Willy Ley – Founder of the German Rocket Society

Willy Ley (right), with Wernher von Braun (center), and Dr. Heinz Haber (left)

On October 2, 1906, German-American engineer, science writer, spaceflight advocate, and historian of science Willy Ley was born. Ley is known for being the founder of the German Rocket Society, one of the first group of men to experiment with rockets. Fiercely anti-Nazi, unlike Wernher von Braun, in 1934, he emigrated to the U.S. rather than pursuing military applications of rocketry. In the U.S., he became a popularizer of space exploration and travel, writing many popular books.

Willy Ley was born in Berlin, Germany and studied journalism at the University of Königsberg. Initially, Ley was interested in paleontology but later on, he became increasingly fascinated by space travel. First, he was influenced by Hermann Oberth’s pioneering works and published his first on work on the topic titled ‘Die Fahrt ins Weltall‘ (The Journey into Space). Shortly after, Ley helped to found the German Society for Space Travel and continued publishing several books promoting spaceflight. Also, Ley was editor of the Rocket Society’s journalDie Rakete‘ (The Rocket). [1,2]

The Possibility of Interplanetary Travel‘ or as originally titled Die ‘Möglichkeit der Weltraumfahrt‘ was published by Willy Ley in 1928 and highly influenced the production of Fritz Lang’s filmWoman in the Moon‘. Oberth and Ley were both consulted for the film. While Oberth was appointed to create a small rocket to be launched in the film’s premiere. However, this was never realized. Nevertheless, Fritz Lang later recalled the work together with Willy Ley as very fruitful: “The work he had done as consultant and advisor… was amazing. The models of the spaceship, really a highly advanced model of a rocket, the trajectories and the orbits of the modular capsule from the earth, around the earth, and to the moon and back… were so accurate that in 1937 the Gestapo confiscated not only all models of the spaceship but also all foreign prints of the picture”. [2,3]

Unfortunately, Willy Ley had to leave Germany due to the rise of the Nazi Party in 1935 and the German Rocket Society collapsed. Ley departed for the United States under the auspices of the American Rocket Society. He became a member of the Society and a citizen of the United States in 1944. Also, he continued writing works on astronautics and astro-history, which are considered classics in the field. However, Ley also noticed that the general enthusiasm over the possibility of manned rocket flight in the U.S. was not a big as in Germany. In order to change this, he began writing articles and books promoting manned spaceflight and it’s practicability in the relatively near future. He also wrote one of the earliest books on rocketry for the general American public and expressed his belief that rockets would soon be able to carry humans into space, and even to the Moon. To his best selling works belongs ‘The Conquest of Space’, published in 1949. It is believed that this text paved the way for many further ideas on the possibilities of space travel. Conquest of Space after the concept of Willy Ley was released as a science fiction movie in 1955. It depicts the first voyage to the planet Mars [2,3].

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video interview with Willy Fey.

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