From Nazis to NASA: von Braun

Jennifer Wilding and Ralph Zuljan

Wernher Maximillian Magnus von Braun was a man possessed by visions of the future. The second of the three sons of Baron Magnus von Braun, Wernher was born on March 23, 1912 in what was then Wirsitz, in East Prussia (now Wyrzysk, Poland). His boyhood was characterized by pranks, low grades and a passion for rockets. Drawings of moon rockets and space stations decorated Wernher's school books.

Early experimentation landed Wernher in trouble more the once. His runaway rockets usually exploded, sometimes in shops or produce carts and occasionally started fires. What was perhaps the most spectacular incident involved a rocket propelled cart that shot out of control into the Berlin traffic, resulting in chaos and the arrest of thirteen year old Wernher. He was released to the custody of his father, then the Minister of Agriculture and Education for the Wiemar Republic.

The Baron held this post until Hitler came to power. Refusing to be part of the Nazi movement, he retired and went home. (His son was a member of the Nazi Party. While working as an assistant professor in Berlin he received a letter stating that the Party was pleased to accept him as a member, his membership fees were due on a certain date. As it was a case of join or lose everything, Wernher prudently paid up.)

Baron von Braun, tired of his son's pranks and abysmal academic performance, sent him to boarding school. It was there that Wernher realized he could not build rockets without mathematics, and he began to achieve spectacular success in math and engineering related sciences. His grades were so high Wernher graduated a year early.

While studying engineering at the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology Wernher joined the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt, the Society for Space Travel, a group of amateur rocket enthusiasts in Berlin. In 1930 he launched his first real rocket. It did not actually fly, but the engine worked and the members of the VfR kept on trying. In 1932 von Braun and his friends demonstrated the Mirak ll rocket to a group of army munitions men. The rocket was not a success but von Braun was identified as a man to watch. If he would obtain his doctoral degree the German army would fund all the rocket research von Braun could carry out. Wernher, rocket mad, took the bait.

Von Braun began building rocket engines for the German army. After some spectacular failures and a number of fires it was time to begin building complete rockets. In 1934 the "A" rocket series began. The A series was a very hit-and-miss proposition. The A-1 never got built, the A-2 worked, but not very well and the A-3 did not work at all. This last was designed to be a reusable rocket, it's major defect lay in the parachute landing gear. The A-4 was a very successful design, and was the first rocket to actually go into space. It later became known world wide as the V-2, precursor to the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) that followed.

Rocket design in Nazi Germany was an intensely competitive activity and actually precipitated a power struggle in the German High Command. The Luftwaffe, as the air force, claimed that rocket research belonged under their direction and offered von Braun a fabulous research grant. The German Army, however, and offered even more. Von Braun elected to stay with the army and nearly paid with his life for that decision.

The Luftwaffe had good reason to be jealous. The V-2 was a true rocket, and the potential was enormous. However, in one of those odd twists of fate, the research program nearly died off for lack of funding. Most of the research monies available were directed to the V-1 program, Hitler's favorite. If it hadn't been for Munitions Minister Albert Speer diverting funds from other sources to von Braun the V-2 might never have been built. In 1943, however, von Braun showed Hitler a film of successful V-2 flights. Hitler immediately saw the possibilities in them and funding became lavish.

In May, 1944 SS chief Himmler had von Braun and two associates arrested. The putative charge was treason, von Braun and his associates spent too much time talking about moon-landings and peacetime applications of rocketry. The real reason was von Braun's refusal to transfer to the Luftwaffe. It took a direct order from Hitler, at the instigation of Albert Speer (himself a space enthusiast who greatly enjoyed those discussions), to get them released. The Luftwaffe had to make do with the vastly inferior V-1 flying bomb.

Such was von Braun's fame that, during this period, agents from America, Britain and the Soviet Union smuggled in offers of employment by their respective countries. Details on this episode are sketchy, but it is said that the Russian agent got in by disguising himself as a cook.

The lavish funding did not come without cost. Von Braun himself was nearly killed by a rogue V-2 in 1944. They were dangerous, with a tendency to blow up, fall out of the sky or shoot off the launch pad in unpredictable tangents. When they finally went into production as a weapon at Mittlewerk they were assembled by concentration camp prisoners who worked under terrible conditions and died in huge numbers. It was not a very effective weapon, the "kill rate" was low, it was fragile, and deteriorated rapidly once it was assembled. It also killed some of the launch teams. However, von Braun was not interested in weapons, he was interested in rockets and this was the world's first successful rocket.

By May 1945 the war was drawing to a close, and Germany was losing. After some deliberation von Braun and his rocket team decided to surrender to the Americans. Wernher's brother, Magnus (also a rocket scientist) rode off on his bicycle to locate an American detachment. The entire Peenemunde contingent of about 300 rocket experts surrendered on May 3, 1945.

Operation Paperclip (originally named Operation Overcast) began shortly after Wernher von Braun's surrender to the American. One of the largest operations of the late days of World War II, it was mounted with intent of securing the world's most advanced rocket, and its designer, for the US. The area in which von Braun and his associates had worked was to be Russian occupied territory, the Americans had to move fast in order to secure the prize for themselves. This Operation was not originally meant to bring von Braun to the US, its purpose was to bring one hundred operational V-2's to American researchers at White Sands, in order to bolster the rather lame army rocket project. However, the fragility of the V-2's meant that none were actually intact when Mittlewerk was captured, the Americans found only piles of parts, and no instruction manuals for assembly. Bringing their designer along seemed like the only viable option. Von Braun, of course, was quite willing.

The American government was not enthusiastic about von Braun and 300 other Germans coming to the States. This was a period of deep suspicion and hostility towards Germany, a natural aftermath of six years of war. A period of rather bitter negotiation ensued. The Germans wanted a three year contract of employment, the US government offered six months, the Germans wanted their families with them, the US offered to hold them in special internment camps. Von Braun wanted 300 hundred scientists to accompany him, the US government did not want any. In September 1945 115 Germans went to America on what proved to be (for most of them) a permanent basis. The majority of their families joined them about two years later.

The US army wanted von Braun very badly, to the point of falsifying security reports that would permit him to enter the United States. He was considered absolutely necessary to their plans to assemble the components of the hundred V-2 rockets which had also been brought to the States and to continue their development. While von Braun had not been deemed a war criminal, his single-minded mania to build rockets had led him to ignore a number of very questionable practices involving the prisoners who constructed and assembled the V-2's. They died by the hundreds.

It is, however, somewhat amusing to note that, while the Army Intelligence Service was perfectly aware of von Braun's activities, the altered version of their report says that certain information was not available because the requisite documents were held in the Russian area of occupation.

Rocket research in America did not proceed as von Braun had hoped. His first task was to sort though the 14 tons of paper and documents that had been shipped from Germany to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. He then spent the remainder of the 1940's testing his old V-2's, with varying degrees of success. It was not until 1949 that he launched the first step rocket. This was primarily due to a conflict in goals. Von Braun wanted to go into space, the army, which employed him, wanted guided missiles. It was not until 1956 that the Jupiter-C, a four stage rocket (the largest ever) was built.

Prior to the successes of the V-2 (von Braun's A-4) as a weapon rocket research had not been a priority of the American military. They had achieved mediocre results with the Private and WAC Corporal rockets, but these were small and inefficient. Significant success was not achieved until the "Bumper" WAC was launched. It was a two stage rocket, with the small WAC atop a V-2, which "bumped" it into space. This was the last series of test carried on at White Sands. IN 1950 the test site was moved to Cape Canaveral.

In October 1957 those who had blocked von Braun's proposals (primarily President Eisenhower, who hated Germans) got a shock, Sputnik 1 was launched. Because of Eisenhower's distrust of von Braun the navy had been awarded the task of launching the first space shot. This was despite the fact that von Braun had almost completed such a vehicle and the Navy had not even got plans on a drawing board. The Navy's project, Vanguard, was speeded up and a launch was attempted in December. The "Flopnik" blew up on the launch pad.

In January, 1958 von Braun's team launched Explorer 1 at Cape Canaveral.

NACA (National Advisory Commission for Aeronautics) was dissolved and NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was formed in the same year.

Russian Yuri Gagarin become the first man in space on April 12, 1961. On May 25 President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon, von Braun and associates began work on the Apollo series. Apollo 11 achieved circum-Lunar orbit on July 19, 1967.

Even during the war years von Braun had dreamed of larger and larger rockets. The A-10, which was never built, bore a strong resemblance to the Saturn rockets. The A-9 was designed to be a reusable rocket, it was built and flown twice at Peenemunde before the end of the War. It was further developed by von Braun and eventually became the Space Shuttle.

As well as designing rockets, satellites and space stations von Braun published extensively and traveled widely, always sharing his enthusiasm for rocketry and space. He collaborated with Walt Disney on Tommorrowland at Disneyland, and on some Disney documentaries on space. There is even a Disney character, Dr. Ludwig van Drake, based upon von Braun.

In 1970 von Braun was "kicked upstairs". He continued to plan for a Mars mission but gave up and resigned in 1972. None of his proposal received any sort of consideration, it seems his Nazi past had returned to haunt him. He took a private sector job, developing and deploying satellites for the Fairchild Corporation.

Wernher von Braun became seriously in 1975. On June 16, 1977, one of the most influential men of the twentieth century succumbed to cancer at sixty-five years of age.

Part I originally published in "World War II" at on October 1, 2001.
Reprinted in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

Part II originally published in "World War II" at on November 1, 2001.
Reprinted in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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