Jules Verne wrote science fiction, not fact. Yet his books inspired many youngsters to become scientists or engineers — turning science fiction into fact.
An example is Hermann Oberth, one of the pioneers of early rocketry. He was born 125 years ago today in Transylvania. He began reading Verne’s novels at age 11, especially those about trips to the Moon. Oberth was so entranced that he built his own rocket at age 14.
Oberth briefly abandoned rocketry to follow his father’s example and study medicine, in Munich. But he was drafted into the army during World War I, where he decided to return to his rockets.
Oberth wrote a college dissertation on rockets, but it was rejected. So he arranged to have it published as a booklet. It became popular, allowing him to pursue his research. He designed a liquid-fueled rocket engine, and launched it in 1931 — assisted by a young Wernher von Braun, future builder of the American Moon rockets.
Oberth worked with von Braun during World War II on Germany’s V-2 rocket, which was built with slave labor and aimed at civilian targets.
Years later, Oberth again joined von Braun — this time working for the U.S. Army in Alabama. He retired to Germany a few years later. But he returned to the United States in July 1969 to watch the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the Moon. It was a flight made possible in part by Oberth’s contributions to the early days of rocketry.