Willy Ley


Willy Ley : biography

December 2, 1906 – June 24, 1969

As Ley later recalled, he "grew up, so to speak, in the shadow of the Museum of Natural History in Berlin," where he spent Sundays exploring the exhibits and asking questions.Willy Ley, Exotic Zoology, vii When his school teacher asked him to compose an essay on the subject "What Do I Want to Be When I Am Grown and Why?" Ley responded: "I want to be an explorer." To his dismay, the teacher thought this silly, especially for someone of his family background. Plus, what was left to explore in the twentieth century?

Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("By Rocket into Interplanetary Space") Die Fahrt ins Weltall ("Travel in Outer Space") Verein für Raumschiffahrt Die Rakete ("The Rocket")

Due to the influence of Ley and other popular science writers, such as Max Valier, Germans witnessed a short-lived "rocketry fad" in Berlin.Michael J. Neufeld, in Technology and Culture 31:4 (October 1990): 725–752 From exhibits at public locations to large spectator events, such as Fritz von Opel’s rocket-car stunts, the German public was excited about both the future possibilities of space travel and the potential for new "weapons of wonder" that could revive the German Empire.

The "rocketry fad" culminated with Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Die Frau im Mond ("Woman in the Moon"), which became the first realistic depiction of spaceflight in cinematic history. Although Oberth is often credited as the main technical consultant to the film, Ley’s role was of central importance. Oberth was tasked with building a small rocket, to be launched at the film’s premiere. This project never materialized. However, Ley’s work on the movie did. As director Fritz Lang later recalled, "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."Fritz Lang, "Sci-Fi Film-maker’s Debt to Rocket Man Willy Ley," Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1969, pg. P24

Despite the many successes, the "rocketry fad" could not be sustained during the early years of the Great Depression. The German public lost interest amidst economic turmoil. Meanwhile, rocket researchers, such as Rudolf Nebel, formed closer ties with the military, which greatly expanded under the leadership of Wernher von Braun. With the collapse of the VfR, the rise of a culture of necessary secrecy, and the loss of public enthusiasm, Ley grew discouraged. He continued to write articles for the domestic and foreign press, while he stayed in touch with close friends. Yet, for the most part, Ley turned back to his original scientific interests, while writing a biography of Conrad Gessner (the "Father" of modern Zoology). To make ends meet, Ley also worked as a clerk and then manager at a Berlin bank.

When the Nazis seized power, Ley’s situation became increasingly desperate. He was horrified by National Socialism, its ideology, and its style of violent politics. His perception of political events can be inferred from a short science fiction story called "Fog," which Ley wrote in 1940 under the pen name of Robert Wiley.Robert Wiley, "Fog," Astounding Science Fiction (December, 1940) It is a biographical narrative about an office manager dealing with the everyday effects of totalitarianism. Although the story is set in New York City during a failed Communist revolution, it is clear that Ley is retelling his personal experiences in Berlin. In fact, John Campbell, the editor of Astounding, requested that Ley center the narrative on his personal experience.Sam Moskowitz, "Willy Ley in the U.S.A.," Fantasy Review #100 (April, 1987): 17 Ley not only disliked the irrational nature of German politics, but he also associated the Nazis with the rise of "Pseudo-science."Willy Ley, “Pseudoscience in Naziland” Astounding Science Fiction 39/3(1947): 90–98 To make matters worse, Ley had an established reputation as an international scientist, who openly shared and popularized technical information about rocketry, while his articles continued to be republished by foreign newspapers throughout 1934.

In January 1935, Ley used company stationary to write a letter that authorized his vacation in London.Moskowitz, "Willy Ley: Forgotten Prophet," 12 Carrying only his favorite books, a few changes of clothing, and travel documentation, Ley fled Germany for Great Britain and ultimately the United States.