The words with which Otto Willi Gail initiated The shot into infinity, in 1929, reflected the confidence that German and Austrian scientists at that time had that the conquest of the space was close and that if someone was going to achieve, it would be them, because few nations had achieved as many astronautic advances in such a short time.
Gail’s book was a novel based with extreme care on the pioneer work of his friends the Rumanian-German Hermann Oberth and the Austrian Max Valier, who by the time were the space era pioneer couple. Oberth would be considered one of its indisputable fathers and even Von Braun’s professor. The latter was his student and main assistant in his experiments before enrolling the German army in order to manufacture war missiles. Valier’s contribution instead does not seem to have been recognized in its whole plenitude because of his early death, but in those pioneer years his contribution was as decisive as that of Oberth’s.
In contrast to what is believed, Oberth was nor a professor neither an engineer but a high school teacher. After having studied Physics in Heidelberg University, he presented a thesis in which proved that journeys into the space would be possible provided that liquid-fueled engines were developed. These were the only ones to be able to propel a spacecraft into the atmosphere of the earth. However, the university rejected his thesis as they considered it eccentric, so he could not get the degree. Later, however, he decided to publish it on his own under the title of “The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space”.
Valier also studied Physics in the Innsbruck University, which he interrupted at the beginning of the World War I. Once it was over he did not go back to study, instead he became a science diffuser and a writer of science fiction.
In 1923, Valier read Oberth’s book and he was so excited that when he met him personally, he made huge efforts to make Oberth’s ideas famous and to fight against prejudices. He started to write another book, “The Advance into Space” (1925), in which he placed Oberth’s proposals within reach of common men. It was so successful that the following years at least six reeditions were made in which the text had very few variations. But the last one, in 1930, the year of his death would be a radical update; he added the title of Raketenfahrt (something like The Journey in Rocket). Although the most relevant change was the inclusion of a praise to a reactive liquid-fueled engine invented by an important South American person, the Peruvian engineer and diplomat, Mr. Pedro Paulet. But giving this recognition was not easy for Mr. Valier. However, Let’s follow the chronology of the facts before this event.
Valier did not only write this book and many articles that were published in different countries and languages. His determined character pushed him to pass from theory to action. If Oberth was the most important theoretician, Valier was the man of action. Thus, he went to Germany giving successful lectures in order to stir up people’s interest in journeys to the space and to find financiers to experiment and manufacture spaceships. In order to do that he created a plan that included 4 periods:
· Examine all kinds of rockets existing so far, including those using solid fuel.
· Apply the propulsion of these rockets to transport people in existing vehicles (bicycles, cars, sledges, ships)
· Build specially developed airplanes and apply liquid fuel in them.
· Build a rocket that could cross the limit of the atmosphere of the earth.
Although they have been convinced of liquid fueled rockets’ goodness, it is surprising that, in 1926, Valier, Oberth and other fond of space journeys people kept on playing to modify the Columbiad, the cannon that Verne had imagined in “From the Earth to the Moon” which made possible, in fiction, to reach selenite ground.
In 1927, Valier was the leader of the creation of Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) or Spaceflight Society, which Oberth and other scientists joined, not only Germans and Austrians but from everywhere in Europe. But he refused to chair it because he would spend too much time in his journeys. Johannes Winkler assumed the Presidency.
The same year, the American Charles Lindbergh achieved a very important deed: a flight from New York to Paris that took thirty-three and a half hours. Valier then wrote the article “Berlin to New York in One Hour”, where he would propose an aircraft propelled by rockets to break that record. It was baptized the Rocket-Vessel and its design can be seen in the image.
In another article, Valier had suggested to put rockets under the wings of a Junker G-23 airplane to make it take off in horizontal position. This was the evidence that the VfR was not only looking for the development of liquid fuel engines, but also for a solution to take off vertically.
He must have been surprised when he saw the Avion Torpedo design, Paulet’s aircraft, that had rockets under the wings but in a more practical and successful way than the one thought by the Austrian.
In a letter of that year, Paulet answered to the article “Berlin to New York in One Hour”. Analyzing Valier’s design, he said: “If its shell shape can enable a vertical climb, it has no way to pass to the horizontal direction without exposing its passengers to professional-like acrobatic movements, let alone to descend vertically.”
Paulet’s design, in contrast, had a pivoting hang glider. When rotated, the rocket aircraft that would take off vertically and would move horizontally or in an oblique way without bothering crew members. Besides, Paulet thought that the egg shape was the appropriate for a spacecraft. “Having thus rocket low and equatorial batteries, whose inclination could also be modified, it would be easy to run in a vertical, horizontal and oblique way, to counteract any caprice opposed to the environmental fluid, to defend itself in the space and to land vertically”.
In the same letter, Paulet also offered details of the liquid-fueled rocket engine that he had invented thirty years ago. Talking about his power he said: “Only one rocket of 2 kilos and a half of weight and with more than 300 explosions per minute could not only stay in constant thrust against the dynamometer, that could mark up to 90 kilos of pressure, but it also worked without notably changing for about one hour. In such conditions it was not then risky to foresee that having two batteries with a thousand rockets each to make one work while the other rested, it would have been possible to lift many tonnes.”
Notwithstanding the diffusion of Paulet’s letter, that originally appeared in a Peruvian newspaper and went around the world in several languages, Valier kept on ahead with his project of exploring the retropropulsion in different vehicles, although still using solid fuels.
Thanks to his power of conviction, at the end of 1927, he found a financier for his experiments, the automobile entrepreneur Fritz Von Opel. In 1928, they started to prove cars propelled by black powder rockets. They hardly achieved a combustion of seconds but that was successful for them, so they started doing several auto shows in order to advertise the Opel industry and incidentally the activities of the VfR.
The second proof, called Opel Rak II, was carried out on May 23th, 1928 before two thousand amazed people gathered at a motor racing circuit near Berlin. Ironically, the same day, Oberth was supporting his theories about liquid-fueled rocket-engines before the German scientific establishment, that was questioning them. For that reason, to some members of the VfR, the proofs that Valier carried out with powder fuels reduced his group’s credibility.
What is most interesting is that at the beginning of 1928, Valier launched a new edition of his book, in which he praised Paulet a lot. In that same year, on May 15th, Die Rakete (The Rocket), the VfR bulletin, mentioned shortly the Peruvian scientist. And the following day of the Opel Rak II, on May 24th, Paulet began participating in the celebrations for the Centennial ceremony of the Society of Geography in Berlin.
Had he watched Valier’s show in the motor racing circuit the day before? Or attended the debate that Oberth had with the German scientists? Did Paulet meet the VfR members? There are some signs to believe it. For example: in his report of his participation in the Geographic Society of Berlin, Paulet asked the Peruvian authorities to encourage German scientists to come to Peru. Was he thinking of VfR members?
Let’s take into account that in the same event was present Alfredo Jahn Hartman, the German-Venezuelan scholar, member as Paulet was of the Association of Peruvian Engineers and who received the medal of Nachtigal; as well as, Augusto Weberbauer, the German scholar, who received the title of Corresponding Member because of his works of Botanic Geography in Peru. Did Paulet share meet one of them during the get-together with the VfR people?
On the other hand, while Valier was questioned by some of his colleagues, his experiments were widely diffused in the media and the VfR obtained such a publicity that the time for Oberth to put into practice all his theoretical knowledge soon came.
The writer Thea VonHarbou had published the same year the novel Frau im Mond (Woman in the moon). His husband, the filmmaker Fritz Lang, wanted to adapt it to the cinema and thought it would be a good publicity to launch a liquid-fueled rocket the day of the premiere. So, in June 1928, he hired Oberth to be the scientific advisor of the film and to manufacture the rocket.
Oberth advised the script without problems. The problem appeared when he had to manufacture the rocket. He was not good at mechanics – what he recognized years later-, so this opportunity was also a challenge. By coincidence, a few months later appeared the book “Rocket for Transportation and Flight”, where the Russian Alexander Borisowitsch Scherschevsky, member of the VfR said that Paulet’s inventions opened the doors to the space era and made him become one of its four precursors, with the Russian Tsiolkovski, the American Goddard and Oberth itself.
Die Rakete made a praiseworthy summary of the book, pointing out that it was a very well documented work and of easy access to a wide public. It has to be emphasized that this book had the worthy to discover Tsiolkovski’s theoretical work, unknown until then to Western Europe. And it is until now a work frequently cited by historians of that period.
It is to suppose that Scherschevsky knew Paulet’s job brand new. Oberth hired him as one of his assistants and charged him to manufacture the rocket combustion chamber that he would launch in the premiere of the film. Unfortunately, nor the Russian scientist neither the other assistant, Rudolf Nebel, knew about mechanics and the rocket was never ready. Oberth discreetly said goodbye to Lang.
Did Scherschevsky meet Paulet? It cannot yet be precised. But if that happened, he must have memorized his designs. In this respect, in recent years, it has been revealed that the Russian scientist, who lived in Germany, was a spy for the soviet regime. Thus, according to a newspaper article of Oberth’s biographer, Hans Barth, in the files of the Red Army, there have been found the designs of the rocket that Oberth wanted to manufacture for that event and that the Russian secret services obtained thanks to Scherschevsky’s thorough reports. It would be legitimate to ask if Paulet’s designs are there too.
While that was happening in Berlin, somewhere else in Germany, a 16 year old adolescent was paying an odd and funny tribute to Valier. The boy had defined his vocation for the space flights after reading Oberth’s complex book. However, after following with enthusiasm the successful Valier’s and Opel’s presentations, he gathered all the firecrackers he could and put them at the rear of his skateboard, imitating their cars. He achieved such an amazing propel that the vehicle was out of control and worried people in his neighborhood. He was taken to jail, and taken out from it by his father, none other less than the Minister of Agriculture. He deserved the nickname of “the juvenile delinquent”. He was Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr Von Braun or just Wernher von Braun. From noble origins, he would in 1929 officially enter the VfR.
However, Valier did not trust anymore in powder rockets. After exhausting his plan’s stages, that is, trying powder rockets in cars, skateboards and aircrafts, and when he updated his book in 1930, he finally recognized the superiority of Paulet’s work.
First, he praised the “amazing power” of the engine designed by the Peruvian scientist and then, comparing it with any previous experiment to achieve the ideal engine to the space adventure, he said: “Paulet’s work is even more significant to the project of rocket aircraft development, because it has proved for the first time ever – comparing to the few seconds of powder rocket combustions- that, through the use of liquid fuels, it would be possible to manufacture a rocket engine that can achieve a combustion of hours.”
It is known that the VfR proposed Paulet to join them in order to manufacture the Avion Torpedo. But he refused it when he knew their intentions of manufacturing war missiles. It was probably related with the fact that the audacious Valier had an interview with Hitler- according to the Führer himself- to ask him to finance his experiments and manufacture liquid-fueled engines in order to use them in war missiles. Hitler would say that he had refused because he thought Valier was a dreamer. The interview could have taken place in 1929, according to an article of the writer Manfred Nagl.
What it is true is that at the end of 1929, after his separation from Opel and close to having updated his book, Valier was already developing a reactive liquid-fueled engine for Heyland’s car insudtry. Did he have access to Paulet’s studies? If it was not that way, how could he develop in such a short time an engine of that type?
The first engine that Valier manufactured worked but the test car did not reach a good speed. In a letter some years later, Paulet would say that he still kept his fuel formula secret. In any case Valier kept on trying. In the middle of one of his experiments, an explosion killed him. It was May 17, 1930. He was buried with honors for all that he contributed to the space rocketry.
1931 would be the year of the launch. Not only because Johannes Winkler, President of the VfR and editor of Die Rakete, was the first man to launch a liquid-fueled engine, but also because a young man called Arthur Rudolph, Valier’s assistant, improved the engine for the Heyland’s industry and in a few years would be one of the scientists that supported Von Braun in the manufacturing of the hated and feared V-2 missiles for the German Army during the World War II.
Many years later, once forgotten the war echoes, Von Braun and Rudolph would be part of the elite group that manufactured the Apollo XI for NASA and placed man on the moon. One of the craters of the Earth satellite was baptized with the name of Max Valier. Our Pedro Paulet did much more.
The image of Max Valier’s aircraft has been taken from the cover of the book From Germany to the Stars.
Thanks to our friend Zeso Polar, we have confirmed that, already in his book of 1928, Valier praised Paulet. This changes the image and makes us think of a possible friendship between both of them although Paulet initially criticized the Austrian scientist. And it shows that A.B Scherschevsky was not the first one to write about Paulet, as it is not seriously repeated in most of the web sites that talk about the topic.