Monday, November 16, 2015

A Short History of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt

          Chuck Black

The Curator Emeritus of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has added to the history surrounding a small, amateur rocketry association, called the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) and based in Germany prior to World War II, which played a pivotal role in the launching of our first great space age.

Members of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) on April 11th April 1930 in Berlin. Beginning on the left, the image shows Johannes Winkler, Willy Ley, an unidentified person (initially identified by Ley as Wernher von Braun, although the likeness bears little resemblance to known photos of von Braun during this period)), Rudolf Nebel, Max Valier and Erich Wurm. Frequently attributed to Spring 1931, the image was actually taken in April 1930 at an event which Ley described in his book "Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel." Valier was killed in a rocket explosion in May 1930, just days after this photo was taken. Behind the group can be seen a mock-up of a large Oberth rocket which is hanging from the ceiling on a parachute.  Photo c/o The Space Library.

Frank H. Winter, who retired as Smithsonian curator of rocketry in 2007, has just completed a paper on the association, under the title "The German Rocket Society." The paper is currently available online for download on The Space Library.

Frank Winter. Photo c/o Frank Winter. 
Winter takes pains to note that the historical German name for the organization, translates into English as the "Society for Spaceship Travel" or more rarely, the "German Interplanetary Society."

"It was never called the 'German Rocket Society,' or any variation of that name, at least in Germany," said Winter during a recent interview. "The members didn't even do much rocketry until half way through the VfR's existence."

That existence spanned only seven years, from 1927 until 1934, although the legacy of the organization was carried out throughout the war years and led directly to the postwar contributions of German scientists to the American Redstone missile and Apollo programs.

Of course, Winter has written about German rocketry before. His 1983 book, "Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies 1924-1940" (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), went into substantial detail on the VfR and became the gold standard for research in this area over the last 30 years.

Even Willy Ley, who may (or may not) have been a founding member of the VfR (he said he was), wrote in his 1957 book, "Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel," about the formative effect the VfR had on his efforts and the efforts of others.

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So why did Winter decide to revisit this well-tread historical path? That's an easy question to answer.
The VfR was the largest and most prominent association of that period and much new information on their activities has recently come to light...  
Writing a new paper for the Space Library is a marvelous way to promote these new finds and also to help promote some of the other unique documents and source materials already preserved in the Space Library.
Among those unique documents are scans of every issue of "Die Rakete," the official publication of the VfR. Highlights from its first year of publication (1927) include articles on theoretical questions related to the best launch trajectories and times for trips to the Moon, Mars and other planets, radio communications between the Earth and Mars and a long article discussing Einstein's theory of relativity.

Chuck Black.
For more information on Frank Winter's latest contribution to the Space Library or to learn more about the repository, please click on the link above.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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