RUSSIA'S Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky (left) never built a rocket, but by 1898 he had worked out the basic principles of rocket dynamics. America's Robert Hutchings Goddard (right) launched the world's first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926 and patented 214 devices and parts, most of them essential to the operation of modern rocket engines. Germany's Hermann Oberth (center) popularized the idea of space travel as a real possibility in his 1923 bestseller The Rocket into Planetary Space, and his writing helped inspire Germany to early prominence in the field.

Tsiolkovsky and Goddard are dead. Oberth, now 75 and living quietly near Nürnberg on a...

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