A stubby-winged plane launches itself from an airport runway on the outskirts of Berlin. When it reaches an altitude of several miles, it fires its rocket engines, lifting itself high into the stratosphere. And then it coasts across the Atlantic Ocean. Its passengers, strapped into their cushioned, contoured chairs, are hopefully enjoying their first experience with weightlessness. If they don't like it, they can comfort themselves with the fact that free-fall will only last 20 minutes, after which the rocket will begin its descent back into the atmosphere. Barely half an hour after leaving Germany, the rocket touches down near New York City.
A scenario of the immediate future, as described by one of the entrepreneurs pushing for the commercialization of spaceflight? Certainly. But this is also a scenario proposed by the first space entrepreneur, more than 70 years ago. And if any of the current schemes for commercial spaceflight succeeds, they'll owe a huge debt to Max Valier, the first martyr to the development of space travel.
Top image: Detail from Cover of Science Wonder Quarterly, Fall 1929.
Born in Bozen, in the southern Tyrol (now part of Italy) in 1895, Valier was a precocious child who eventually became one of spaceflight's greatest champions. Long interested in astronomy, he was the author of dozens of books and pamphlets on the subject and invented the rotating star chart (the "planosphere") that is still in use.
He first learned about spaceflight after the publication of Hermann Oberth's "Die Rakete zu den Planetenraum" in 1925. And then he wrote a popularized version of this book which became an international best-seller, popularizing the idea of spaceflight popular throughout Europe. Meanwhile, Valier devised his own scheme for the evolutionary development of a crewed spacecraft.
Valier was acutely aware of the need for public education and support, so he not only lectured continually but poured out dozens of articles that were translated and reprinted in newspapers and magazines all over the planet, often without credit. As a result he and his plans became almost as well-known and influential as von Braun and his "Collier's" space program were to become in the 50s.
And Valier developed an incremental, evolutionary approach to the development of the spaceship. An ordinary commercial aircraft would gradually convert from rocket-assisted flight to a full-fledged rocket transport, and then finally into a wingless interplanetary spacecraft. He also promoted an idea for a transatlantic passenger rocket that would make the trip from Berlin to New York in less than an hour.
At the same time, Valier collaborated with industrialist Fritz von Opel and signal rocket manufacturer F. W. Sander to demonstrate the practicality of rocket-propelled vehicles. This led to a whole series of spectacular experiments — rocket-powered cars, sleds, rail vehicles, etc. — that culminated in the flight of the first rocket-propelled aircraft in 1929 (pictured at left.) Even though his contributions were discounted by space flight historians such as Willy Ley — who thought Valier's demonstrations were nothing more than useless publicity stunts —these experiments were enormously valuable in "selling" rocket propulsion to the general public. There's no denying that the possibility of rocket flight and space travel was on everyone's lips, as a result of Valier's work.
Unfortunately Opel, who was just in it for the publicity, took over most of the limelight from Valier. He even denied Valier, who was an experienced pilot, the honor of making the first rocket plane flight, despite the fact that Valier designed the plane. Valier, undeterred, went on to work on developing liquid-fueled motors, as well as plans for long-range, liquid-fueled rocket planes. While working on developing a liquid-fueled motor, Valier was killed in an explosion.
Unjustly forgotten today, Valier is one of the great pioneers in the evolution of spaceflight. Even if he didn't contribute much to the technical development of astronautics, he was instrumental in establishing — almost single-handedly — public acceptance and support for rocketry and spaceflight. His educational work inspired an entire generation of future engineers and scientists.
The Valier-Opel Rocket Car
Valier's Evolution of the Spaceship: Take Off
Valier's Evolution of the Spaceship: Rocket Plane
Valier's Evolution of the Spaceship: Rocket