quinta-feira, 27 de setembro de 2012

Gathering Momentum: Von Braun’s Work in the 1940s and 1950s by Ernst Stuhlinger

Wemher von Bmun at his desk in Peenemünde, winter 1943. Ordway Collection!Space Rocket Center.

Rocket Development at Peenemünde

    At the German army’s rocket center at Peenemünde, which had opened in 1937 with Wernher von Braun as technical director, rocket development and facility buildup proceeded quite smoothly until 1942. An island both geographically and in the security sense, the center’s isolation permitted top secret work to be carried out far from the bustle and turmoil of the rest of the country. Moreover, as an army installation, Peenemünde was virtually off limits to Nazi Party functionaries who routinely sought to penetrate all nonmilitary segments of public and private life.

    During the first two or three years after the beginning of World War II, Peenemünde remained relatively untouched by events swirling around the Third Reich. Hitler did not believe in rockets, and in any event he expected the war to be over before the A-4 could be developed into a weapon. It was only Army Ordnance’s protective shroud that allowed Peenemünde to exist, albeit with low priorities for material and other needs.

    As the months passed, it became clear that a gigantic effort would be needed to develop a large precision rocket, and that the full support of the armed services was indispensable. Von Braun, like most Germans at the time, did not envision a protracted war and was therefore confident that the A-4 would never be deployed in combat. Rather, he believed that military rockets would evolve primarily as defensive weapons and as deterrents to would-be aggressors. Eventually, reasoned von Braun, other rockets would be developed to carry instruments for Earth observations, for communications, and to undertake scientific studies of the upper atmosphere and space. Still further in the future, rockets would be designed to transport crews and passengers to stations in orbit around the Earth and on to the Moon and planets.
An unsuccessful launching of an A-4 at Peenemünde. The photograph shows the rocket in process of toppling to the ground, at which point it will violently explode. U.S. Army Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center.

    Although the pace of work at Peenemünde was always brisk, from time to time von Braun and his colleagues would gather privately to discuss such ambitious possibilities. (In February 1938, Peenemünde celebrated Mardi Gras under the motto “Mardi Gras on Mars”—there was a Martian goddess with her court who were visited by space- farers from Earth. White-bearded “Professor emeritus” von Braun informed one and all that he was the Vagrant Viking of Space making a short stopover on the red planet.)

An A-4 is successfully launched infield trials while another one, to the left, is being serviced. Ordway Collection!Space & Rocket Center.

The scene changed when the Luftwaffe began to lose the Battle of Britain in 1941. Urged on by armaments and munitions minister Albert Speer, Hider finally accorded Peenemünde top national priority. At the stroke of a pen, the center could now call on scarce manpower and materials needed to speed up development of the A-4. Technical work on its many components progressed to the point that by the spring of 1942 flight testing of complete missiles could begin. After two failures came success: on 3 October 1942 an A-4 soared into the skies, a perfect flight. Peenemünde’s commanding officer, General Walter Dornberger, was overjoyed but nevertheless cautious. “Today,” he told his colleagues, leagues, “the spaceship has been born! But I warn you: our headaches are by no means over, they are just beginning!”
Targed map of what British air inelligence termed the Experimental Rocket Projectile Establishment, located at Peenemünde. Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center

    The truth of this prediction became evident almost immediately. Many of the rocket components were still unreliable and needed improvements; and, as a result of the October launch success, Hitler’s representatives began to swarm all over Peenemünde demanding “immediate quantity production.” A special A-4 committee was established in Speer’s ministry and almost immediately began to draw up impossible-to-meet directives and production quotas.

    Speer had been in close contact with the Peenemünde organization since 1939. In his book Inside the Third Reich, he tells how impressed he was by what was going on there and how he continued to support research and development even “after Hider crossed the rocket project off his list of urgent undertakings.” Speer judged von Braun quite correcdy when he wrote: “For him and his team this was not the development of a weapon, but a step into the future of technology.” (1)

A photograph taken by the Royal Air Force on 20 May 1943 and issued in July of that year, showing installations at Peenemünde described as “Two large faaory workshops. ... It is believed that these buildings are intended for the manufacture and assembly of the rocket or firing apparatus.” Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center.  

    In spite of his protective support of Peenemünde’s programs and workers, Speer could not prevent Party officials from exerting influence over the expanding rocket research and development effort. In the summer of 1943, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler visited the center to witness a test launching. For von Braun and Dornberger, the presence of the wily SS chief was a source of tension and concern, for they knew of his ambition to remove the A-4 from army control and place it under his own command. The launching proceeded well; but, after the rocket had reached an altitude of about 30 meters, it turned, tilted over, and hit the ground a few kilometers to the west. Himmler remarked drily: “I will go ahead now and order the production of ground weapons.” Dornberger and von Braun were prepared for such a mishap. Less than an hour after the accident, another A-4 stood on the launch table, tanked, checked out, and ready for firing. The launch and subsequent flight were perfect, achieving an impact accuracy of one quarter of one percent.
Aerial photograph of Test Stand 7 at Peenemünde, showing an A-4 rockeAet (A), two mobile service towers (B), and an assembly hangar (C). Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center.

Von Braun remarked that the potential of the A-4 was demonstrated by the second launch, while the first launch underscored the fact that much additional work was necessary before it could be released for production and deployment. Himmler replied that he would discuss the matter with the führer.

    A few weeks after Himmler’s visit, some 600 Royal Air Force bombers from bases in England hit Peenemünde with 1500 tons of bombs. While damage to technical installations was not excessive, over 700 men, women, and children lost their lives. After the raid, Hitler ordered A-4 production transferred from aboveground facilities to underground installations and authorized Himmler to oversee the changeover. With this, the SS achieved full authority over the production and delivery to the field of A-4 missiles.

Production Commences

    At Speer’s direction, a large mine complex under the Harz Mountains near Niedersachswerfen was selected and quickly transformed into a facility for the assembly of various weapon systems. Not only were A-4S assigned to the plant, which was known as the Mittelwerk, but also pulse-jet-powered buzz bombs, airplane and submarine parts, jet engines, and a number of small rocket and other armament systems. Himmler, who commanded the infamous network of concentration camps that housed dissident Germans, resistance fighters from occupied countries, Jews, prisoners transferred from jails, and others whom the Nazi government simply wished to put away, assigned forced laborers to the Mittelwerk.

Fort Bliss, Texas, where the German Project Paperclip specialists under Wernher von Braun were housed, as they arrived from Germany after World War II. Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center
Horrified at this prospect, Dornberger and von Braun tried to persuade Nazi officialdom to postpone production until the A-4 had matured into a proven, combat-ready weapon. Their efforts were to no avail. A ruthless SS general, Hans Kammler, was put in charge of camp laborers, many of whom toiled to enlarge Harz Mountain caverns to accommodate A-4 missile assembly operations. A third to a half of the A-4 labor force (a total of 6,000 to 8,000 men), consisted of camp workers; the rest were civilian employees.

    Peenemünde’s history during the war years has been told in books by Walter Dornberger, Dieter Huzel, Frederick I. Ordway III and Mitchell R. Sharpe, and several others. Dornberger, who had reluctantly accepted production orders dictated by Himmler and Kammler, soon found himself transferred from Peenemünde to an administrative position in Berlin. As for Wernher von Braun, he was accused of thinking only of spaceflight at the expense of the country’s war effort, arrested, and placed in a Gestapo jail in Stettin on Himmler’s orders. Only Speer’s personal intervention with Hitler permitted von Braun to leave jail two weeks later on probation.

    The unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 resulted in an even tighter SS grip on the A-4 program. Military deployment of the still- immature missile was ordered late that summer. The first A-4S, henceforth called V-2 “vengeance” or retaliation weapons, began falling on Paris and London in early September 1944. “When I heard about this,” von Braun commented later, “it was the darkest hour in my life.”
Major James P. Hamill (left), who was in charge of the German Paperclip team, and Wemher von Braun (right) at Fort Bliss, Texas,shortly after von Braun’s arrival in 194s. Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center.

    As Allied forces drove into Germany in the closing weeks of the war, von Braun was ordered by Himmler to evacuate Peenemünde and transfer several hundred of his teammates and crateloads of documentation to southern Bavaria. The SS chief apparently planned to use the rocket team as ransom to gain his own freedom, or else to make sure that no member fell into Allied hands alive. Fortunately, Dornberger and von Braun succeeded in outwitting his schemes; on 2 May 1945, they surrendered with a number of companions to United States ground troops.

    American intelligence officers, under the command of Colonel (later Major General) Holger N. Toftoy, interrogated von Braun and his associates and rounded up others who by war’s end had become dispersed all over Germany. A limited number, 127 in all, were offered contracts to continue their rocket work in the United States.

A New Beginning in Texas and New Mexico

    During the autumn and winter of 1945, these Peenemünders were brought to the United States under the code name “Project Paperclip” and sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, near El Paso. There, the army had established a Suboffice Rocket detachment that was located at first in a vacant barracks and later in an unused annex of the army’s Beaumont Hospital. In charge of the Paperclip specialists was Major James P. Hamill.

    Together with members of the U.S. Army and employees of the General Electric Company, the von Braun team began to assemble V-2 rockets from parts and components that American troops had retrieved from the Mittelwerk and elsewhere in Germany. Some essential parts were missing while others were found to be damaged beyond repair; rough handling during collection, packaging, and transportation by rail, ship, and truck from war-torn Germany had taken its toll. So, when the V-2S reached their destination at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, they had to be fitted with American-made replacement components. Over a period of about seven years, 70 complete V-2 rockets were assembled and brought to the launch table. Of these, 67 more or less successfully achieved their missions.
Wemher von Braun (right of center in front row, his left hand in his pocket) with his teammates at the White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, 1946. Ordway Collection Space Rocket Center.

    Under the prodding of Ernst H. Krause and several colleagues, scientists were invited from all over the country to suggest experiments and develop instruments to be sent aloft in V-2S to altitudes of more than 100 kilometers. Such an opportunity had never before existed anywhere. Among the scientists who responded were Herbert Friedman, Richard Tousey, Homer Newell, John Naugle, James A. Van Allen, and Jesse Greenstain. Within a few years, instrumented V-2S had shed new light on the upper atmosphere and borders of space and had made possible the discovery of solar X rays, measurements of the Sun’s far ultraviolet spectrum, clarification of the nature and origin of various layers of the ionosphere, and accurate measurements of atmospheric composition, temperature, density, and pressure.
Loading alcohol into a V-2 converted for upper atmosphere research at White Sands, 1946. U.S. Army/ Ordway Collection/Space Rocket Center.

    Beyond preparing and firing V-2S for upper atmosphere experiments, the former Peenemünders had relatively little to do. To their surprise and disappointment, they were not asked to work on new rocket development projects, so—on their own initiative—they began to make plans for a kind of supersonic cruise missile. The idea was for it to be launched to cruising altitude by a V-2 and then continue under ramjet power to its destination. Design work, supplemented by ground and flight testing, proceeded at a rather slow pace, with little interest exhibited on the part of the army. With time still on their hands, von Braun and his teammates began to pursue a variety of other self-generated projects and studies.

    Life in America meant a number of profound changes for the former Peenemünders. They were at last free to talk about their thoughts, and von Braun made immediate use of this freedom. On 16 January 1947, he gave a presentation to the El Paso Rotary Club entided “The Future Development of the Rocket,” describing first how a modern rocket works and then explaining Earth-orbiting satellites, manned stations in space, flights to the Moon, and expeditions to Mars. It was the first time in 10 years that von Braun could publicly express his spacefar- ing ideas, and his audience gave him a standing ovation.

Fort Bliss, Texas, where the German Project Paperclip specialists under Wemher von Braun were housed, as they arrived from Germany after World War II. Ord- way Collection!Space & Rocket Center. Wemher von Braun (right of center in front row, his left hand in his pocket) with his teammates at the works and then explaining Earth-orbiting satellites, manned stations in space, flights to the Moon, and expeditions to Mars. It was the first time in 10 years that von Braun could publicly express his spacefaring ideas, and his audience gave him a standing ovation.

   Von Braun used much of his spare time in Fort Bliss to write, in collaboration with several colleagues, a book entitled The Mars Project. Based on the most advanced knowledge of rocketry available at that time, the book described an expedition to the red planet. It contained technical and scientific details concerning propulsion, guidance, communications, life support and other systems, trajectories and celestial mechanics, the approach to and descent onto the target world, and the return to Earth.
Wemher von Bmun (center with hat) and key associates in front of a V-2 rocket at White Sands. U.S. Army/ Ordway Collection/Space Rocket Center.

    Knowing what we do about Mars today, a basic correction to von Braun’s scheme would be necessary. When he wrote his book, the atmospheric density on Mars was believed to be just over 8 percent of the density of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. We now know that the Martian atmosphere is about ten times thinner than this. Therefore a landing craft on Mars could not, as he had suggested, rely on wings to land in glider fashion. Rather, retro- or counter-rockets would have to be employed to slow down the landing capsule as it approached the Martian surface.

    Admittedly an expedition to Mars would be a gigantic undertaking. Von Braun did not advocate, much less himself believe, that the huge launch rocket, the wheel-shaped space station, the Mars transfer vehicle, and the Mars landing and return craft he described could be built right away. His purpose was to show that a voyage to Mars from Earth would be possible based on reasonable extrapolations of late 1940s-early 1950s technologies. No mysterious new propulsion concepts nor still- unknown materials need be conceived and developed. “But,” he would caution his coworkers, “we should begin to work on all these components to make them better and more efficient, first theoretically, and then with experiments, tests, and pilot models. Eventually, all of these components will reach a status that makes an expedition to Mars possible within reasonable limits of magnitude, complexity, and cost.” (2)

Once The Mars Project had been published, first in Germany and then in the United States, von Braun stepped up the pace of his talks and lectures on rockets, satellites, and space travel. During the Fort Bliss and White Sands years, he came to the conclusion that developing rockets and making studies typified by his Mars project would not be sufficient if spaceflight were to be realized during his active lifetime. “Even if we continued our calculations until hell freezes over,” he once remarked, “we will not touch or move anybody. ... I will go public now, because this is where we have to sow our seeds for space exploration!” From then on, and for the next 25 years, von Braun grasped every opportunity, private and public, to talk and write about rockets and spaceflight. He addressed writers and publishers, educators and politicians, engineers and industrialists, scientists, economists, generals, and statesmen— the more prominent, the better!

The Move to Redstone

    In the autumn of 1949, the Korean War began to cast its shadow upon Fort Bliss. The Beaumont Hospital now needed its annex that accommodated von Braun and his teammates. General Toftoy soon found new quarters for them at the sprawling Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama; during the late spring and summer of 1950, they all moved east. At about the same time, Army Ordnance assigned them a development project—a 200-mile (320- kilometer) guided missile capable of carrying a heavy nuclear warhead. Work on the new project began in 1950; first flight tests were carried out in 1953; and, by 1958, the missile, named Redstone, was handed over to the U.S. Army for deployment at strategic sites in Europe.

    As plans for the Redstone were being drawn up, von Braun quickly realized that the missile—if suitably modified—might be capable of orbiting a modest scientific satellite. By removing the hefty military payload, he reasoned, and substituting several upper  stages powered by clusters of small solid-propellant rockets, in theory at least the orbital objective should be attainable.

    Von Braun talked about his satellite concept to his associates and in 1954 wrote a paper on the subject addressed to his superiors in Army Ordnance. Little happened despite continued and persistent proposing, planning, arguing, and persuading. Then in early October 1957 the Soviet Union triumphantly orbited its first Sputnik and the race was on. Nearly four years after von Braun had proposed using his Redstone to launch a satellite, he got the go-ahead, and on 31 January 1958 Explorer 1 was sent aloft. America, too, joined the Space Age.

In Washington on 17 March 1954, von Braun meets with military, government, industrial leaders to discuss Project Orbiter. Although this early American satellte proposal was not ultimately accepted, it did pave the way for the later sucessful Redstone missile-launched Explorer series of artificial satellites. Frederick C. Durant III.
Several years after that remarkable event, the Red-stone had another opportunity to set a milestone in America’s spaceflight program. On 5 May 1961, the missile lofted the first American astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, along a ballistic trajectory that briefly arced into space.

    At about the time the Redstone missile was being readied for initial flight testing, Army Ordnance assigned another and more complex project to von Braun’s rocket team in Huntsville—the development of the Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile to be capable of reaching targets more than 1,500 miles away. In spite of this challenging new assignment and a multitude of other activities, von Braun continued resolutely to reach out to the public with plans for satellites, space stations, flights to the Moon, and expeditions to Mars. Fortunately, he found enthusiastic and influential brothers-in-arms who helped carry the torch: Willy Ley, Heinz and Fritz Haber, Fred Whipple, Chesley Bonestell, Cornelius Ryan from Collier’s magazine, and the entertainment giant Walt Disney. During the early 1950s, the idea of spaceflight and space exploration began to expand dramatically.

For further reading

Collier, Basil. The Battle of the V-Weapon 1944-1945. Morey, Yorkshire, 1976: Elmfiel.
Collier, Basil. The Defence of the United Kingdom. London, 1957: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
Dornberger, Walter. V-2. New York, 1954: Viking. Expanded Ger-man edition published as Peenemünde: Die Geschichte der V-Waffen. Esslinger, 1981: Bechtle.
Huzel, Dieter K. Peenemünde to Canaveral. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1962: Prentice-Hall.
Irving, David. The Mare’s Nest. London, 1964: William Kimber.
Klee, Ernst, and Otto Merk. The Birth of the Missile. New York, 1964: Dutton. Kooy, J. M. J., and J. W. H. Uytenbogaart. Ballistics of the Future. Haarlem, Netherlands, 1946: N.V. de Technische Vitgeverij H. Stam; New York and London, 1946: McGraw-Hill.
Lasby, Clarence G. Project Paperclip. New York, 1971: Atheneum.
McGovern, James. Crossbow and Overcast. New York, 1964: Morrow.
Medaris, Major General J. B., with Arthur Gordon. Countdown for Decision. New York, 1960: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Middlebrook, Martin. The Peenemünde Raid: The Night of 17-18 August 1943. London, 1982: Allen Lane.
Newell, Homer E. Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Tears of Space Science. Washington, D.C., 1980: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Ordway, Frederick I., Ill, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. The Rocket Team. New York, 1979: Thomas Y. Crowell; London, 1979: Heinemann; rpt. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982: MIT Press.
Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs. New York, 1970: Macmillan; and Infiltration. New York, 1981: Macmillan.
Stuhlinger, Ernst, and Frederick I. Ordway III. Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space. Esslingen: Bechtle Verlag (in press).
Von Braun, Wernher. The Mars Project. Urbana, 1952: University of Illinois; rpt. 1991.
Von Braun, Wernher, and Frederick I. Ordway III. History of Rocketry and Space Travel. New York, 1966, 1969, and 1975: Thomas Y. Crowell. 4th ed. as Space Travel: A History, with Dave Dooling. New York, 1985: Harper & Row.


1. Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York, 1970: Macmillan), p. 367.
2. Recollections of author from frequent discussions with von Braun in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In: Blueprint for Space. Sicence Fiction to Science Fact. Edited by Frederik I. Ordway III and Randy Liebermann. prologue by Michael Collins. Epilogue by Arthur Clarke. Washington and London, Smithsonian Instituion Press, 1992, pp. 113-123.

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