MAX VALIER: ROCKET MAN
The South Tyrol was the Alpine portion of the Austian Empire, given to Italy after World War I. (It sits next to Trentino, the name given to the bad-guy Ambassador in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup.) Today is it totally bilingual, which helps explain why the Amateurastronomen Max Valier, an amateur astronomy group founded back in 1984, is called that and why the technical high school is the Technologische Fachoberschule "Max Valier." The astronomy group runs the Max Valier Observatory, the only observatory in the South Tyrol. There's a Via Max Valier in the city of Bolzano (formerly Bozen) as well.
Max Valier (pronounced Val-yay) was born in Bozen in 1895 and while he is remembered there others have forgotten that he was once the most famous rocket pioneer in the world.
On April 12, 1928, Valier's design, powered by powder signal rockets made by Friedrich Sander, jury-rigged into an old auto body by Fritz von Opel, the playboy heir to the huge Opel Motor Company, zoomed from zero to 100 km/hr in eight seconds. Von Opel's publicity department saw to it that the press release went to papers around the world.
"We are convinced that the 'Opel Sander Aggregate,' as the new machine is called, will achieve a speed hitherto considered impossible on the surface of the earth, and it will prove to be only a step toward the construction of a rocket air machine and to a cosmos airship on the lines of the Valier project."
"Fantastic Speed Car" screamed the headlines. “All speed records are beatable by the ‘Rocket Car,'" claimed one paper. It "promises to rank among the most notable achievements in science in the present century," said another. The New York Times gave it three pages in their Sunday magazine under the title, “Wizard Science Is Annihilating Space.”
They kept making headlines, both with tests and wild promises. "Berlin to New York in Hour Is Prospect with Rocket Airplane." A "cosmos airship," what we would call a space rocket, was teased as a possibility. Another test produced this astonishing photograph, a slice of the future that seemed to fly off the page.
Valier is always called a showman, but he believed absolutely in the future of rockets. He wrote dozens of articles on rockets and space travel, blanketed Germany, where he now lived, with lectures, helped found the German Rocket Society, and wrote a popular book that put Herman Oberth's equation-laden The Rocket into Interplanetary Space into understandable prose,
Valier, sometimes with von Opel, sometimes other supporters, put his rockets on every form of transportation: a train car, a glider, an ice sled, always moving from solitary testing to huge public demonstrations that drew thousands. Valier and von Opel broke because each wanted the sole spotlight and took fantatic risks in doing so. Von Opel even built a working rocket motorcycle, so foolhardy that the German government, previously eager to help make test venues available, drew the line.
The use of already available powder rockets made these vehicles possible but Valier understood that far more powerful liquid-fueled rockets would be necessary to fulfill any of the promises he made. That required a supply of liquid oxygen, expensive and dangerous. In the spring of 1930 he persuaded Paul Heylandt, a master of the art of liquefying gases, to fund his research as well as provide a test lab and assistants. For years Valier had been barely scraping by, needing to postpone research to make money through lecturing. Even though Valier received no salary for his work, this was his best chance to launch a vehicle closer to his dreams.
On April 17, 1930 he and Heylandt's man, Walter Riedel - who so caught the rocketry bug that he eventually became Wernher von Braun’s Chief of Design at Peenemünde - were working late on a static test bench. Riedel would always remember what happened next:
The chamber was ignited and using the normal test procedure the chamber pressure was increased to 7 atmospheres by regulating the hand-valves for the propellants and water. The pressure had just been reached when a violent explosion occurred. I immediately shut the propellant valves and sprang to Valier, who had collapsed. I just managed to catch him and laid him on the ground. While Arthur Rudolph, a machinist and my co-worker, looked after him, I looked for a car. When I returned 10 minutes later Max Valier was dead. A very small splinter had hit the main artery near the lungs.
With that sudden violent death of the leading figure in rocketry, the same public that crowded dangerously close to earlier tests now denounced rockets as unproductive and risky. The showman's age of rocket cars and planes was essentially over. In a few years the German Army gathered all rocket research into their control and made it a state secret. Many of the early pioneers - those who didn't leave the country altogether - were part of the crew that developed the V-2 rockets, funded by the bottomless pockets of a government which went from putting thousands of marks into rockets to throwing billions at it.
Max Valier's work was forgotten for decades. Not until 1970, when the Numismatic Association Bolzano issued a commemorative coin with a bust of Valier and, on the reverse, one of his planned space rockets, did he receive real public recognition. Since that time, the local amateur astronomers of the South Tyrol - Valier of course started out as an amateur astronomer as a teen - have named more and more space-related objects after him.
And next year, the best of them all. Max Valier will finally get to space. The local technical high schools are designing and will hopefully launch the Max Valier satellite, with duel X-ray astronomy and amateur radio payloads.
Go to Amazon to purchase the ebook of Max Valier: Rocket Man.