Slaves to a Dream
For some people, rockets are erotic. The tall, slender, phallic tube sits on its pad while men who yearn for youth trade in techno-babble. The adventure appeals to most boys, some men, very few girls, and almost no women. Freud probably had a lot to say about this sort of thing, and would have said even more had he lived long enough to witness a thrusting V-2 raping the atmosphere. Most boys grow out of rockets around the time they become interested in girls. A small percentage don't, however, and they often become rocket scientists.
Just after the First World War, a group of these rocket-mad men in Germany got together with the aim of converting their adolescent dreams into physical reality. Their leading light was Hermann Oberth, originally from Transylvania. On May 3, 1922, while a student at Heidelberg University, Oberth wrote Robert Goddard requesting a copy of his controversial paper—the one pilloried in the New York Times. Goddard was flattered that someone was taking him seriously, but felt uncomfortable that his admirer resided in Germany. He was concerned about the German “tendency to turn inventions into weapons of war.”1
A year later, Oberth published The Rocket into Planetary Space. Rather like its author, the book was a mixture of science and fantasy. Oberth had, at an early age, read Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and virtually every other science fiction writer. His book proposed that liquid propellant rockets would allow man to escape the Earth's atmosphere. So far, so good. Then came the fantasy: rockets would lead inevitably to voyages to the outer planets and, eventually, permanent space stations.
The science was derivative, rather too much so for Goddard, who felt plagiarized. He had every reason to feel miffed, but he failed to understand a fundamental principle of space travel, namely that the thrust of a rocket is derived from equal parts fuel and publicity. Since Goddard shunned the latter, his paranoia limited the range of his dreams. The ability to promote oneself and encourage others to think big was essential in order to turn madcap ideas into real rockets.