La vuelta al mundo de Pedro Paulet es un recorrido por la fascinante vida de este genio multifacético (Arequipa, 1874 - Buenos Aires, 1945). Estadista, científico y artista, Paulet fue el sabio que descubrió los principios de la astronáutica en la Francia de Julio Verne y quien rechazó una oferta para fabricar misiles de guerra para los nazis, con el fin de poner sus estudios al servicio del país que amó e imaginó grande, el Perú.
Article published on February 17th, 2008 inLa República newspaper, Lima. It was updated with recent findings to be published in Alba Magazine review, Paris. At the present time, we offer it in English version.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Peruvian Pedro Paulet (1874-1945) opened the doors of what would be the Moon landing in 1969. The author of this article, who is producing a movie about Paulet, is a researcher of the life and inventions of the person considered the pioneer of Astronautics and Space era.
Imagination and science. When Paulet was a child, he made mice fly on homemade rockets. His dream to reach the Moon was inspired by Jules Verne. Paulet experimented with logic rigor and mathematical precision that prevailed, according to Víctor Andrés Belaúnde, at the school where both of them studied.
Because of his humble origin, Paulet was never going to study at the university, but Luciano Bedoya, chancellor of the SanAgustinUniversity, knew of his genius gifts and asked the members of the jury to take Paulet an exam, which he passed with excellent grades. Afterwards, Remigio Morales Bermúdez’s government knew about Paulet and awarded him a scholarship to study Engineering and Architecture in the Applied Chemistry Institute, where, at the end of 19th century, he invented the liquid fueled reactive engine. At the beginning of 20th century, in Belgium, he designed a spacecraft, the Torpedo Airplane. Verne was still alive. Did they ever meet?
The Wright brothers made an aircraft fly in 1903. Paulet returned to Peru, sure that his aircraft was better than the Wright’s, but propeller planes were imposed. That is why he went back to Europe looking for the right environment for his invention. But he would not find it as soon as he had expected.
In 1927, the American Lindbergh made a thirty-three-and-half-hour flight from New York to Paris. The Austrian Max Valier, in his article Berlin to New York in One Hour, proposed a rocket-propelled aircraft in order to break that record. The Peruvian Paulet published a letter assuring that the rocket aircraft he had designed three decades before was better than the one proposed by Valier, because of a pivoting hang glider with several rocket engines on the base. With the nose cone upwards, the rocket aircraft will take off vertically. When the hang glider is moved, the aircraft will move horizontally. Back in vertical position, landing will be easy. Valier aircraft, not having such a device, will need to perform complicated maneuvers to land.
What was most important in Paulet’s project, however, was his liquid-fueled engine that could work for more than one hour. The Romanian-German Hermann Oberth had made it clear, in his 1923 book The Rocket into Interplanetary Space: trips into space would be possible with that kind of engine.
Oberth was the moral leader of the German Society for Spatial Trips (Verein für Raumschiffahrt or VfR). Valier was the man of action. He had published The Advance into Space in 1925, in order to spread Oberth’s ideas among the common people. Thus, he became an opinion leader on the subject. Willing to make his plan work, he traveled throughout Germany giving lectures to explain his plan: trying rockets in vehicles, in aircrafts, and finally in a spacecraft. Valier was looking for supporters but above all for financers and he found one: the automobile manufacturer Opel.
Paulet’s letter had gone around the world in different languages. In 1928, Die Rakete (The Rocket), the VfR bulletin, included its contents. And Valier wrote in his book that “Paulet had proved for the first time that a rocket using liquid fuel could work for many hours, in contrast to the few seconds that combustion obtained from a firework rocket lasts”.
It was a strategy to catch Paulet’s attention because Valier and Opel were still experimenting with cars propelled by black powder rockets. As soon as they obtained a combustion of a few seconds, they decided to make some auto shows, one of which took place in a motor racing circuit before three thousand amazed people near Berlin on May 23th, 1928. That same day, Oberth was supporting his theories before the German Engineers Society.
On May 24th, Paulet represented Peru in the Centennial ceremony of the Berlin Geographic Society. Had he watched Valier’s show in the motor racing circuit the day before? Or was he attending the debate between Oberth and the German scientific establishment? Did he meet the VfR members? There are signs to believe it: in his report following the Congress, he asked Peruvian authorities to allow German scientists immigration.
Passion for space flights was increasing thanks to Valier, who was already a popular hero. The filmmaker Fritz Lang was going to produce the film The Woman in the Moon and he thought it would be good publicity to launch the day of the premiere a liquid-fueled rocket manufactured by Oberth.
Oberth was not good at mechanics, so it was a great opportunity but also a challenge. He was not in good terms with Valier but that year Die Rakete praised the book The Rocket for Transportation and Flight, where the Russian Scherschevsky, another member of VfR, said: “The advent of the space era has become true with the propulsion engine and the spacecraft designed and manufactured by Peruvian Pedro Paulet”. Oberth hired the Russian to manufacture the rocket combustion chamber. But the Russian did not know either about mechanics, so they could not create anything that could fly. For that reason, Lang cancelled the contract.
Megan Paulet, Paulet’s daughter, says that VfR had tried to manufacture Paulet’s aircraft, but he refused it when he knew that Valier had asked Hitler -according to the Führer- to finance his rockets. That year, an adolescent who, imitating Valier, had put firecrackers to his skateboard and was thus taken to jail, was admitted at the VfR and was nicknamed “the youngster delinquent”. He was Wernher von Braun.
Although Valier kept on praising Paulet’s job, a turning point occurred. Valier manufactured a liquid-fueled engine that worked poorly when it was tried in vehicles. Paulet had kept his formula in secret. Valier knew that it was just a matter of trying, but in one of those experiments, an explosion suddenly killed him. Arthur Rudolph, his adjunct, improved the engine and a few years later he would be one of the scientists that supported von Braun in the development of the hated V-2 missiles of World War II.
Paulet tried unsuccessfully to convince Peruvian government to finance his aircraft. He died in Buenos Aires in 1945, a few months before the American Army captured Von Braun, Rudolph and the others researchers, who would later work for the NASA and manufacture Apollo XI which set Man on the Moon.
Valier was buried with honors because of his contribution in space rocketry. A crater on the Moon has his name, but Paulet’s job was much better.