles of the propulsive rockets.” When the driver ignited them, the car surged forward with “an ear-splitting, whizzing roar,” followed by “a trail of fire (that) belched onto the concrete track … The explosive force brought the car to a speed of (62.14 mph) within eight seconds.”
In addition, Huddle pointed out that “if such a device is finally perfected … it is to be assumed that it would possess capabilities of being worked into a constructive force of considerable magnitude and that also it might form a terrible engine of destruction in the hands of subversive elements.”
The April 18 NY Times also documented the test of seven days prior, calling it a “gas-rocket car,” and saying “the new propulsion method for rocket cars and planes” consisted of “the fusion of liquid oxygen and a mixture of equal parts of water and methylated spirits.” The headline touted that Valier “Believes He Has Made Propulsion by Recoil From Explosions Practical.”
Valier’s only hindrance was the bane of all researchers.
“It is now a question of money,” he stated in The NY Times. “The rate of progress will be proportional to the means at the disposal of experimenters, but I am sure that such flights will be accomplished some day (stet).”
According to Huddle, automaker Fritz von Opel not only financed Valier, but also “turned over to (him) all the facilities of Germany’s largest auto factory in furtherance of (Valier’s) projects.” Huddle added that Der Mittag reported Valier touted a flying car-turned-rocket airplane would eventually travel “at the borders of the terrestrial atmosphere … from Berlin to New York in two hours.”
Read Part Two Here: “Sleds, Wheels and Rails, Oh My!”
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.