He drove his rocket car 150 mph in the 1920s. He founded the rocketeering society whose members put America on the Moon. He died a rocketeer’s death. His name was Max Valier. This is his story.
Valier was born in 1895 in the southwestern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the city of Bolzano, located in the mountains of modern Italy. He studied physics, served as an aerial observer in World War I, and was writing about science when, at the age of 28, he came across the book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket Into Interplanetary Space). Rakete was the work of Hermann Oberth, an ethnic German from Transylvania, one of the founders of modern rocketry.
Inspired by Oberth’s work, Valier was one of the three men who founded Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), an amateur society of rocketeers who would prove vastly more influential than their humble Berlin origins would suggest. VfR attracted the bright and adventurous young scientists and tinkerers of Germany, among them a certain Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun, a German-American rocket scientist, was the central engineer of Germany's pre-war rocket development and later, after immigrating to the United States, served as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center.
However, Valier had his sights on more earthbound targets than von Braun. He joined Rocket Fritz—company founder Adam Opel’s grandson Fritz von Opel—to build rocket cars for promoting Opel’s regular cars. Rockets would not prove to be very well suited for propelling cars, as Oberth would point out to Valier, but they reached speeds of 150 mph and looked awesome. How awesome? In the case of the Opel RAK.2, this awesome:
Following the association with Rocket Fritz, Valier went on to design his own rocket cars (pictured on top is the Valier RAK.6). In 1930, at the age of 35, he was
experimenting with an alcohol-fueled rocket engine when it exploded on his test bench. The shrapnel severed his aorta, killing him instantly.
But Valier’s work lived on. A young 24-year-old apprentice took his engine, improved on it, and finished it in secrecy. His name was Arthur Rudolph, and in 1963—after a detour with the rest of the members of VfR—he used Valier's technology as the manager of the Saturn V project—the rocket that put America on the Moon.
Where astronauts drove moon buggies instead of rocket cars.