Willy Ley was a prolific writer and lecturer on scientific subjects. He was one of the earliest proponents of a manned flight to the Moon. Unfortunately, died less than one month before seeing his life-long dream become a reality.
Ley was born in Berlin, Germany on October 2, 1906, and received a degree in journalism from the University of Koenigsberg. Originally interested in paleontology, he became fascinated with space travel after reading Hermann Oberth’s pioneering books on the subject. In 1926, Ley published his first book, Die Fahrt ins Weltall (The Journey into Space). The next year he helped found the German VfR (Society for Spaceship Travel). Over the next several years he published several books promoting spaceflight while also editing the VfR’s journal, Die Rakete (The Rocket). When Wernher Von Braun joined the club in 1931 his first rocket tutor was Willy Ley.
In 1928, Ley wrote Die Möglichkeit der Weltraumfahrt (The Possibility of Interplanetary Travel). It was the inspiration behind the influential German film, and book, Die Frau im Mond, ( The Woman in the Moon). With the rise of Hitler’s Nazi regime in 1932 and the collapse of the VfR in 1934, Ley left Germany in 1935. He came to the United States under the auspices of the American Rocket Society and became a U.S. citizen in 1944. His literary works on astronautics and astro-history that he would write in America are considered classics in their field.
Ley immediately joined the American Rocket Society, experimenting with rockets from 1936 on. He soon discovered that, compared to the situation in Germany, public enthusiasm over the possibility of manned rocket flight in the U.S. was seriously lacking. He, therefore, wrote articles and books publicizing the practicality of manned spaceflight in the relatively near future. In 1944, Ley published Rockets: the Future of Travel Beyond the Stratosphere, expressing his belief that rockets would soon be able to carry humans into space, perhaps even to the Moon. This was one of the earliest books on rocketry for the general American public and served as a basic reference source for future science fiction and reality writing. It was re-issued as Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space in 1968. Ley’s most influential work, however, was the best-selling The Conquest of Space, published in 1949 with lavish illustrations by Chesley Bonestell.
Willy Ley’s text for The Conquest of Space opened the doors of many minds to the idea that mankind was truly capable of leaving the earth behind. He was one of several specialists, including Wernher von Braun and Fred Whipple, who contributed articles to an edition of Collier’s magazine entitled “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.” Ley also served as technical advisor for the Tom Corbett Space Cadet television series in the early 1950s and Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland television series. Willy Ley died in Queens, New York on June 24, 1969, less than a month before the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Ley Crater on the far side of the Moon is named in his honor.