When the United States helped defeat Germany at the end of World War II, they acquired the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He had already developed the German V2 rocket program, and went on to design all the major hardware of the US rocket program. This week, we talk about von Braun’s life and accomplishments.
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Female Speaker 1: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 340, Werner von Braun. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact-based journey through the cosmos. We’ll help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the director of CosmoQuest. Hi, Pamela. How are you doing?
Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser Cain: Good. It’s time for another reminder for the Hang-Out-athon because it’s about to happen in a month.
Pamela Gay: April 26-27, and we’re still doing lots of organization. Yeah. Come prepared to support us in our insanity, in our desire to do science. We will do almost anything that is legal.
Fraser Cain: Right on. I got nothing. I was gonna move on to my intro.
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Fraser Cain: So, hey. When the United States helped defeat Germany at the end of World War II, they acquired the German rocket scientist, Werner von Braun. He had already developed the German V-2 rocket program and went on to design all the major hardware of the U.S. rocket program. This week, we talk about von Braun’s life and accomplishments.
Cool. Man, where to start. I hope that most people who are fascinated about space and the Apollo missions and the Gemini program and the Mercury program and all of that are aware of von Braun’s influence, involvement, but for those who don’t, who was this guy?
Pamela Gay: Put simply, he has been described as one of the most controversial, one of the people who history has been rewritten around the most in terms of rocket science. He came from Germany. He came from, actually, the aristocracy. The ‘von’ part is because his father was the moral equivalent of a baron. Had the type of upbringing where he went from boarding school to boarding school, went to university. Got himself in and out of interesting problems regarding rockets. He’d got a telescope as a child, got extremely interested in it, and kinda like me, just didn’t get uninterested. But for him, rockets were the cool part, and he, for instance, was kind of collared by the police when he was young because he took a wagon and attached a bunch of fireworks to it trying to recreate some of the rocket cars he’d read about.
Fraser Cain: That’s so cool.
Pamela Gay: He went to university. He studied mechanical engineering. No, you do not need a Ph.D. in astrophysics to work in the space race. Honestly, go get a degree in mechanical engineering. You’ll get a job, unlike the rest of us.
Fraser Cain: Oh.
Pamela Gay: Well, it’s true.
Fraser Cain: No, I know. And if that doesn’t work out, you can always design HVAC systems for buildings.
Pamela Gay: Yes. Or bridges.
Fraser Cain: Or bridges.
Pamela Gay: He was really inspired – I love the tale of how his life grew. He got a telescope; that got him going. He was doing kind of bad in math and science in school, and he got his hands on a book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen – my German teacher’s getting ready to throw things at me. Translated, it’s By Rocket Into Interplanetary Space. It was a book by Hermann Oberth, who became von Braun’s hero and then eventually his mentor as he started to actually work on his Ph.D., get involved in doing science and rocketry and engineering. All of this was occurring between the World Wars.
Unfortunately, after Hitler took power, his life started to enter the land of the-truth-depends-on-who-you’re-reading because history is written by the people who won and researched it. And the researchers sometimes meant to meet agendas.
Fraser Cain: You’re sort of insinuating there are two stories here on von Braun’s involvement in Nazi Germany. Was he a card-carrying member of the Nazi party or was he –
Doug: That actually isn’t – he was. That’s not to be – controverted? I’m not sure how to conjugate that. I think it’s not just two stories; I think it’s three stories. Extremist story A is he was cool with the Nazis. He hung out. He wore his SS uniform whenever he needed to, showed up to meetings. That’s one extreme.
The other extreme – and part of that extreme, which we’ll get to later, is that it was he who was purposely sabotaging the V-2 program to prevent it from advancing as quickly as it could have. The other side of that is he really didn’t like any of this. He was just a scientist, wasn’t into politics. He realized if he paid his dues for the Nazi party, things would go easier for him. He only once ever wore his SS uniform and it’s for the only picture taken of him in the SS uniform. In that argument, he was simply someone who just wanted to do science, just wanted – didn’t care, kind of disliked all of this.
What I suspect is true, is the truth was in the middle. He was someone who just wanted to build rockets. Didn’t care about politics so much but hey, if the Nazis would pay for him to build rockets, he was gonna build rockets. Like many other people in Germany at the time, he was witness to atrocities that he realized he couldn’t do anything about. He didn’t do anything to purposely stop them, didn’t do anything to purposely cause them. And in some ways, you can argue that’s as bad, but I think that’s the natural human response.
There’s three stories in there and what you find when you read is nuanced by the fact that there are angry people who want to make anyone who every carried a Nazi or an SS membership card into an evil demon. It’s also nuanced by the fact that he and 150 other, roughly, German scientists were brought to America as part of Project Paperclip. They were stuck on a military base. Their arrival in America was kept secret for five months, basically. During that time, the U.S. Army expunged all records of their involvement in Nazi Germany.
Fraser Cain: I know that when Berlin was taken, when Germany surrendered, the rocket program was split up, right, between the Americans and the Russians, eventually the Soviets. Some of the people who had been working on the program were participating in the Soviet program and others were participating in the U.S. program. I guess, fortunately for the Americans, von Braun came to the U.S.
Pamela Gay: Largely, that’s due to aid from his brother and the fact that Werner von Braun really wanted to come to America. He was concerned about the harsh working environments that he’d heard about in Soviet Russia, where the scientists were basically being pushed in, essentially, work camps, was the way it sounded. Ironically, at one point towards the end of World War II, he’d been arrested and held prisoner for two weeks. One of the claims against him was that he had Communist sympathies.
But as he saw his nation falling as the Allied troops pushed further and further into central Germany, he managed to get his team distributed through villages in what they hoped would be the path of the Americans. When his brother, according to some reports, saw an American soldier, his brother on a bicycle called out in broken English that they wanted to surrender and got them surrendered into the hands of the Americans.
Fraser Cain: Wow. Okay. Specifically, he was really involved in, as the war went, with the V-2 program. These were these missiles. Have you seen one in person before?
Pamela Gay: Yeah. There’s one down at the Smithsonian, and I believe there’s – there is one –
Fraser Cain: I saw one in Germany, as well.
Pamela Gay: – there’s one at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center where Space Camp is.
He wasn’t just that rocket. He was working on rockets as part of his research program. This guy was a researcher prior to getting sucked into the war effort. He, starting in 1931, was part of the German Space Flight Society. He was working on the repulsor series of rockets. He was one of the first to develop – it was tiny. It was only about two foot, two-thirds of a meter long. It was called the Hunkle Vickler-1 that was developed with him and another German scientist and launched in ’31. They were working on these early rockets in the ‘30s. He started working on them, actually, before he finished his bachelor’s degree. In ’32 he was working on artillery, kind of because he had to because it was ’32.
He earned his Ph.D. in ’34 after Hitler had come to power. That was when he also ended up having to start on the A rockets. These were the Aggregate-1 rockets. They used a couple different tanks. They had a gyroscope in their nose. This was actually where he started using ethanol along with liquid oxygen as a rocket fuel. Rumor has it when things launched correctly, they drank some of the ethanol.
There were to A-2 rockets, Max and Moritz, that were successfully launched in December of ’34. They climbed to an altitude of about 6500 feet. This was where things really started pushing to get him doing missiles. In ’37, there was the new Kummelsdorf liquid fuel rocket and guided missile center that he got put at. It was located on the Baltic Sea and he was the technical director from then until the end of the war.
This was where they started working on the V-2s. This was a project that used, basically, slave labor at hideous working environments –
Fraser Cain: Poisonous chemicals that they were dealing with. It was just an awful situation.
Pamela Gay: And it was essentially a work camp for aeronautical work. The V-2 plant was named Mittelwerk. You can look up some of the atrocities from there. It wasn’t good. There were more than 60,000 prisoners used to construct missiles, and 25,000 of them died, so more than a third of the people involved died building these rockets.
Fraser Cain: That’s amazing to me that such a technical, complicated precision project and they were just doing it with slave labor.
Pamela Gay: But think of the people that enslaved – these were often very well-educated Jews. You take a well-educated workforce, threaten to kill them, beat them, starve them. They were starving them.
Fraser Cain: Kill their families, yeah. Good point. That’s just awful. Let’s get to the part where the war ended. They tested the V-2 and then they did fire a couple, right?
Pamela Gay: There were the vengeance rockets – there was a V-2 test launch that was – and this was formerly the A-4. They went from A-4 to V-2. These were, again, alcoholic with the oxygen rockets. They were 46-feet-tall rockets. These were babies. But they reached speeds of 3500 miles per hour with a maximum range of about 200 miles. And when you start to think that you can see from France to England, that’s terrifying.
Fraser Cain: This was a gigantic leap forward with using this kind of technology because up until this point, like with the V-1s, which were airplanes, jet planes, you could stop them because they were flying towards England and you would hear the engine stop and they would crash.
Pamela Gay: And the V-1s were loud and buzzy.
Fraser Cain: And they would crash. But these things, they were on an arc. They would launch up. They would follow a trajectory and then they would just come straight down. At the same time, the Germans were working on a nuclear program. Can you just imagine that if they had put these two things together and were raining nuclear bombs down on various countries?
Pamela Gay: And there were huge numbers of these built. The first successful launch was in 1942, and it wasn’t due to quite often sabotage from the work force, and this is where you start to hit the controversy of the good Werner von Braun encouraged the sabotage because he didn’t want to bomb England, and the bad Werner von Braun didn’t want anything to do with the sabotage because he wanted his rockets to fly. And the truth is probably in the middle.
But it was in 1944 that the bombing started. It was September 8, 1944, at 11 a.m. Six people were killed. Three dozen were injured. Seven hours later, there was a second. This is all happening in London. And over the next few months, 3,000 rockets were launched. There were more V-2s than all the other rockets since then combined. And 1358 missiles struck London alone.
Fraser Cain: Let’s move on, then. That’s the V-2 program and it was devastating and there was no way to stop it. Then the Americans and the Soviets or the Russians and the Allies retake Berlin. As you said, they captured a bunch of the rocket scientists and brought them back to –
Pamela Gay: He had a team of 500.
Fraser Cain: Right. And brought them back to the United States. What happened then? What happened from that point forward?
Pamela Gay: In June of 1945, the U.S. Army held pretty much 150 of his team – it may have been all the way up to 500 members of his team, I couldn’t find accurate numbers on that – at an interrogation camp in Bavaria. As they checked out who was who, who was useful, 150 of those scientists were selected to come to America. They were transferred to the United States. They were confined to an island base in, basically, Boston Harbor, while their records were expunged. History was rewritten so that if anyone with the records at the time looked into the background of these scientists they wouldn’t learn the Nazi Party affiliations, the SS affiliations. So they brought them to America and then resettled them. Von Braun went to Fort Bliss, Texas, and began working on the U.S. ballistic program.
In the 1950s, we didn’t have NASA. That’s one of those things that people often forget. He served as – Werner von Braun served as project director and it was called the Sub-Office for Rockets. It wasn’t just him and his scientists. There were also a number of V-2 rockets that were captured, I guess is the right word, that were brought to America and there were a lot of test firings and improvements that all happened out at White Sands Missile Arsenal in New Mexico.
According to some stories that I heard while I was at Space Camp as a teenager, and this is – it fits in with the stories of why he got arrested during World War II – Werner von Braun just wanted to go to space. He just wanted to send humans to space, to get to Mars. There was, during World War II, a party where, apparently, he got a bit intoxicated and said that he didn’t think that Germany was going to turn out well in this war, and he just wanted to launch humans into space. This was, basically, a treasonous act. It’s why he was thrown into prison for two weeks. Eventually, a bunch of people said, “Look, Hitler. We need him out of jail. We need his rockets.” He was selected as too important, and so he was able to get away with treasonous statements.
The guy is brought to American and the exact same thing happens. He’s told, “Build deadly missiles.” The story I heard from one of his junior scientists who had come to America and at that point was at Redstone Missile Arsenal at Huntsville Space and Rocket Center, he said that Werner von Braun was always working on, “Okay. We’re stuck building these ballistic missiles. But you know, that’s the same thing as a low-orbiting rocket.” So he was building everything with the ability to add a human capsule to the top.
In 1950, he and his team were transferred to Redstone Missile Arsenal in Huntsville where he was the director of the guided missile and development program at the Arsenal. They were working on the Redstone rocket program. On the side, he was working on things like designing space stations, as one does.
When we finally started to realize, thanks to the Soviets launching humans, the “Oh, expletive, we should be launching humans!” We started trying to figure out how do we add a capsule to the top of the Redstone missiles. According to the scientist who was speaking when I was at Space Camp, they’d actually been working on human capsules, and whenever bigwigs came to inspect their facility, they stuck these capsules on a raft and floated them down a river and hid them in a farmer’s barn. I actually pulled up maps of Redstone and it looks like it could be plausible. There’s a river there. There’s no reason this couldn’t be true.
So when folks came to them and said, “We need to launch humans,” they were essentially ready to go, which is why we were able to so quickly go from nothing to we had the Jupiter Cs. We had all of these things such that we started being able to launch humans, satellites, all of that into space in the ‘60s, with ’61 being the Saturn I rocket, and then, of course, the Saturn V.
And so it was him, these 150 German scientists, and the Americans they brought along for the ride. He was the head of this program all the way up through the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s when he died of pancreatic cancer.
Fraser Cain: When we talk about the – you said he came over to the U.S. and started to do essentially the same thing, build rockets, for killing. Again, we still have the same dichotomy, where you’ve got the situation where you’ve got these but now they don’t have 200 kilometers range. They can drop a missile 10,000 kilometers away and carrying a nuclear warhead. Hitler’s wish is now true.
Pamela Gay: Yeah. He spent 12 years in America designing ballistic missiles before NASA was finally formed in 1958.
Fraser Cain: What Hitler was working towards, the United States and the Soviets finished off, which is a ballistic missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of dropping a multi-megaton warhead on a target. We as space nerds are so excited about the flight side of it, but this is all just done under this – I don’t know, under this umbrella of the most elaborate killing machine that has ever been conceived and still kinda hangs over our heads today.
Pamela Gay: This is a story that gets repeated. We didn’t know about adaptive optics for telescopes despite their existence and their ability to be applied to astronomy until the Challenger explosion where some of the adaptive optics images were accidentally released.
Fraser Cain: GPS, you know.
Pamela Gay: The military has vast budgets that those of us who want to do science and explore can’t even imagine.
Fraser Cain: There is a whole other program of space flight run by the military that we barely are able to report on. Every now and then we get glimpses of some of the launches and some of the landings and we here about some of the missions. There’s space planes. There’s all kinds of things. There’s a whole other program.
Anyway, that always troubles me. I try to get – I’m very enthusiastic by nature and I try to really temper it with this kind of recognition of the war part of all of this technology.
Anyway, let’s continue. He built all these war machines, whether he wanted to or whether he was begrudgingly, depending on how you tell the story, and then went on to really build all of these missions. But what were the big ones? What were the big, real technical leaps forward that he really worked on?
Pamela Gay: I really think Saturn V, full stop. His team developed the heaviest lift rocket that has thus far existed. Looking beyond that, it was his ability to inspire. This is someone that when you go through the historic records, you find pictures of the space stations he designed, the work he did with Walt Disney in Disney Studios to try and encourage space exploration. The inspiration that he was for the design of the space shuttle, the conversations he had with Kennedy. He knew how to manipulate the politicians into paying for his space exploration.
But he also understood the human side. Like I said, engaging with Walt Disney. Werner von Braun was the person who was behind the formation of Space Camp down at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center, which, really, they were kind of formed together at Marshall Space Flight Center.
So you have this person that over and over wanted to just get people dreaming of space, like him as a child with his telescope and strapping fireworks to his wagon and getting collared by the police and held until his parents came to get him. But then you also have the dichotomy of this is someone descended from royalty, who came from the aristocracy, who was a 1 percenter, essentially, in Germany before the concept of 1 percenter existed. He lived multiple lives and I don’t know if we’ll ever know which of those was the true Werner von Braun.
Fraser Cain: I love, as well, that he had thought through missions well beyond the kinds of missions that the –
Pamela Gay: He was going to Mars.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, he was going to Mars. He was Elon Musk-ing it, right? He had already plotted out what was gonna happen after the Apollo program, after the – there was gonna be the space stations, and then there was gonna be missions to asteroids and missions, manned missions to Venus, to orbit –
Pamela Gay: If he hadn’t died at age 65 – he was still sharp. He was still running the Apollo technical program when he was diagnosed with cancer. If he hadn’t died so – I mean 65 isn’t young, but it’s – you still are like, “Oh.” He could have had another 20 years. Where would we be if his leadership, if his savvy, if his ability to sway – and he was one of those rugged Germans with a full head of hair who captivated – in the photos, he’s arresting. All of those things are needed to lead. Where could we have gone if we’d kept his leadership?
Fraser Cain: Yeah. There are some great, great overviews, write-ups, of some of these missions and some of his mission plans and what he planned to do for Mars and further. A lot of these missions that we still have, the Hubble, Cassini, the Voyager program, a lot of these had their genesis in a lot of the mission plans that von Braun and his team had come up with, and the flight hardware and things like that. It’s quite amazing how long lasting the sort of – his developments had gone even ‘til now.
Pamela Gay: And Elon Musk, who’s a South African developing through the U.S. and the world’s space programs from his headquarters out in California, he sent his engineers to, basically, crawl around the remaining Apollos and learn everything they could because a lot of the plans from the Apollos have just been misplaced over the years. We’re still trying to learn as much as we can from this leader of the early American space program, of the German missile program. It’s a complicated story.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Well, I think we’re out of time, so thank you very much, Pamela.
Pamela Gay: My pleasure.
Fraser Cain: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google+. We record our show live on Google+ every Monday at 12 p.m. Pacific, 3 p.m. Eastern, or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at cosmoquest.org.
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