Hans Dominik and Hermann Oberth by Robert Godwin

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Rakete und Mars

A brief exploration of the influence of Hans Dominik's science fiction on Hermann Oberth.

While Robert Hutchings Goddard was haggling with the US military, a young man named Hermann Oberth was being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Oberth was 20 years old and he had spent most of the previous few years convalescing from a serious bout of scarlet fever. Oberth was born in Transylvania in the exact same town where Conrad Haas had conceived of multiple stage rockets over three hundred years earlier. Oberth was born on June 25th 1894, his father was a popular family doctor. His family had hoped that young Hermann would follow in his father and grandfather’s shoes and also become a medical doctor. At first Hermann was willing to oblige and so he moved to Munich to study medicine. When the First World War began he was forced to return to his home in what is now modern-day Rumania, whereupon he was swiftly turned around and sent back into the combat zone as an infantryman. Barely a few months into the war he was wounded and soon found himself back in a hospital, this time he stayed on, as a medic.

Oberth had been pondering the problem of space travel since reading Jules Verne’s From The Earth to the Moon in the winter of 1905-6. The great fiction writer had inspired the eleven year old and soon Oberth was seriously considering the notion that leaving the Earth was actually possible. Over the next few years he would conduct a series of experiments, some of them ill-advised, to satisfy his curiosity and hone his comprehension. He made a trip to the local swimming pool to try and experience free fall. Oberth was a good swimmer and his inquisitive mind led him to conduct a variety of tests underwater. He spent some time jumping from a diving board. Sometimes he would carry an inverted bottle of water and watch as the water seemed to float inside the bottle as he fell. He experimented with hitting the water at an assortment of angles. This gave him some indication of how much negative acceleration a human could withstand. In another test he almost drowned when he lost his equilibrium underwater and found himself “climbing” along the bottom of the pool looking for the surface. It is interesting to note that of the early rocket pioneers, Oberth was the only one of that small group who would have any medical training. His father’s occupation as a doctor almost certainly drove the young Hermann to be amongst the first to consider the physiological effects of space travel.

Since he had studied physics he suspected that Verne’s method of launch would be impractical; science fiction came to the rescue, this time in the form of a short story by Hans Dominik called Journey To Mars. In an interview much later in life, with Russian biographer Boris Rauschenbach, Oberth revealed how this short story had affected his thinking. Dominik had been a student in Kurd Lasswitz’s mathematics class and would go on to write a multitude of science fiction stories, but it was his contribution to the popular magazine The New Universe in 1909 that presented Oberth with many of his ideas for space travel. Rauschenbach states that the story describes nuclear energy and the all-important combustion of hydrogen with oxygen. As far as this author can determine (with a somewhat limited grasp of German) this is an important error made by Rauschenbach. Dominik’s story says nothing about either, but instead relies on “abaric” anti-gravity, using the same term as Lasswitz had done a decade earlier. It would appear that Rauschenbach was confusing this early short story with Dominik’s novel of 1928, The Legacy of the Uranids which does indeed include references to fuel cell-like technology and nuclear power.

Hans Dominik

Born in 1872, Hans Dominik traveled extensively, including three trips to America in 1894, 1897 and again in 1912. On his second trip he became acquainted with Thomas Edison’s wife. Dominik later cited his own influences as three Frenchmen, Henri Parville, Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. As he was a writer of articles on mechanical and electrical engineering it is not out of the realms of possibility that he may have come into contact with Gernsback’s magazines while on his final trip to America. (Certainly he must have encountered Gernsback much later, since his article about airports appeared in the January 1930 issue of Gernsback’s Air Wonder Stories alongside a contribution by another rocket pioneer, Max Valier.) During World War I Dominik worked with his publisher’s son on a version of primitive radar. One is left wondering if Dominik didn’t co-opt the idea from Gernsback’s radar story which had appeared in the December 1911 issue of Modern Electrics. Fortunately for posterity the idea was spurned by the German military establishment as having little strategic value and was subsequently left to the allies; who perfected radar and made good use of it in World War 2.

In his study of German science fiction The Empire Strikes Out, William Fischer makes note of an important conversation that took place in 1919 between Dominik and the general director of his publishing house, Ludwig Klitszch. It seems that Klitszch recognized the growing importance of the fledgling new literature when he said, “The World War has so frazzled everyone’s nerves that…we need a new form in our pleasure reading.” This publishing company, Schwerl Verlag, was owned by Alfred Hugenberg, an industrialist who also purchased the movie studio Universum-Film AG (UFA). Dominik was a very important jewel in the crown of Hugenberg’s publishing empire. According to Fischer, Dominik would be the unchallenged best-selling champion of German science fiction from 1919 until his death in 1945, providing dozens of articles for Hugenberg’s magazines as well as selling perhaps as many as several million novels.

In his biography Fischer also states quite categorically that Dominik wrote nothing even remotely resembling space fiction before his novel The Legacy of the Uranids in 1928. Strangely Fischer seems to have completely overlooked Journey to Mars which appeared in 1909. Admittedly the story is extremely scarce in its original form but it is evidently a very important work since it was so clearly singled out by Oberth later in life.

A Journey to Mars

Journey to Mars occupied 16½ pages of the technical magazine The New Universe, and was accompanied by one black and white illustration and a beautifully elaborate color frontispiece. It is based on a fictional “Mars Prize”, an award established in Paris in 1894 that was to be given to the first person who successfully communicated with Martians. (It is worth noting here that there actually was such a prize, established around 1900 by Madame Clara Guzman, but she wasn’t willing to include Martians since they were apparently going to be too easy to contact!) Dominik shifted the story to the year 2109 when the Mars Prize had been sitting in long term investments and government bonds for over two centuries and had accrued compound interest. A Board of Trustees who spend most of their time staving off schemers and con men administers the Prize. Finally, a German professor of chemistry and physics presents his plan for communicating with Mars. He demonstrates a method of anti-gravity that involves spraying objects with a special anti-gravity fluid. He proposes to the Board that they finance the construction of a spherical spaceship to send to Mars. After some haggling over who gets what portion of the prize money if they succeed, they begin the elaborate construction project. Dominik made it clear that he was modeling the voyage on that proposed by Jules Verne, but he also knew that Verne’s method wouldn’t work. At the very beginning of the story he made reference to an Australian billionaire’s failed attempt at launching a projectile from a giant cannon.

The attempt had failed miserably. Before the guided missile had passed through the Earth’s atmosphere, it was melted into shattered fragments and steam. It has been shown that at such speeds air acts like a solid body. Similarly to how water behaves at lower speeds. Water acts like iron or lead shot from a pistol. At the enormous speed that the Australian projectile left the barrel, air acted just like the water. The attempt to fire a projectile to Mars was completely impractical.

Dominik adopted the well-worn method of anti-gravity, although he took some time to explain that his Professor had somehow polarized gravity “rays” allowing them to pass through any object of his choosing. He then described how his Martian spacecraft would have to be launched at the correct angle from an appropriate place to take advantage of the Earth’s spin. He chose the Congo river basin because it is near to the equator. He then installed an observatory for watching Mars’ position on the summit of Kilimanjaro in today’s Tanzania, the highest point in Africa, at over 19,000 feet.

Biographer Fischer asserts that Dominik rarely bothered to explain his methods, or his fantastic future technologies, but Dominik did in fact go to some lengths to explain how he was going to use the Moon’s gravity as a slingshot to draw in the spacecraft and increase its velocity. He then used Mars’ moons to partially slow down, before subsequently skipping in and out of the Martian atmosphere as a final braking exercise. This seems to demonstrate some considerable thought by Dominik. He equipped his vehicle with “the necessary apparati for air renewal, heating, lighting and so on” and then at the last minute he decided to stabilize the vehicles’ initial erratic trajectory by placing it in a huge glass launching tube that was to be pointed at the desired angle before launch. He then waited for the year 2110, when Mars would be in a favorable opposition, before sending the spherical craft on its way.

The President watched the second hand of his stop watch. When the pointer passed the twentieth second, he pressed the button. In that same instant everyone heard a shrill sound. A large latch plate flew to the side and the spaceship resplendent and opalescent, an enormous projectile, flew from the barrel. With the speed of a rocket it rose diagonally up, and after a few seconds it was gone from the range of the unaided eye. The travelers had settled in and the spaceship had recovered from the launch, which had little vibration.

‘There you see my system differs favorably from that of the old Lunar artillery men,’ said Doctor Mueller after the slight shaking and jerking had quieted down. ‘In those earlier times there was the terrible impact of an enormous, sudden, powder explosion under such planetary projectiles. With my system acceleration sets in gradually, although we are rising quickly we can hardly feel anything during the whole departure.’

These two paragraphs explain in simple terms why Verne’s cannon wouldn’t work and why acceleration needed to be gradual if the occupants were to survive. Dominik even used the word “rocket” to describe his controlled ascent. Next the crew used the moon’s gravity to get up to cruising speed, making sure not to miss their exact trajectory or “we could drift about in the infinity of space.” Dominik’s description of the voyage is short but poetic, “The clock was the only way to track time. There was no other way since they traveled in constant sunlight. The sun flooded through the spaceship and illuminated and warmed them with its rays. On the other side was the pitch black starry sky, and from day to day an individual star, their goal, Mars, grew in size and luminosity. Already after ten days it stood as a fist-sized blood red star in the sky. After fifteen days it reminded them of the moon, and after twenty days they saw it as a curved ball swimming with the details of a world.

This is how Dominik’s protagonist, Doctor Mueller, described the arrival at Mars, “Our astronomers had to aim the barrel at Mars but under no circumstances were they allowed to point it exactly. If they should have aimed so exactly that our spaceship met the sphere of Mars right in the middle then we would be lost. I do not have the means to steer in another direction. If we go past Mars diagonally, then we can slow ourselves at the right moment and thus go into a circular orbit around Mars. Further we can brake the speed of our spaceship during the orbit by using the air so that when we finally land it is without too hard an impact on Mars’ surface. If our astronomers put us on an exact course for Mars then we can still use Mars’ moons to take us off this dangerous course. We can use the moons as emergency switches.

Finally, it seems that the astrophysicists on Earth have done their job well,

Hurrah, we are lucky,” Doctor Mueller finally said after several hours of observation, “we do not need to make any corrections, nothing at all. Our astronomers calculated amazingly well.” Indeed the course of the spaceship passed over the surface of Mars diagonally, and one could notice clearly, how the curvature of the sphere seemed to be turning in motion under the spaceship. “A good sign,” noticed Monsieur Durand. “If we had met Mars head-on it would not have had such an apparent spin to us. Now we notice the spinning, how the fields seem to turn before our eyes, as if we took a straight course over them at 500 kilometers an hour.

It doesn’t look much different to the Earth when we left her,” said Doctor Mueller. “However, it is time we made ourselves heavy again while we are within the range of Mars’ attraction and to undertake the braking impact in its atmosphere.” With these words he threw a lever, and from thousands of tubes the liquid for increasing weight sprayed down on the spaceship. The lever had only been open an instant, but the effect was noticeable immediately. The surface of Mars, which had already moved away a little, seemed to come nearer, and the straight course of the ship changed into a circle. Hour after hour passed, and ever closer came the views of the surface. While they stood at the window and watched the fall to the planet, Doctor Mueller suddenly withdrew his hand from the wall of the ship.

We are already in Mars’ atmosphere,” he said at the same time, “the friction is so intense that the walls heat up at a speed of approximately four miles per second, which is what we have between us and the atmosphere. We must not fall too fast, nor come too fast into thicker air layers otherwise we will melt the whole underside of the spaceship. Our speed must be slowly decreased.” At the same time as he said this he set into action another set of tubes, by which a considerable portion of the spaceship was made weightless (abaric), and this stopped the heating of the ship, since the temperature inside had already become uncomfortable. Gradually and slowly the ship approached the surface of Mars, but while it shot past the surface mile by mile, it lost kilometers of its true air-speed by the friction in the Martian atmosphere. Always they flew along the surface, but came ever closer to it. “We must be careful,” said Doctor Mueller, “we must land somewhere on the Martian surface with a speed of at most two meters per second and with a descent rate of at the most one millimeter per second, if we do not want to seriously endanger our spaceship.

Thus the landing maneuvers began. After hours the spaceship had literally become a balloon. Only a little heavier than air, he gradually lowered it with ease, varying the control until it had completely stopped. There was a final scratch and bump. Then the first spaceship from Earth had weighed anchor on Mars.

The importance of this lengthy extract is self evident. This was written in 1909, fourteen years before the publication of Oberth’s manifesto for spaceflight. Dominik competently dissected and discarded Verne’s cannon theory and, allowing for the appropriation of Lasswitz and Wells’ anti-gravity, made an astonishingly clever and well-crafted analysis of interplanetary flight. There are many other references in the text to an assortment of escape velocities, which again seems to indicate that Dominik had given some considerable thought to the whole process.

Once his heroes are on Mars, Dominik very deliberately seemed to shy away from the popular theories of the time. There are no Martians and there are no canals. The surface is, however florid and bustling with vitality. There are flowers and mushrooms, but no sign of intelligence. The ship has landed on a high mountain top.

We have landed well on this high mountain. The woodlands begin only five hundred meters below, and even if Mars is inhabited, we need to open the spaceship, but I suggest we examine the outside air, and if that all seems correct, then we will step out.” Immediately the travelers brought out a barometer and a thermometer. The thermometer showed ten degrees Celsius, the barometer only one pressure of five hundred millimeters. “The temperature is good but the air will seem a little thin I am afraid, we will need oxygen apparatus,” said Doctor Mueller, while he examined the composition of the air. But after a few minutes he straightened up satisfied. “The air has forty percent oxygen and sixty percent nitrogen, we can go without apparatus, but with the reduced pressure we must be careful. We may not suddenly step outside but we must use the airlock.” Carefully the two travelers stepped through a door into the chamber of the air lock and closed the hermetically sealed door behind themselves. “Now, thus!” Doctor Mueller spoke and untwisted a valve in the external wall. He heard a hissing. Air in the chamber of the lock, which was still at the terrestrial air pressure, vented easily into the lower Martian atmosphere.

Then Monsieur Durand gave a loud cry, while some drops of blood flowed from his nose. The decreased air pressure had been the source of the nose bleed. “It probably went somewhat too fast,” said Doctor Mueller, “however it is probably now equalized, and we can open the outside air lock door.”

A push and the door banged open. The two travelers stood on soil for the first time since they had left, they were outside the spaceship, standing on Martian soil.

Incredibly the insights continue to flow from Dominik. He wondered whether there was any advanced form of life on Mars but realized that on a high mountain top he might never encounter such life. He has the crew set up a small cairn, announcing their achievement, similar to those often left by mountaineers when first conquering a summit. He then has Mueller use a sextant to calculate the exact position of the Earth so that he can be assured of lifting off at precisely the correct time. Even more astonishing is the sequence where the Frenchman, Durand, leaves a mathematical description of Pythagoras theorem so that any possible Martians who might come along later will realize that the travelers were intelligent. This precedes a similar mathematical exercise employed by Doctor Carl Sagan’s team on the Voyager spacecraft by over six decades.

As evidence that they have succeeded, they pick some Martian plants to take back to Earth and then use the same exact procedure to return home, this time using Mars’ moons for a gravity assist and again using the Earth’s atmosphere as a brake. The story then concludes with a glimpse of a further future where trans-interplanetary liners ply the void between Earth and Mars.


It is this author’s opinion that Dominik’s Journey to Mars is an extremely important and little known novella that, by his own admission, played a strikingly meaningful role in Hermann Oberth’s ideas for space travel. There is very little in the way of good information about Dominik in English but the one scholarly study of his work, by William Fischer, in one respect affords him the elevated status of the second most important German writer of science fiction (behind Lasswitz) but at the same time dismisses him almost contemptuously because of Dominik’s political inclinations. There seems little doubt that Dominik was a fascist and a racist. His own comments about the ethnic makeup of America in his autobiography plainly demonstrate this. His novels are still in print in German but they have been groomed and most of the offensive comments have been expunged (much in the same way as those of HG Wells). He was one of the few authors still guaranteed press time during the Second World War and, despite Fischer’s assertion that Dominik had no impact on the German rocketeers, this one example is monumentally important and it is not the end of his involvement, as can be demonstrated by his contributions to Gernsback’s magazines. It seems almost unavoidable that Dominik would have met Oberth in later years. Since Oberth became completely embroiled with the UFA movie studio which was owned by Dominik’s publisher.

It also seems strange that the most famous chronicler of space exploration, Willy Ley, would not mention Dominik in his magnum opus Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel. It would not be overstating it by saying that Ley’s book is considered one of the most important works of space history ever published, mostly due to its scope and meticulous attention to detail, and yet he totally avoids Dominik. With all of Dominik’s connections and fame throughout the science and science fiction community in pre-war Germany this seems more than simple oversight. It could very easily be attributed to the fact that Dominik was a self-proclaimed bigot and anti-semite and this would clearly not have been something that the Germans would want to articulate after arriving in America. It was difficult enough for them to be accepted into American society without making claims of inspiration from radicals like Dominik. It would appear that only many years later, and even then only speaking to a Russian, did Oberth acknowledge any debt to Dominik.

Another Russian, Nikolai Rynin, in 1928 wrote one of the seminal works on early astronautics, Interplanetary Travel & Communication. The very same year, Dominik published his most famous space story (Uranids), and Rynin seems to have been immediately aware of its importance. He added several addenda and footnotes drawing attention to Dominik’s suggestion of the use of atomic energy, ion propulsion and finally hydrogen fueled rockets. Admittedly all of these ideas were well disseminated by 1928, it is still of interest that the Russians seemed to be well informed of Dominik’s writings. In 1911 a Polish author, G. Zulawsky, wrote a novel called In The Silver Sphere, and if Rynin’s synopsis is accurate, it sounds like an elongated version of Dominik’s short story, right down to the launch from the Congo, although the destination is the Moon rather than Mars. Zulawsky’s novel also appeared in Russian.

Later in life Hermann Oberth maintained that at a very early age he had independently calculated the acceleration necessary for a successful launch into space. He apparently realized that there would be no feasible way to use a gun for the launch and so he turned to rockets. The problem with rockets was that it seemed impossible to create an exhaust velocity sufficient to lift the weight of the rocket into space. Jules Verne had correctly calculated the magic number, 11.2 kilometers per second (7 miles per second). Hans Dominik had rearticulated that number in 1909. Oberth decided to turn to a local apothecary who happened to know the muzzle velocity of his hunting rifle, but the numbers he was given were still insufficient, black powder and even Verne’s choice of gun cotton were either inappropriate or inadequate to provide the steady thrust necessary for a space launch.

According to biographer Rauschenbach, the exact year when Hans Dominik’s story appeared (1909), Oberth drew up his first plans for a rocket. It was a solid fuel rocket but it was, nonetheless, a radical departure from the Vernian cannon. It would not be long before Oberth had evolved his theory away from solid fuels, like nitrocellulose, and turned to the much higher energy potential of liquid propellants. He claims that he first designed a rocket using hydrogen and oxygen in 1912.