Our latest inductee is Max Valier who despite a relatively short life of 35 years (1895 to 1930) achieved more than enough to earn his place in our Hall of Fame.
Born in Bozen (Bolzano) in the South Tyrolean region of Austria whilst the Austro-Hungarian empire was still wheezing away, Valier enrolled into the University of Innsbruck at the age of eighteen to study physics. In order to earn some money to fund his studies he trained as a machinist in a nearby factory. Unfortunately, however, the outbreak of the First World War disrupted his studies – he never resumed them – and he fought for his Emperor by seeing service in their nascent army air corps as an aerial observer.
Upon his return to civvy street, Max became a freelance science writer. His Road to Damascus moment came in 1923 when he read Hermann Oberth’s Die Rakete zu den Planteenraumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space). His imagination was fired and he set about writing a book – Der Vorstoss in den Weltenraum (The Advance into Space) – which was published in 1924 and aimed to popularise Oberth’s ideas. It was spectacularly successful and by 1930 was in its sixth edition. Valier became a one-man publicity machine for the concept of space travel, publishing articles with titles such as Berlin to New York in one hour and A Daring Trip to Mars.
By the late 1920s Valier was collaborating with Fritz van Opel – of Opel cars fame – to develop a number of rocket-powered cars and aircraft. Whilst van Opel saw these experiments as good publicity for his car manufacturing company, Valier saw them as cementing the concept of rocketry in the public imagination.
Our hero was one of the founding fathers of the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt – the Spaceflight Society – which set about developing prototypes of rockets and developing launch techniques. Success came on 25th January 1930 when at the Heylandt plant they carried out the first successful test firing using liquid fuel. On 19th April 1930 Valier drove the first rocket car fuelled by liquid propulsion.
Unfortunately, as we have come to expect with all our inductees, Max suffered a catastrophic blow on 17th May of that year when an alcohol-fuelled rocket which he was working on exploded in his laboratory, the shrapnel from the explosion killing him outright.
All was not lost, however, because his protégé, Arthur Rudolph, went on to develop an improved and safer version of his engine, laying down the foundations for what became modern space rocketry which, in turn, provided the technology which allowed men to land on the moon (if, indeed, men landed on the moon), bringing Valier’s vision to reality. Valier is commemorated in South Tyrol for his inventive genius and a number of institutions bear his name to this day.
Truly, a great visionary who was killed by his own invention – Valier is a worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.
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