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The First Terranaut – Wernher von Braun (Transcript)

Dr. Wernher von Braun, director of Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA.

In researching the history of spaceflight for my podcast Terranauts I have come to realize that something fundamental has changed in the 70 or so years since we actually started building machines that could leave our planet.

And that is that we actually started building machines that could leave our planet. 

For those of you who have not listened to the podcast, the word “Terranaut” is a word I coined to describe people who work in space, without ever leaving the planet.  People like me, basically, and like the vast majority of people in the space sector who send their ideas, innovations, and creation out into space but who never physically get on board a spacecraft.

In the early days of space flight no one would have recognized the word “terranauts” or even the term Spacecraft engineer.  They would have used words like visionary or maybe pioneer. Eventually they would coin the term Rocket Scientist to describe someone particularly brilliant scientists or engineers. 

But the fact was that building and operating Spacecraft was seen as something so new, so outside of normal experience that it was still, literally, the realm of science fiction and not of daily fact.

How far we have come since those days. 

In our modern society it is impossible to imagine a day without space. We use space assets for obvious things like communicating words, pictures, and data around the globe.  But we also use it to grow crops efficiently and secure our financial transactions.  But my point is not the importance of space. That’s a topic that I could go and have gone on about at length. No, what I am talking about here is the normalcy of it. 


Listen to Iain narrate the First Terranaut – Wernher von Braun


Today if I tell you that I have had a career in space you might say that it sounds interesting. You would not say that it sounds impossible.  If your son or daughter told you that they wanted to work in the space business, you would think they were being pretty practical.  You would not think they were crazy. 

But that was what Wernher von Braun’s parents, and everyone else who knew him, thought when he said, at the age of 17, that he was going to lean humankind into space – and to the surface of the moon. Until he actually did it.

So that is the story I want to tell here. It is the story of the first Terranauts. People who did this job when you had to be crazy to think you could. People who not only overcame the immense engineering and technical challenges of space flight. But who also overcame their own fears and others assertions that it could not be done.

Those of us who do this work now, the modern Terranauts, stand on the shoulders of these giants. They not only invented the technology that allows us to do this job.  They invented the job itself. 

If we are going to talk about the first humans who went to space without ever leaving the ground, we pretty much have to start with Wernher von Braun.

I often say that I, and other Terranauts who join me on my podcast, are simply unexceptional people who have been part of exceptional events.  That statement is not true of Dr. Wernher von Braun.  He had, from an early age a dream of not only seeing humanity off the planet, but also of being a principal actor in that drama.  Given that he started having those dreams in the 1920’s and he lived to see a man travel to the surface of the moon and back on top of a rocket that he had a significant hand in envisioning, designing, and developing, it would be tempting to say that he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  

But that would be inaccurate. It would be more accurate to say that he succeeded in EXACTLY realizing his wildest dreams.  Now, I want to spend a bit of time discussing Wernher von Braun’s life, but before I do, I want to deal directly with the controversy that surrounds him.  His conduct during the second world war in Germany, his association with the Nazi party and his role in developing a weapon that resulted directly and indirectly in the deaths of thousands of people have been discussed, dissected, and debated in literally thousands of pages of text and I don’t want to go over that territory here.  

Not because it does not matter.  But because others have done it more justice than I ever possibly could.  But before discussing von Braun, I think it is only fair for me to declare my “tilt” when it comes to his story.  Based on the reading that I have done, I think that von Braun’s war time activities, and in fact, his approach to his life and his dream of leading humanity to the moon can best be summed up by two humorous but telling comments.

In the first, a commentator remarked that von Braun’s autobiography, “I Aim For The Moon” should have been subtitled, “but sometimes I hit London”

The second consists of a verse in a song by satirical song-writer Tom Lehrer from a song about Wernher von Braun:

Once the Rockets go up

Who cares where they come down?

That’s not my department.

Says Wernher von Braun.

I think these comments capture the essence of the von Braun’s approach to this situation as well as to many others in his life.  I believe that throughout his life and career von Braun was constantly presented with decisions, with trade-offs, with compromises.  I think he had an exceptional capacity to analyze the situation, make a decision that he believed was the best way to realize his dream of leading humanity off the planet and then to implement that decision without looking back or second guessing himself. 

I believe that is how he approached countless engineering and technical decisions and also how he approached the political decisions that were to shape his life and the lives of hundreds of others. I do not think he was callous or indifferent to the effect of those decisions.  But he definitely subordinated any of those concerns to the one quest to which he devoted his life – that of getting humans to the surface of the moon. 

Wernher von Braun was born in Posen on 12 March 1912.  He was the middle son of German aristocratic family.  His father was a minister in the Government of the Weimar republic.  He had a comfortable and privileged upbringing and a first-class education.  It was also true that he had a first-class mind and an exceptional ability not only to analyze technical problems, but also to understand people, to recruit them into his endeavors and to win their unflinching loyalty to him and to his cause.  

By all accounts, he was not only intelligent but charming, disarming and when he needed to be, utterly fearless.  At age 12 he started to experiment with rocket propulsion, affixing six large skyrockets to his coaster wagon and wheeling the wagon on to Tier Garten Strasse, in the upscale section of Berlin.

He later described what ensued:

I was ecstatic. The wagon was wholly out of control and trailing a comet’s tail of fire but my rockets were performing beyond my wildest dreams.  Finally, the burned themselves our with a magnificent thunderclap and the vehicle rolled to a halt, The police took me into custody very quickly.  Fortunately, no one had been injured, so I was released in the charge of the Minister of Agriculture who was my father.”

  • The quote is from an article in American Weekly in 1958

To keep him out of trouble, young Wernher was sent to boarding school at the age of 13.  While there he received a life changing gift from his mother.  It was a telescope which ignited his curiosity about the universe.  At age 15 he read a science fiction article in an astronomy magazine that described an imaginary trip to the moon.  At that moment, a visionary was born.  A passion was ignited in von Braun not just to observe the Moon and the planets through his telescope but also find a way to travel there as well.  42 years later, at age 57 he watched it happen as the chief designer and architect of the most powerful rocket that humanity has ever produced.

He obtained a copy of Herman Oberth’s classic book “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space” which had been published two years earlier.  It is said that he was surprised and a little distressed to find that it contained mostly mathematical equations.  This was because he really disliked math and was, in fact, failing the subject in school. 

In a moment that was characteristic of von Braun he decided that, despite his distaste for the subject, if travelling to space required learning math, then he would have to learn math.  By the time he was 16, he had applied himself to studying math and physics to such a degree that he was asked by the headmaster of his boarding school if he would fill in for a teacher that had fallen ill.  According to Bob Ward in his book “Dr. Space”:

“He also privately tutored some of the weaker students in the classes he taught, determined that all would pass their exams.  Everyone did.”

Which appears to me to be another classic von Braun moment.  He was determined not only to achieve his own goals, but to bring everyone else along with him.  It would not be the last time.

In 1930 von Braun graduated high school and moved to Berlin to begin studying for a degree in mechanical engineering.  His real aim was to meet and get a job working for Hermann Oberth, the great German rocket pioneer. Which he did. 

In a somewhat prescient foreshadowing of his later career, his first job for Oberth involved not rocketry but raising money.  One such task involved standing in front of a display in a department store – Bob Ward said that von Braun later recalled: “I said, ‘I bet you that the first man to walk on the Moon is alive today somewhere on this Earth!’” It so happened that Neil Armstrong was then an infant in Ohio.

Later that year Oberth returned to Romania to continue teaching. The group he left behind, including von Braun continued to beg and borrow what funds they could to continue to develop a working rocket.

In 1932, they finally attracted the attention of the military and eventually agreed to work full time for the army in exchange for dedicated funding.   In the end, von Braun would work for the military for the next 28 years. 

By 1935, the group had enough success with their A2 rocket that they inspired a bidding war between the Army and the Air Force at the end of which von Braun ended up, at the age of 23, as the civilian head of a military program with 11M Marks of funding. 

But even then, von Braun viewed the military program as a means to an end. He, in fact later admitted that: “We always considered the development of rockets for military purposes as a roundabout way to get into space.”

And so, he and his group began work on the A4 (which would become the V2) and on the facility on the Baltic coast at Peenemunde which would become the site from which humanity would launch an object beyond the atmosphere for the very first time. 

Peenemunde was situated on the island of Usedom and included room for research and development, production, static testing, and a 250 km test range for live flights. At the age of 25, in 1937 von Braun became the centre director.  He was so youthful looking at the time, that he was famous amongst his friends for still being asked for ID in bars. 

But the new money and responsibility came with expectations. The rocket group was expected to stop working on experimental designs and advance the general field of rocketry. Now they were expected to start work on real weapons.  Still, it was not until 1942 that the first attempts at launching a full scale A4 were made.

I won’t go into the significant engineering challenges involved in developing the A-4, here.  If you would like to know more, I would direct you to the episode of the Terranauts podcast called “Rocket Science”. Suffice it to say that in October 1942, from Peenemunde, a vehicle was launched that, however briefly, crossed the boundary from the earth’s atmosphere into space and in so doing created the very first Terranauts. Chief among them was Wernher von Braun. 

It is actually a bit strange when you read about accounts of this time – 1942 and even 1943.  It is hard, sometimes to even realize that this was Nazi Germany at the height of the second world war.  There is a very real sense the project at Peenemunde, while focused on developing the weapon that was its chief purpose, was staffed by people who were WAY more focussed on the technology and it’s other uses. 

In this, the A-4 program is maybe not all that different from a lot of big development programs that are staffed by people of passion and vision.  In fact, I would argue that it was not that different from the later Redstone and Jupiter programs in Which von Braun also helped manage.  

There were two big differences of course.

The first was that there was, in fact, a war on.  This fact was forcibly brought home in August 1943 when the Peenemunde site was raided by the RAF for the first time.  The RAF sent over 600 heavy bombers to attack the site.  The attack lasted almost an hour, caused extensive destruction, and killed over 700 people.  About half of the casualties were POWs and forced labourers because the RAF planners mistook the forced labour barracks for the quarters of the German technical personnel.

In a bizarre twist of fate, it turned out that the main planner behind the raid was Duncan Sandys who would become one of Britain’s foremost rocket scientists.  His plan for the raid had deliberately targeted those buildings in the hopes of crippling the German space program by killing or injuring von Braun and his team.  He would later admit that he was glad that the bombers missed the target.

The Second difference was that this was Nazi Germany.  

This fact also began to assert itself as the war turned against Germany.  Confronted by the bad news from the front and worsening economic and social conditions the Nazi party leadership increasingly degenerated into factionalism and power struggles.  One of the main players in this power struggle was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the man in control of the Gestapo. 

Himmler began to see control of the rocket program at Peenemunde as a card he wanted to have in his hand. It was probably true that Himmler had had his eye on the rocket program for a long time.  He had “recruited” von Braun to be an officer in the SS earlier in the war.  And by “recruited” it very much appears that von Braun was “made an offer he couldn’t refuse” in that if he had refused, not only he, but his whole program would likely have been in danger of cancellation – with extreme prejudice.  

So, von Braun had become an officer in the SS.  For obvious and good reasons this is a fact that has been examined, discussed, and debated at length.  My personal opinion based on the reading that I have done, is that von Braun was never enthusiastic in his participation in the SS or the Nazi party, only ever wearing the uniform when Himmler himself visited the facility, but he probably also never passed up and opportunity to use his status as a party member and an SS officer to benefit the rocket program.

But eventually von Braun went from being an asset that Himmler wanted to recruit to being an obstacle in his way.  When, in 1944, Himmler and the SS made a bid to take over operational control of the A4 program, von Braun was arrested and charged with, effectively, being more interested in going to space than in building a weapon.  It was probably close enough to the truth that the charges could have stuck.   It is not unfair to say that only the personal intervention of General Dornberger prevented him from being executed.

As the war was coming to an end, in February of 1945, and it was clear that the allies would win, von Braun convened a meeting of the senior technical staff at Peenemunde.  He put it to them that the future of their work very much depended on who they ended up being captured by.  

Being in Eastern Germany, if they did nothing, they would eventually be captured by the Russians.  In fact, the Red Army was drawing close to Peenemunde at the time.   They discussed their situation and decided – literally – to try to surrender to the Americans.  Their logic being that they didn’t believe the French would be interested in their rocket and although they respected the British, they anticipated that they would not have the money after the war to fund a rocket program. There was also the small issue of the fact that their rockets had killed hundreds or maybe thousands of British citizens – so they opted to find the Americans.

With this decision began one of the truly strangest episodes in the history of armed conflict.  An episode which in a very real sense was much more about the Cold War than it was about WWII. Von Braun and the staff of the facility at Peenemunde organized the removal not only of most of the staff from the facility, but also literally all of the partially assembled rockets, spare parts, and much of the equipment that was not nailed down. They also removed literally tons of documentation.  They loaded it onto two trains and a fleet of trucks that had been specially commandeered using von Braun’s authority as an SS officer and forged authorization documents, and they shipped it all across Germany to the Harz mountains, where they hoped to find American troops.

As an extra precaution before they eventually surrendered von Braun had the entire load of documents secretly placed in an abandoned mine and sealed in with explosives. The location of the mine was a closely held secret by von Braun and a handful of close associates.

With that job done, he sent his brother Magnus – who spoke English well – to literally wander down the mountain and find some American troops and tell them that the German rocket program was waiting to surrender to them.  He duly found some.  And surrender they did.

While von Braun and the other engineers and scientists were being interrogated, the Americans were busy trying to find and acquire any V2 rockets or parts of rockets that were quite literally not nailed down. They were particularly interested in those pieces which were in the zones destined to be controlled by other allies.   They also retrieved the secret cache of documents hidden by von Braun and his team.

In the end the treasure trove of rockets, parts, equipment and documents would fill 16 liberty ships for its trip from Antwerp to America.   With hardware secured the United States started thinking about how to acquire the software needed to operate it.  That software was, effectively, in the heads and hands of the scientists, engineers and technicians that had designed, developed, built and tested it for the last decade. 

And so Operation Paperclip was born.  Operation Paperclip is truly one of the most bizarre chapters in military history.  Whole books have been written about it, so I won’t do more than summarize it here.

Essentially, Operation Paperclip was the program by which the United States Army recruited the staff of the German V-2 rocket program to move to the US and work for the United States Army in developing its own ballistic missile program.  

The German scientists, engineers and technicians were initially offered one year “contracts” which would see them come to the United States as “Special employees” of the army in return, basically, for having their families in post-war Germany cared for by the United States government.

In the end, 127 personnel, the beating heart of the A-4 program, moved to the US, to Fort Bliss, Texas to continue their work.  A great many of them would never leave the US.  Many of them including, of course von Braun, would continue to work for the US Army and then NASA and would be part of the core team that eventually put Neil Armstrong on the moon.  

It is a source of genuine amazement to me to the extent to which the NASA booster (or rocket) program of the 1960’s was a continuation of the work that was started at Peenemunde in 1937.   In fact, at the time of the Apollo program the director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville was, of course, von Braun.  But also, almost all of the heads of the divisions of the centre were also Germans who had been von Braun lieutenants since the time of Peenemunde.

So, in a very real sense the story of Wernher von Braun IS the story of how humans initially left the planet.

The move to Texas set up a truly strange situation in which the German scientists were in a bizarre kind of limbo regarding their status.  They were not immigrants; they were not foreign visitors. They were, quite literally, guests of the US Army and in the early years, they were not even allowed to leave the base at Fort Bliss without US Army escort.  

They began to refer to themselves as “prisoners of peace” since they could not be prisoners of war as the war had ended.  Byy 1950, they were offered the opportunity to officially immigrate to the US and to take civilian jobs with the US government and to bring their families to the US.  An amazing number chose to do so.  

Based on what I have read, many did so because they wanted to continue to work on von Braun’s team and for von Braun himself.  As for the work that the team was doing, for the first five years the work for the US Army did not differ that much from the work they had done for the German Wehrmacht.  Their job was to assemble, test and improve A-4 rockets.  The US had captured sufficient quantities of the finished rockets and parts that the team in Fort Bliss spent literally years testing and launching rockets that had been built in Germany during the war.

The primary aim of the project was to develop a US ballistic missile that was capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

And it is here that we need to acknowledge that debt that the modern space program owes to the Manhattan project.  Without the atomic bombs, there might never have been a rocket designed to leave the earth’s atmosphere.  The experience of the V-2 rocket had shown that the effort required to launch a ballistic missile was really not worth the destructive effect on the other end.  The payload of the V-2 was limited to much less than what an aircraft could carry.  And to put it bluntly, the guidance system of the missile was crude enough that if damage was done to any specific target, it would be more from good luck and random chance than anything else.

It was only when the destructive power of the atomic bomb was married to the ballistic missile that the technology made any military sense at all.  But once the connection was made, it was clear that the ability to deliver nuclear warheads from hundreds and eventually thousands of miles away became a critical strategic ability and matter of gravest national security.

Now, despite the fact that the paperclippers were only in the United States to help the army develop weapons, von Braun and the team continued to focus beyond the earth’s atmosphere.  One Peenemunde veteran Hans Klein, later remembered:

The early Fort Bliss days produced what I believe was the first moon-flight trajectory by hand calculations and vector diagrams. We had a lot of fun doing it

Finally, in 1950, the US Army decided to stop the experiments with the WWII German technology and stand up its own ballistic missile program complete with its own development centre at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville Alabama.  Von Braun and 115 of the German Paperclippers moved themselves and their families to the Redstone arsenal.  The arrived as one observer put it “with the U.S. space program in their briefcases, only we didn’t know it then.”

Here, work began in earnest on the first American ballistic missile.  This was the Redstone that would eventually launch both the first US satellite and the first US astronaut.  At the time, however, it was designed as a weapon’s delivery vehicle.  

Not surprisingly given the design team, the Redstone was a direct descendant of the V-2.  Early versions still used the combination of Liquid Oxygen as oxidizer and Alcohol as fuel.  Perhaps the biggest change from the V-2 was that the “propulsion” unit consisting of the rocket engine and nozzle separated from the main body of the rocket allowing the rocket and its payload to travel further. 

Although this was not a true example of staging of a rocket, it was a nod to the tyranny of the mathematical formulation of the rocketry equation which tells you that every single gram of mass that you lug around that is not eventually used to generate thrust, is effectively not only wasted, but preventing you from achieving the velocity that is needed to get to and stay in orbit.

Given that rocket fuel and oxidizer are typically substances that are nasty, brutish, toxic, and prone to spontaneously combust – the vessels that hold them need to be robust (to say the least).  This typically means they are heavy.  So, rocket engineers rapidly figured out that in order to achieve the speeds needed to achieve orbit, a “staged” rocket was going to be required.

A staged rocket consists of multiple rockets stacked on top of one another.  Each stage has its own engine and its own propellants and propellant tanks.  The job of the first stage is to lift, and more importantly, accelerate the second and subsequent stages.  When the first stage uses up its propellant it is jettisoned along with the empty propellant tanks before the second stage ignites.  This means that the new second stage rocket is not only already moving at a significant velocity but also that it is hauling around a lot less “dead” mass making it all that much easier to achieve the “delta V” needed to achieve orbital velocity.

Although the Redstone was not a truly multi-stage rocket, the next generation of rocket produced by the Army Ballistic Missile agency was a truly multi-stage rocket named Jupiter which consisted of the Redstone derived first stage with a solid rocket second and third stages.

With the development of the Jupiter von Braun and the US was finally poised to go to space.  But the Eisenhower Administration was not interested. 

Not interested, that is Until 4 October 1957 and the launch of Sputnik.

But that is quite literally a story for another day.

It is a story that I will take up in the next installment of this series.  In that next installment we will pick up here and talk about Sputnik and how it marked a time when the craft of being a terranaut started to shift from being all about getting to space and branched out to include what to do when we get there. 

About Terranauts season 2

This year on Terranauts we’re going to offer a mix of interviews with Terranauts, people who go to space all the time without leaving the planet, and we’re also planning regular instalments of the Terranauts Guide to Leaving the Planet where we explore the history of humankind’s adventures off the planet.

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About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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