Astronomy

Nazi Influence on Space Exploration



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In a sense, modern space rocketry owes its genesis to Nazi Germany - an uncomfortable and somewhat disturbing thought. Although rocket inventors and experimenters existed in many industrialized countries during the early twentieth century, the early Cold War space programs of both the Soviet Union and the United States were based primarily on the skills and insights provided by German scientists seized by either side as they invaded Germany at the end of the Second World War. Such scientists included Werner von Braun in the U.S., and Helmut Grottrup in the U.S.S.R.

- German Rocket Program -

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, he immediately commenced a rapid military buildup, which included new investments in research and development. One program singled out for new R&D funding was a series of ambitious projects to develop rockets - rockets which might one day reach space. These were very attractive to the Nazi government, not least for the obvious military applications of missiles and craft capable of literally flying all around the world at exceptionally high speeds.

Most of the Nazi rocket research was concentrated in a program codenamed Aggregate and headed by Werner von Braun at a facility called Kummersdorf. The first project at Kummersdorf, the A-1 rocket, revolutionized the experimental rocketry of the period: a heavy, 5-foot-high, 300-pound rocket which burned alcohol for its fuel - or would have, had it not blown up during its first launch test. Not discouraged, further A-series rockets were designed: the A-2 (a slightly larger variant) was successfully test-fired in 1934, and then the A-3 in 1937, which launched as intended but was unable to achieve stable flight.

At this point the growing demands of war interfered with the rocket program. The next project, A-4, was reclassified V-2 and became the first weaponized rocket to be developed. The A-4/V-2 was the grandfather of all current rockets, and the father of the first generation of suborbital ballistic missiles: a one-ton missile which reached the edges of space and could strike a target a hundred miles away. Large numbers of V-2s were used to attack Britain during the final stages of the Second World War. Had the Nazis ever developed nuclear weapons to go along with their ballistic missiles, they would have beaten the Soviets and Americans to this technology by over a decade - and the Second World War would have turned out entirely differently.

- After the War -

But the Germans did not have nuclear warheads, which meant that the V-2 could not be the terror weapon Hitler wished it to be: very fast, very deadly, but ultimately a very expensive way to deliver a single conventional explosion. Even so, as the war dragged on, von Braun and his staff continued to develop new rocket designs. The two most advanced of these, the A-11 and A-12, would have been capable of entering Earth orbit with satellites or other payloads. Thus, had they been launched, they would have beaten the Americans and Soviets into space by over a decade. As it turned out, however, the German government was no longer interested in funding experimental rockets: it desperately needed its funding for the war effort, which was going badly.

As American and Soviet forces entered Germany in 1945, they were acutely aware that the scientists who had developed the V-2 were hiding out somewhere, continuing their research. The Nazis had funded a wide variety of advanced scientific and technological development, and these research centres made tempting targets for the invaders. In one major American program, codenamed Paperclip, a large number of German scientists and experts were located and offered new lives in the United States.

For many of them, this was their only chance to escape war crimes charges, or at least a lifetime of association with the highest levels of the Nazi Party and the German military - so it is not surprising that many accepted this offer. The Soviets were somewhat less fair in their own acquisition of Nazi scientists. While it is true that on both sides there was an obvious degree of coercion (work as a scientist, or die as a war criminal), it would also be fair to say that many of the intellectuals "liberated" by the Soviet Union were effectively abducted against their will.

In any case, many German scientists were located and permitted immigration papers to the U.S. under the auspices of the Paperclip project. These included von Braun and several of his closest assistants, such as August Schulze and Eberhard Rees. The German rocket scientists were transported to their new homes at American military test sites in 1945 after the German surrender, formally on one-year labour contracts with their papers processed by American embassies in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

- Legacy -

In both the Soviet and American cases, science policy-makers were well aware that the German rocket program was far more advanced than their own. For this reason, for the first couple of decades of the Cold War, it was the Germans rather than the Americans and Russians who performed much of the work on early spaceflight programs. Without the captured German knowledge, both sides would have taken far longer to reach space, though undoubtedly they would have been able to do so eventually.

In America, most of the Germans were integrated into American society; von Braun, for example, even hosted television programs on the promise of atomic power technology. The Soviets, again, were much less concerned about such niceties, although they did permit most of the less important scientists to return to their original homes in Germany during the 1950s.

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