"Breaking the Chains of Gravity" (Bloomsbury, 2015), by Amy Shira Teitel, explores the little-known early history of spaceflight before NASA.
"Breaking the Chains of Gravity" (Bloomsbury, 2015), by Amy Shira Teitel, explores the little-known early history of spaceflight before NASA.
Credit: Bloomsbury

We know them as the forefathers of rocketry and the giants of NASA, but before that, they were just experimenters, military engineers and enthusiasts — and they had no idea what they were doing.

"Breaking the Chains of Gravity" (Bloomsbury, 2015), by Amy Shira Teitel, documents the building blocks that came together to eventually form NASA, including German rocket designers, Air Force test pilots and rivalries between military branches vying for projects. It's a fascinating look at the early days of missile development, the race to break the sound barrier and the very first orbital experiments — and a rare view of some of the wild ideas when the fundamentals of space travel were almost entirely unknown. (Read a Q&A with the author here.)

In this excerpt from the beginning of the book, Teitel describes a liquid-propelled rocket test, the building of a rocket-powered car and other early German rocket experiments. [Top Milestones in Human Spaceflight]

Amy Shira Teitel is the author of "Breaking the Chains of Gravity." She also runs the blog Vintage Space.
Amy Shira Teitel is the author of "Breaking the Chains of Gravity." She also runs the blog Vintage Space.
Credit: Bloomsbury

On May 17, 1930, dusk fell just before nine o'clock at the end of a warm, clear Saturday in Britz, Berlin, but Max Valier showed no signs of leaving his workbench for an evening of leisure. He remained in his seat, focused on a simple combustion chamber bolted to the table in front of him. It was a simple setup. At the center was a combustion chamber, a simple steel tube with an upward-facing exhaust nozzle. On the other end were a series of small bore holes through which the fuel and oxidizer were introduced. The whole apparatus was set up on a grocery scale. His assistants Arthur Rudolph and Walter Riedel sat some distance away at two tanks, one of kerosene mixed with water and the other of liquid oxygen. The two men manually opened the valves as Valier dictated, sending the fuel and oxidizer into the combustion chamber where they mixed. Once the combustion chamber was adequately pressurized, Valier lit the mixture with a blowtorch. As the jet of flaming gases roared upward from the combustion chamber, directed by the nozzle, the resulting reaction was a downward force onto the scale. While the engine burned, Valier added weights to the other side of the scale until it was properly balanced, giving him a crude measure of the engine's efficiency.

That day, Valier had made two successful tests with the same setup. Two good burns in the combustion chamber had yielded good data. A third test had failed, the accompanying jolting motions deforming the test hardware at the same time. At that point Riedel had pushed for the skeleton crew to end their day and start fresh the next day, but Valier's enthusiasm had been indomitable. He was so encouraged by the after- noon's successes that he pushed for one final test to end the day on a high note. The combustion chamber was reassembled, the fuel and liquid oxygen tanks were hooked up.

As he had done dozens of times before, Valier moved the flame toward the pressurized combustion chamber, but instead of the slow, steady burn he was expecting, the space was rocked by an earsplitting explosion. Unbeknownst to Valier, part of the emulsified mix of kerosene and water had combined with liquid oxygen to form a jellylike substance that stuck to the sides of the chamber where it burned with explosive, deadly force. Riedel instinctively closed the valves on the tanks and rushed to Valier's side, barely catching the man before he collapsed to the floor. Passing a stricken Valier off to Rudolph and their machinist, Riedel ran outside in search of a passing car to send for help, but it was too late. There had been no protective shield between Valier and the combustion chamber. When it exploded, a piece of shrapnel had pierced Valier's pulmonary artery. That day, one of Germany's most notable popularizers of rocketry and space travel bled to death on the floor of a Spartan laboratory.

Valier had made a name for himself and for rocketry by undertaking similarly dangerous and almost foolhardy public experiments extolling the virtues of rocket propulsion. It was a boyhood fascination come to life, full-scale experiments by the man who, as a child, had attached firecrackers to model airplanes and sent them hurtling through the skies of Innsbruck in Austria during school holidays. As an adult, Valier found a kindred spirit in Romanian-born physicist Hermann Oberth.

Hermann Oberth (center), was the mentor of Wernher von Braun (second from right).
Hermann Oberth (center), was the mentor of Wernher von Braun (second from right).
Credit: NASA

Oberth found rockets through French novelist Jules Verne. While recovering from a bout of scarlet fever in Italy when he was fourteen, Oberth read Verne's 1865 novel De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), which tells the story of a group of Americans from the Baltimore Gun Club who build a massive cannon and shoot themselves in a train-like vehicle to the Moon. More than the fantastic story, it was the realistic potential of rocket propulsion for spaceflight that had captivated Oberth, though he knew black powder like the characters in the story used couldn't get a spacecraft to the Moon. Black-powder rockets simply didn't have enough power. But Oberth suspected liquid-propelled rockets would.

And so he set out designing a simple, proof-of-concept rocket called a recoil rocket that would propel itself through space by expelling exhaust gases from its rear end. It was a basic application of Newton's third law that states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The expulsion of gas behind the rocket would propel it forward. But a paternal tradition intervened to derail Oberth's pursuit of rocketry. In 1912, he moved to Germany to study medicine at the University of Munich. It was a short-lived career. After serving in the First World War with a medical unit on the battlefield, Oberth determined he was not destined for life as a physician.

After the war, Oberth returned to the university, resolved to change his path. He switched his field of study from medicine to mathematics and physics, and self-specialized in rocket propulsion. The work culminated in a doctoral dissertation on liquid rockets and their application for spaceflight, but the work was rejected by his advisers in 1922. Though astonishing, his committee said, the paper failed to meet the requirements for a degree in classical physics. Rocketry and spaceflight were fodder for science fiction, they believed. It was a blow strong enough to turn the young physicist away from academia but not from the pursuits of rocketry. Oberth circulated his rejected thesis among publishers and eventually found a small press willing to print the volume.

Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Planetary Space) reached bookshelves in 1923, but it wasn't widely well received. Though less than a hundred pages long, it was sufficiently dense and loaded with complex diagrams and calculations to alienate the casual reader. But the book did strike a chord with amateur rocket enthusiasts who were similarly taken by the prospect of rocket propulsion as a means to space travel. Among Die Rakete's avid readers was Max Valier, who was so taken with the work that he wrote to Oberth in 1924. The initial letter sparked a fruitful correspondence. Oberth acted as the teacher to the enthusiastic student Valier, the pair discussing the fundamentals of rocketry, best practices of testing, and even a plan to publish a book together. The joint work would play to both men's strengths. Oberth would supply the technical details while Valier would finesse the writing such that it would be accessible to the layman. But it wasn't long before the duo reached an impasse regarding methods. In discussing plans for future rocket research, Oberth wanted to undertake a step-by-step test program to gradually explore and understand the power of liquid-propelled rockets, while Valier wanted to use avail- able powder rockets to gather basic data points. Valier also wanted to carry out these experiments in public, something Oberth found flashy and unscientific. But Valier knew this was the best way to secure patrons for an undertaking as lofty as rocket research.

Valier had subsidized a career of research and public talks by strapping rockets to anything that moved, beginning with cars. Valier found a willing patron in German automotive industrialist Fritz von Opel, who was willing to strap rockets to one of his vehicles as a way of demonstrating their power. The first collaboration between the automobile manufacturer and the rocket enthusiast was the Opel-Sander Rak.1, a standard Opel race car whose engine had been removed. Its new power source was a cluster of solid rockets manufactured by Friedrich Wilhelm Sander and strapped to the rear. But it hardly looked like a rocket car. Boxy in the front with wheels sitting on either side of its main body, the Opel-Sander Rak.1 was not an aerodynamic streamlined design. It was, however, ready for a test drive.

On March 12, 1928, the Opel-Sander Rak.1 was parked on the circular racetrack at the Opel factory. Behind the wheel sat race car driver Kurt C. Volkhart. No one knew exactly what to expect, but with his life on the line even a seasoned driver like Volkhart sat with his hands stretched out before him, bracing himself like he was about to be shot from a cannon. The rockets were lit before a small crowd of onlookers waiting anxiously to either see a rocket car race down a track or erupt in a fiery explosion. Two bright jets appeared amid a cloud of smoke, signaling that the fuses were burning. When the fire reached the rockets, there was a sudden loud hissing noise. The Rak.1 started moving, but almost before it could gather momentum the powder was exhausted and the rockets lost thrust. The world's first rocket car had covered five hundred feet in thirty-five seconds with a top speed of just five miles per hour. On the sidelines, von Opel failed in his attempts not to laugh. Unwilling to stand by and be ridiculed, Valier decided to sacrifice one of his small, two-inch bore rockets. Without an aerodynamic cap or the right length guiding pole, he launched the rocket. The gathered spectators, including von Opel, watched as it shot to a height of more than thirteen hundred feet in about two seconds. This simple demonstration silenced von Opel's laughter and brought the media around to the exciting potential of rockets applied to travel.

Valier knew the problem with the Rak.1 came down to friction; the car's wheels moving against the asphalt was too much for the rockets to overcome. And so he tried taking advantage of momentum, lighting the rockets when the car was already moving. The results were better, though still not the explosive run he wanted. With the car traveling at eighteen miles an hour, the lit rockets increased its speed threefold. Building off this first successful run, Valier and von Opel developed a second version of the rocket car, the Opel Rak.2. It was a more streamlined design: Its forward end was tapered like a bullet, and wheels were housed in wells within the body. Valier even added small inverse wings on either side of the car to keep the wheels pressed to the ground, just in case the rockets accelerated the car enough for it to become airborne. The Rak.2 was also designed to allow the driver to ignite the rear-mounted rockets by a pedal in his footwell. With twenty-four rockets in the back and von Opel himself at the wheel, this second rocket car reached a top speed of about 145 miles per hour on the Avus Speedway in Berlin two months after the first Rak.1 failed to impress. It was a vast improvement over previous rocket runs, but it didn't surpass the power of traditional combustion engines. Weeks before the Rak.2's run, American driver Ray Keech set a landspeed record of nearly 208 miles per hour at Florida's Daytona Beach Road Course in the triple-engined internal combustion White Triplex Spirit of Elkdom.

Asphalt, Valier realized, was still a problem, creating too much friction with the tires for the rocket cars to reach their top potential speed. To solve the problem, Valier developed a vehicle designed to run on rails. The Eisfeld-Valier Rak 1, so named to reflect a new partnership with the J. F. Eisfeld Powder and Pyrotechnical Works firm from Silberhütte- Anhalt in central Germany, made its first test runs in the Harz Mountains at the end of the summer and early autumn. Valier's instinct might have been right, but the execution revealed a host of problems with this design. The wheeled sled gained too much speed, flew off the track, and crashed. The wheel struts mounted below the vehicle broke and destroyed tracks. One test in early October saw the wheels completely separate from the vehicle. It was an embarrassing failure for Valier, who had invited guests from the national railways to the October test in an attempt to secure a new investor for his idea. Instead, the incident prompted local authorities to step in. His rocket-powered vehicles were banned as safety hazards, though the ban was eventually lifted.

The failed rail runs inspired Valier to try his hand at developing a rocket vehicle with no moving parts. What emerged from this goal was a long, slender sled sitting on skids with a rear seat for a pilot. Behind the seat was a bank of small rockets. The Rak Bob, as it was called, made a series of demonstration runs at a winter sports festival in early 1929 on Bavaria's Eibsee Lake. It was one of Valier's more promising designs; so great was his faith in the vehicle that he felt safe enough to let his wife, Hedwig, behind the wheel. The sled tore across the wintry landscape at impressive speeds, traveling so fast that when Valier studied the tracks of some test runs, he found they disappeared in places. The Rak Bob actually went fast enough to lift off the ground. But fast land vehicles had never been Valier's goal. What he had always wanted to develop was a means of achieving rocket-powered flight, and for that his only means for testing was to attach rockets to lightweight airplanes.

The Wasserkuppe is a high plateau in Germany's Rhön Mountains. In the 1920s, it was a popular spot for sailplane pilots, who rode the strong updrafts high above and across the valleys stretching out below. In March 1928, Valier and Sander took a trip to the Wasserkuppe to meet with sail- plane designer Alexander Lippisch. Valier didn't tell Lippisch his name or his intentions in the meeting, maintaining a mysteriously low profile while peppering Lippisch with questions about a custom sailplane design. He wanted some- thing lightweight and tailless for a ver y special purpose, he told the sailplane designer, divulging only that it would involve a high thrust rear-mounted engine. Lippisch and his designers were skeptical of the stranger's odd request but consented to build the plane. Days later, Lippisch recognized Valier in a picture accompanying an article in a local newspaper about rocket cars. Realizing who the stranger was, Lippisch became more interested to see how the rocket popularizer's mysterious sailplane test would turn out.

The sailplane Valier eventually procured was a specially modified Lippisch Ente (which means "duck" in German), a moniker derived from the plane's long, beak-like structure jutting out front. In place of the absent tail were two cylindrical rockets packed with nearly nine pounds of compressed black powder that were wired to be electrically ignited from the pilot's seat. In the cockpit on the morning of June 11, 1928, was one of Lippisch's company test pilots named Friedrich Stamer. As Valier had done with the rocket cars, Stamer got the Ente flying before lighting the rockets one at a time. A quiet hissing told him the first rocket was burning; for the moment there was no significant speed increase to disrupt the easy flight. Seconds later, the hiss was replaced by a booming explosion. In an instant the Ente was on fire. Without succumbing to panic, Stamer managed one of the finest landings of his career to that point, getting the flaming plane to the ground before the second rocket had a chance to ignite. Only once he was on the ground did the pilot react with panic. He wriggled out of the plane and rolled in the wet grass to extinguish and soothe his own rear end while the Ente's burned. Stamer walked away from the flight unharmed. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the plane.

Years of mixed results in testing rocket-powered automobiles, sleds, and sailplanes all fed into Valier's ultimate dream of using rocketry to shrink the world. He imagined a future where people would cross the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to America in under an hour thanks to rocket propulsion. And from there, he pictured rockets propelling planes higher and faster to the point where they could escape the Earth's atmosphere to fly in space. But he knew this dream could never be a reality if he didn't move away from the black powder rockets he had been using in his public demonstration tests. Powder simply couldn't deliver the power needed to send an airplane rocketing across an ocean or into space. For that, he would need liquid propulsion, and he sought to bring more minds to bear on the challenge of developing this science.

In the back parlor of an alehouse in Breslau on June 5, 1927, Valier met with a small cohort of rocket enthusiasts, scientists who also wanted to bring this fantastical idea firmly into the realm of reality. The group, all drawn to the rockets described in Oberth's Die Rakete, founded the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) that afternoon with the goal of actually building the rockets described by their icon. Their ultimate goal was summed up in their simple motto: "Help to create the spaceship!" [Sputnik: How the World's 1st Artificial Satellite Worked (Infographic)]

Oberth joined the VfR in 1929, following an invitation from Valier, one of the last letters between the two men before disagreements over how to approach rocket testing led to their falling out. By then, the society's roster had swelled to more than eight hundred members, from writers to engineers to scientists. And many, like Oberth, found Valier's methods more frustrating than fruitful. Though the popularity of his experiments was certainly good for exposure and patronage, most felt Valier's showmanship denigrated what they were trying to do, turning rocketry into a sideshow rather than a serious field of science. Though he was a founding member, a rift soon developed between Valier and the VfR. It widened until rocketry's greatest cheerleader left the society he'd founded.

The same year Oberth joined the VfR he released an expanded version of his published thesis. The new book, retitled Ways to Spaceflight, was more than four hundred pages long and secured Oberth's place as a legitimate rocket scientist. This edition was far more readable, using stories of flights to the Moon to illustrate difficult concepts, and expanded discussions that answered questions critics had raised after reading the earlier edition. The new book also brought six years of additional research to the discussion, covering topics such as optimal flight trajectories for rockets carrying payloads off the planet. Launching a rocket straight up was instinctual but inefficient, Oberth wrote. It was similar to what Valier found with his first rocket car experiments, only this time it was friction with the air and not asphalt that would hinder the rocket. When traveling directly through the atmosphere, the air would drag on the rocket, costing precious energy. It would be better, Oberth suggested, to launch a rocket on an easterly path, allowing it to use the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation for a slight increase in speed that would make up for the speed lost through atmospheric friction.

Oberth's expanded work reached well beyond his scientific peers and into the realm of artists, catching the attention of Fritz Lang. The acclaimed silent film director had debuted his eleventh directorial effort, Metropolis, four years earlier to great fanfare. The film, which tells the grisly story of a futuristic world where subterranean slave labor powers the lives of the rich who live aboveground, entranced audiences. Building off that success, Lang sought to capitalize off the national interest in rocketry. Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, had written a script about an intrepid crew who fly to the Moon to confirm an aging doctor's theory that its mountains hold more gold than any reserves on Earth. In bringing von Harbou's story to life, Lang wanted the film, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), to balance the fantastic plot with technical accuracy. And so he hired Oberth as the film's technical adviser.

The prospect delighted Oberth; he knew a realistic movie about rockets would not only popularize the field, it might bring in money for research as well. The physicist threw himself into the project, advising Lang on practical aspects like the size and architecture of the rocket as well as a realistic depiction of the best trajectory for a flight to the Moon. Though Lang exerted his artistic license over Oberth's technical direction, the film was nevertheless the first to depict a realistic rocket leaving the Earth. In the launch scene, Lang shows the massive rocket crawling along rails from its assembly building to the launch site while searchlights sweep over its impressive structure. Once at its destination, the rocket is lowered into a tank of water, covering it almost to the nose—a means to absorb the vibrations and acoustics of the fiery launch. The rocket's engines ignite, bubbling the water away as it shoots upward toward the Moon to the delight of the gathered crowd watching from nearby bleachers.

Though Oberth was certainly pleased to have a hand in advising the technical aspects of Frau im Mond, it was a spin-off from this project that really excited the scientist. Willy Ley, a fellow member of the VfR and avid rocket popularizer, suggested that Oberth build and launch a real liquid-fueled rocket to coincide with the film's release. It could not be a rocket large enough to go to the Moon as in the film, but it would be an incredible publicity stunt. The film company, Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft, and its marketing department backed the idea and granted Oberth a small amount of funding. There was, however, one condition. UFA stipulated that Oberth had to pay the company 50 percent of any future proceeds he might make from the technology he developed in building this rocket.

Potential future profits weren't on Oberth's mind when he brought fellow VfR member Rudolf Nebel on board and began designing his rocket. Its power source was a liquid-fueled engine of his own design that burned a mixture of liquid oxygen and gasoline. But turning his theory, calculations, and thought experiments into a viable flying rocket turned out to be far easier said than done. His choice of fuel turned out to be a tricky mix. One propulsion experiment had him observe the behavior of a fine stream of gasoline as it was introduced into a container filled with liquid oxygen. The mixture was lit as it would be inside the rocket's combustion chamber, but the reaction became explosive. The blast burst Oberth's eardrums and burned the skin around his left eye, nearly costing him the organ. Gasoline and liquid oxygen, the physicist learned that day, combust considerably faster in a limited, narrow space.

Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger jumps from the Excelsior III balloon gondola in a 1960 test, free-falling toward Earth for more than 4 minutes.
Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger jumps from the Excelsior III balloon gondola in a 1960 test, free-falling toward Earth for more than 4 minutes.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

Unfortunately, Oberth's progress was slower than he had anticipated, and he couldn't meet UFA's planned launch day of October 29, 1929. The company issued a simple press release in advance of Frau im Mond's premiere explaining that the launch had been canceled due to unfavorable weather. It was an entirely fabricated excuse, but the public wouldn't know the difference, and it saved Oberth a considerable amount of embarrassment, though he was not immune to the sting of failure. The film was incredibly well received at its October 15 premiere, but while the social, intellectual, and political elite praised Lang for creating another masterpiece, Oberth was all but ignored. Disillusioned and broke, he left Berlin for Romania to rejoin his family. [How the First Human Spaceflight Worked (Infographic)]

A few months later, a new opportunity arose to lure Oberth back to Germany. Nebel had secured funding from the government-sponsored Reich Institute for Chemistry and Technology, and with this influx of money the VfR hoped to bring Oberth's rocket to life. Oberth consented to return after Nebel's persistent imploring invitations, and this time he set to work with a larger team plucked from the VfR. He recruited Klaus Riedel, an engineer from the Siemens Company, which manufactured electronics for radios and electron microscopes, along with Wernher von Braun, a teenage engineering student at the Berlin Institute of Technology. An avid amateur astronomer fascinated with the stars and the idea of visiting other planets, von Braun had also become a fan of Oberth's after reading the original Die Rakete in 1923. The young student saw in Oberth's work a means to leave the planet, and was in the rare position of having the means to engage in this costly pastime, afforded him by his wealthy father, Magnus Freiherr von Braun.

Valier had given his life to the pursuit of liquid propulsion when Oberth's new team began experiments that were strikingly similar to the one that claimed their former colleague. At the core of the rocket they were trying to build was a basic engine Oberth called the Kegeldüse. Its combustion chamber was a hollow steel cone with two inlet ports, one for the fuel and the other for the oxidizer. To test the engine, the team secured the chamber inside a metal bucket filled with water as a coolant, oriented so its exhaust end was facing up and any thrust produced pushed downward. The bucket was then placed on a grocer's scale, allowing Oberth, like Valier before him, to measure the thrust of the engine.

Oberth's first test came on July 23, 1930. Rain cast a gloomy mood over the group, exacerbated by the presence of an outsider. The director of the sponsoring Reich Institute for Chemistry and Technology was on hand to verify the results and confirm that the money invested hadn't been wasted. Oberth anxiously watched as his assistants set up the test, then pressurized the combustion chamber. It fell to Riedel, as one of the junior members on the small team, to throw the burning, gasoline-soaked rag into the upward-facing exhaust nozzle. He did, and there was no explosion. Instead, a roaring three-foot-tall spear of flame shot upward from the chamber. The Kegeldüse burned for ninety seconds and delivered a constant thrust of 15.4 pounds. The success of the test vindicated Oberth after the Frau im Mond failure, but without additional research funding he was again forced to return to Romania where a job teaching math to high school students would allow him to support his family. The rocket research stayed in Germany in the hands of Nebel, von Braun, and the rest of the VfR.

The VfR, however, did not have the means to continue where Oberth's testing left off. They were without university, military, or industry sponsorship and also without a dedicated laboratory space. In addition, they faced legal restrictions over rocket testing, a frustrating if understandable result of Valier's death. Nebel and Riedel managed some small experiments at a family farm in the latter's hometown, but it was clear they needed a better space to work, some permanent facility to serve as their home base. If the VfR was going to crack the secrets of liquid-fueled rocket propulsion, they would need a better test site to work the kinks out of their designs than a field in Riedel's native Bernstadt.

It was Nebel who found the group a home in the fall of 1930. Down a bad road in Berlin's northern suburb of Reinickendorf, he found a vacant property surrounded by a wire fence. Covering roughly two square miles, the site consisted of a half dozen munitions storage buildings, each surrounded by earthen walls forty feet high and sixty feet thick with narrow passages giving access to the buildings. It was a former ammunitions dump disused since the First World War and a perfect site for rocket testing. Nebel negotiated a lease with the city, which granted the VfR access to the munitions storage sites as well as a small administrative building on the condition that no facility be permanently altered and no equipment installed that could not be removed within forty-eight hours. The cost of the lease more than made up for the restrictive terms. The VfR leased the site for one year for just ten German marks ($42 or £204). On September 27, 1930, the day the group took possession, Nebel mounted a sign on the front that read Raketenflugplatz Berlin. It was Berlin's first rocket airdrome.

This photo from 1953 shows different aircraft tested by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
This photo from 1953 shows different aircraft tested by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Credit: NASA

The Raketenflugplatz slowly took shape. The first members of the VfR to arrive set up Spartan living quarters and laboratories before turning their attention to the task of developing a viable liquid-fueled rocket. Without a sponsor, the group relied on members with financial means donating what they could toward building test stands and parts for rocket engines, but more often the group turned to bartering. They would trade unneeded materials for things they did need and offer their skills as mechanics for parts. At times they even bartered for food to keep the team going.

Taking a leaf out of Valier's book, the VfR also sought to engage the locals and secure donations through public demonstrations. Nebel took the lead in publicizing the VfR's activities, inviting visitors to the Raketenflugplatz for engine tests. Unfortunately, funding and donations typically hinged on a successful demonstration, and with success fairly rare, the VfR was forced to proceed with minimal resources and simplistic test setups. But when success came it was exciting. The team was testing a Repulsor rocket in early 1931, a design consisting of an engine encased in water for cooling with a long support stick training behind it for guidance. The stick was connected to the liquid oxygen and gasoline tanks that fed the engine. Four fins attached to the base were designed to keep it from flying erratically. A parachute in a compartment at the rocket's rear end would deploy to slow its landing after the powered flight was over. All told, it was a small rocket, about twelve feet long and weighing about forty-five pounds when fueled. On February 21, the team was testing the Repulsor's engine when the whole rocket suddenly shot into the air. It rose to about sixty feet before falling back down, sustaining minor damage in the process. It was an accidental first launch, but one the VfR was very pleased with.

The first year at the Raketenflugplatz was a busy one, with 87 launches and 270 static firings, engine tests with the hardware bolted firmly in place so it wouldn't move. And things seemed poised to improve. The public was still interested in rockets in 1931, so much so that the media was seeking out interesting rocket tests for the sake of a good story. In October, Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft, the film company behind Lang's Frau im Mond, sent a crew to the VfR's suburban facility to film a weekly newsreel featuring a Repulsor launch. With the cameras rolling, a rocket roared to life and cleared the launchpad, disappearing into the sky before the delighted film crew's eyes. Soon after, the parachute tore off, and the rocket, still sputtering flames from the remnants of the gasoline in its fuel tank, weaved through the sky before landing on an old shack across the road from the Raketenflugplatz.

The last traces of gasoline in the tank set fire to the structure, which turned out to belong to the local police. Uniformed officers stormed the Raketenflugplatz, demanding all rocket testing be stopped immediately. The VfR fought back, arguing that the odd test was bound to go wrong. After much discussion, tempers cooled, and the men settled on a compromise: The VfR could continue firing their rockets provided they place firmer safety restrictions on their activities. It was a happy resolution for the VfR and an entertaining newsreel for UFA. But the media wasn't the only group with money that was starting to take notice of the rockets flying about the Raketenflugplatz.

Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.