“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
That sums up the United States’ questionable alliance with the Soviet Union during World War II, in which Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was viewed as a lesser danger than Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, despite Stalin’s body count being significantly higher than Hitler’s.
So it’s all the more ironic that when a “space race” commenced between the U.S. and the Soviets in 1957, the Americans’ only hope was a German.
Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912 in Wirsitz, in the Posen Province of the former German Empire (now part of Poland). The Von Braun family was wealthy and influential; Wernher’s father was a former Minister of Agriculture in the Weimar Republic, while his mother was descended from medieval royalty, including monarchs of England, Scotland, Denmark, and France.
Von Braun was the middle of three sons, and as a young boy, he developed an interest in astronomy after his mother bought him a telescope for his birthday. However, the young von Braun considered music his first love, as he was a talented cellist and pianist who also had an ear for composing.
At the age of 13, von Braun began attending a boarding school in Ettersburg, but was not considered a gifted student in subjects like math or physics. However, he began reading the works of rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth and developed a keen interest in rocketry and engineering. Von Braun later said of Oberth:
I owe to him not only the guiding star of my life, but also my first contact with the theoretical and practical aspects of rocketry and space travel. A place of honor should be reserved in the history of science and technology for his ground-breaking contributions in the field of astronautics.
From 1930-32, von Braun attended the Technische Hochschule Berlin (Technical School of Berlin), where he was able to work with his idol Oberth. Von Braun graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering, but his true love revolved around the possibility of spaceflight.
Von Braun firmly believed that the future of rocketry was tied to the future of engineering. Space travel, he claimed, would require much more than the current technology in order to be successful long-term. Von Braun pursued further post-graduate studies at ETH Zurich – a prominent institute of technology in Switzerland – where he also became well-versed in military rocketry.
Around the same time, the Nazis had gained power and were quickly becoming a major force in the country’s politics. Despite being from a well-regarded political family, von Braun considered himself politically apathetic and didn’t hold a strong opinion on Hitler or his party (although he eventually acquiesced and joined the Nazi Party in 1938).
In 1934, von Braun was conducting research on liquid-fueled rocketry at Kummersdorf, located about 15 miles south of Berlin. There, he was discovered by Walter Dornberger, an artillery captain in the Third Reich who was also fascinated by military rockets. Dornberger contacted von Braun and arranged for him to receive a government research grant. Von Braun accepted and soon relocated to the University of Berlin, where he received his doctorate in physics.
Having successfully recruited von Braun, German scientists turned their attention to rocketry. Third Reich engineers were very interested in the work of American physicist Robert Goddard, whose influence was apparent as the Germans worked to perfect their new A-4 rocket.
Von Braun was soon named technical director (serving under Dornberger) at a new military rocketry facility in Peenemünde, a scenic town on the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. There, they began working with the Luftwaffe on military rockets and long-range missiles. There was no secret that the Nazis, who had banned civilian use of rockets, were aiming (no pun intended) to take over Europe.
After London refused to fall during the Blitz, Hitler began to commission new types of rockets and missiles to target the city. In July 1943, during the thick of the war, von Braun approved a report which was sent to Hitler, featuring films of war-ready rockets and other aerial weaponry. Hitler was so delighted, that he made von Braun – then only 31 years old – a professor.
At the same time, however, von Braun began to have misgivings about his involvement with the Third Reich. Part of his concern was with SS General Hans Kammler, a brutal commander who enlisted POWs and other camp prisoners as slave laborers for the rocket program at Peenemünde. Reportedly, von Braun was alarmed when he saw repulsive working conditions at labor camps and factories, but denied ever seeing anyone tortured or killed. “I realized that any attempt of reasoning on humane grounds would be utterly futile,” he later recalled.
By this time, British intelligence services and the Royal Air Force were aware of the Nazi facility at Peenemünde and began a strategic bombing raid over two nights in August 1943. The facility largely survived the bombing, but von Braun’s engine designer and chief engineer were killed.
In February 1944, another prominent Nazi official, Heinrich Himmler, brought von Braun to his headquarters and recommended that von Braun work closely with Kammler in order to ensure the efficiency of the V-2 program. However, Himmler was using von Braun as bait in an attempt to oust Kammler and take over the V-2 program himself.
Unknown to von Braun, he had been under surveillance for months. While socializing at a colleague’s house one evening, von Braun lamented that he was wasn’t working on space travel projects for the Third Reich and doubted that Germany could win the war. His comments were reported by a spy. Believing that von Braun was a communist sympathizer who would flee the country if allowed, Himmler ordered him arrested and detained for two weeks.
In the meantime, Dornberger was still loyal to von Braun and tried to petition his release from party leadership so that the V-2 program could continue. But by now, the Soviets were marching towards Peenemünde, so Kammler ordered von Braun and his team to relocate closer to Berlin. Von Braun, in fear of being captured by Soviet soldiers, fabricated documents and joined his men at the new facility.
After Germany was defeated at the Battle of the Bulge in early 1945, von Braun and team were relocated again to the Bavarian Alps, where they would be less of a target for Allied bombers. But Allied troops were closing in on Berlin, and defeat was imminent. By May 2, 1945, von Braun had escaped to Austria, where he stumbled upon members of the U.S. Army’s 44th Infantry and surrendered. Unbeknownst to von Braun, Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin only two days prior.
After the Americans accepted his surrender, von Braun spoke of his harrowing experiences designing weapons of death for the Nazis, as well as his admiration of historic American values:
We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.
Von Braun’s importance was not lost on the American military command – they were well aware of how many German scientists were still alive and how valuable their knowledge was. The Soviets were already planning to annex parts of eastern Europe, so once the Americans had secured Berlin – with the help of Britain and France – they wanted to get their hands on the remaining scientists. This was known as Operation Paperclip.
After being detained and debriefed, von Braun remained in American hands until he could be sent back later that summer with a security clearance. Eventually, he and his men were flown to Fort Bliss, an isolated Army outpost just north of El Paso, Texas.
El Paso was utterly unfamiliar to von Braun, who was still treated with suspicion by the Americans even well after the war was over. Von Braun remarked that “at Peenemünde, we were coddled, but here you were counting pennies” and jokingly referred to himself as an “American prisoner of peace.”
American forces had seized numerous unfired V-2s at the end of the war and soon shipped them to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, an Army facility close to Fort Bliss. The Army intended to study the V-2s in order to use them in both military and civilian-conducted tests. It was here, finally, that von Braun studied his first love – space rocketry – and the potential of it for use in peacetime.
In 1950, von Braun was transferred from the deserts of New Mexico and Texas to the humid environs of Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal. Here, he developed the first Redstone rocket, designed for live tests of nuclear ballistic missiles.
But suddenly, America was caught off guard, and the future of spaceflight became tangible. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, sending American officials into a panic. Sputnik was by no means a threat, but everyone realized that the unknown, peaceful nothingness of outer space could eventually become ground zero if the Soviets were ever to launch an orbital attack on the U.S.
In response to Sputnik, von Braun’s team used their newly created Jupiter-C rocket to launch America’s first satellite (Explorer) a few months later. But the next few years proved to be frustrating ones for von Braun. Across the globe, the Soviets had their own genius rocket scientist, Sergei Korolev, whose cutting edge rocketry methods put the U.S. to shame. It became clear that the space race was underway, with the ultimate goal being to land on the moon.
In the end, this was a blessing in disguise for von Braun. Before Sputnik, his ideas of space exploration wouldn’t have been taken seriously. But now that the Soviets were ahead in the space race, von Braun was able to explain his theories about space travel to his colleagues, including the higher-ups at the newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Von Braun had two primary theories about the way to get to the moon:
- The so-called “direct ascent” was very simple: build a massive rocket, attach a spacecraft on top, and blast off into the heavens.
- The second method, “Earth orbit rendezvous,” was much more complex: it involved several different launches, all containing specific parts of the lunar spacecraft, which would then dock with each other in Earth’s orbit before heading off to the moon.
Von Braun presented both ideas to NASA, but the new government agency didn’t want to bite off more than it could chew. After all, they were still perfecting unmanned satellites and recruiting the first group of elite astronauts. The moon seemed like a long way off, both literally and figuratively, and the Americans needed to catch up with the Soviets in Earth orbit before they ever thought about lunar travel. NASA certainly had an attitude of “walk before you run,” and while von Braun understood that, he was privately disappointed. At around the same time, America was about to elect a new president – one who was quite fascinated with space travel.
***TO BE CONTINUED***