The highly secret U.S. military operation to smuggle
German scientists into this country was
intended to make sure that those responsible for Germany’s terrifying rocket bombs would not fall into the hands of the Russians. In the end it gave the United States access to the team that would help not only in the development of ICBMs
, but design the rocket that first took humans to the
and about 120 of his research team along with several hundred more German scientists, engineers and technicians
were secretly brought to the United States
in Operation Overcast, which later was renamed Operation Paperclip, an effort to improve U.S. military technology.
It was not without controversy.
After documents about Operation Paperclip were declassified in 1947, liberal and Jewish groups expressed outrage at the use of “Nazi scientists” in American military programs, Michael Neufeld, chair of the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum, said in a Sept. 13 phone interview.
But with the Cold War intensifying, even that controversy was short lived, Neufeld said.
At the time, the group of German scientists and engineers largely was anonymous, according to Neufeld. It was not until a series of articles in Collier’s magazine and several television films with Walt Disney in the 1950s that the public came to know von Braun.
Born in 1912, von Braun’s fascination with rockets began with science fiction. As a young man he joined the German rocket society, earning a
doctorate in physics in 1934.
In 1932 von Braun began working to develop a ballistic missile for the German army. He joined
the Nazi party in 1937. Though he does not view von Braun
as an ideologue, Neufeld said
von Braun was “well integrated” and “loyal” to the Nazi system, like most Germans were at the time. In 1940, he was asked to join the SS, the elite unit of the Nazi party. He seized the opportunity to further his career, Neufeld said.
Eventually he became the lead engineer of the “rocket team” in Peenemnde, Germany. Von Braun’s rocket team developed the V-2, a ballistic missile capable of delivering a 990-kilogram warhead a distance of 800 kilometers at a speed of 5,600 kilometers per hour. The V-2 would become the model launch vehicle for both the United States and the Soviet Union.
V-2 missiles were manufactured at Mittelwerk, a factory that used forced laborers from German concentration camps. While von Braun had no direct control over the manufacturing facilities, he admitted to having visited the factory on a few occasions. This association was hidden from the American public until the 1980s,
After his arrival in the United States, the U.S. Army sent von Braun and his team of German rocket experts to Fort Bliss, Texas, to help advance the U.S. missile program. Heading the rocket development team for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, one of his earliest projects was the two-stage Bumper rocket, which consisted of a V-2 first stage and a Wac Corporal missile second stage. Many of those early rockets were tested at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico.
In 1950 von Braun and his team moved to Redstone Arsenal, just outside of Huntsville, Ala., to work at its new guided missile center. Along with U.S.
rocket experts, von Braun’s team helped to develop the Jupiter, Redstone and Hermes missiles.
There he led the team that developed the Jupiter-C, which launched the United States’ first successful satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit Jan. 31, 1958.
While he was the subject of a New Yorker article in 1951, it was not until the Collier’s articles and the Disney films that von Braun became a public advocate for space. The
series of articles on space travel in Collier’s magazine started in 1952.
In 1955, he served as a technical advisor and a talking head for several critically
acclaimed and popular television films by Walt Disney on space exploration.
One of those Disney films focused on going the Moon.
In 1958, von Braun got to do more than just talk about going to the moon
when the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was directed to begin making plans for a rocket capable of reaching the Moon – the vehicle that
eventually would be called the Saturn. Control of his rocket research facility was transferred from the U.S. Army to the newly founded NASA in 1960, and von Braun became the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
The three-stage Saturn 5 became the launch vehicle for the manned Apollo flights that eventually took
astronauts to the Moon.
Soon before the end of the Apollo program, in 1970, von Braun was called to NASA headquarters to lead
strategic planning. He retired from NASA in 1972 and began working for Germantown, Md.-based Fairchild Industries. He died June 16, 1977.
Despite his Nazi past and murky ties to wartime atrocities, von Braun was seen as a hero by many who saw him as the man who gave the United States the edge against the Soviet Union in the Space Race.