The amalgamation of German rocket scientists into the American space program yielded benefits for the US, while giving the Germans a safe haven. Wernher von Braun became the spokesman for imaginative space-travel stories on American television in the 1950s, his previous association with the Nazi regime largely forgotten and forgiven.
Beginning in the fall of 1945, the arrival of more than 100 German scientists in El Paso, Texas, as invitees of the US Army, at Fort Bliss happened with little fanfare – a deliberate US Army action. Fort Bliss’ huge open range area abutted the White Sands Proving Ground (to become the White Sands Missile Range) in adjacent New Mexico, giving vast isolation in which to conduct missile launches with little fear of collateral damage or prying eyes. Some of the Germans were amazed at the expansiveness of the American west – easily capable of swallowing up all of Germany’s area many times over. Also curious to them was the ease with which they, with their US Army escorts, traveled thousands of miles across many state lines with no policed border crossings.
The Germans were guests of the US Army who arrived without the normal processing of foreign visitors to the United States. They had one-year contracts. Initially they were closely watched and escorted by their US Army hosts any time they wanted to go off Fort Bliss. Over time, the restrictions relaxed. Von Braun, in particular, urged his German associates to learn English, which many of them accomplished with the colorful inflections of the American southwest. Some of the men initially felt their talents were underutilized at Fort Bliss. Von Braun did what he could to keep them focused and motivated, discussing their unifying vision of space travel. During their first Christmas in America in 1945, some of the Germans, including Wernher von Braun’s younger brother Magnus, devised a skit foretelling the first launch of man into space from White Sands in the year 2000. Little did they know then how the American-Soviet space race would buoy many of these same German émigrés on an aggressive adventure to put men on the moon by 1969.
The first year for the Germans in El Paso saw some of them assist the US Army in early V2 launches. For the Germans, the future was in new missiles and new goals in space, while for the Americans, self-sufficiency with the V2s was a worthy milestone. Before the first year-long contracts were up, it was evident the Germans possessed knowledge and skill levels not yet attained by their American counterparts. In an effort to retain the services of the Germans, five-year contracts tied to civil service wage rates were offered. In addition, the scientists and engineers could bring their families from Germany. The rocket men did what they could in those first few postwar years in El Paso, caught in a limbo where some American decision-makers did not want to fund extensive new missiles as a military venture, and the notion of non-military manned spaceflight was too far-fetched to gain traction. But in 1949, Soviet testing of their first atom bomb, coming on the heels of the contentious Berlin blockade and airlift the year before, prompted a change in thinking. The Germans would be employed initially in the creation of a new ballistic missile with a 200-mile range and nuclear capability. Longer-range missiles were expected to follow this initial effort. Col Holger N. Toftoy, the US Army ordnance officer entrusted with leading this effort, needed a better physical plant than the makeshift operation he had at Fort Bliss. When his request to build proper rocket research facilities was turned down for other operational requirements at the Texas site, he inspected, and then requested, two mothballed US Army arsenals in Huntsville, Alabama. His plans for the US Army missile facility survived some challenges to become funded at Huntsville.
In 1949, with multi-year work agreements and a planned move in the following year to the green hills of northern Alabama, the German scientists encountered a new dilemma. Their status as invitees of the US Army had circumvented normal immigration processes. They could not apply for US citizenship because they were technically illegal aliens. In a bit of old west choreographing that met the letter of the law, the Germans in El Paso simply stepped into neighboring Mexico and returned to Texas, this time as recognized aliens seeking American citizenship.
If a summation of the German rocket scientists’ experiences can be made, it must include recognition of the team spirit they managed to hold on to, in spite of their upheaval in Germany, and perceptions of underutilization early in their U.S. sojourn. Their integration into US Army ballistic missile programs of the 1950s gained for them the next new missile program, the Redstone, followed by the Jupiter. But much more fortuitously, it kept them available to form a cadre at NASA for developing the space exploration vehicles and rationale they had dreamed of since the 1930s. In 1960, with President John F. Kennedy’s stirring challenge to the United States to put a man on the moon within the decade, much of the US Army’s missile development team at Huntsville transferred over to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who created the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville to enable creation of the Apollo Saturn V multi-stage moon rocket. Naturalized US citizen Wernher von Braun was selected to become the first director of the new Hunstville NASA center.
If the spectacular acceleration of America’s space program outstripped the efforts of early V2 launches in the New Mexico desert under the overarching moniker Project Hermes, those flights nonetheless set the stage for what followed. After a number of basically stock V2s (albeit usually with some American-made components) reached various altitudes and achieved differing levels of upper atmospheric research over New Mexico, scientific and engineering entities in the United States began modifying the German war booty in an effort to make the V2s more effective research vehicles.
The US Navy’s Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) accepted the US Army’s invitation in January 1946 to become involved with V2 research in the New Mexico desert. The NRL held a key position in the US V2 program, conducting upper atmospheric science and developing the technology to enable this research. The NRL logged 80 experiments between 1946 and 1951. Major accomplishments included the first photos of Earth from altitudes of 40, 70, and 101 miles; the first detection and measurement of solar X-rays; the first direct measurement of atmospheric pressure higher than 18 miles; the first photography of the ultraviolet solar spectrum below 285 angstroms; the first detection of solar Lyman-alpha radiation; and the first direct measurement of the profile of ionospheric electron density versus height.
The NRL’s Richard Tousey took advantage of the V2’s altitude capability to design special spectroscopes to measure solar ultraviolet radiation from above the filtering blanket of Earth’s atmosphere. His first instrumentation package was destroyed in a shattering desert crash, but in October 1946, the device survived and provided the first solar spectrum in the far ultraviolet range.
The military V2 s had warhead nose cones that were ill suited to housing scientific payloads. The Naval Gun Factory in the District of Columbia manufactured new lookalike nose sections that had appropriate access panels and the ability to better accommodate research packages. The 7½ft-long science noses initially answered the need. As science flights continued, instrumentation packages in the extreme nose of a V2 were sometimes irretrievably damaged on impact with the ground. Researchers noted the lower sections of the rocket body tended to survive the return to Earth better than did the nose cone. Some effort was made to use explosives to separate the rocket nose from the rest of the body, and to mount instrumentation in the lower body areas for an increased chance of data survival. Launches of anesthetized monkeys provided data on weightlessness and other phenomena that increased the scientific confidence level that humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight.
Navalized V2s included a trio of the missiles trucked from New Mexico to Norfolk, Virginia in 1947. The three V2s were loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CVA-41) for Operation Sandy, the shipboard launch of a V2. A US Army team familiar with the German rockets assembled the V2s for the US Navy and trained a US Navy launch crew. While Midway cruised in calm waters a couple of hundred miles off the east coast of the United States, Operation Sandy launched one of the V2s on September 6, 1947. The launch succeeded, but the missile destroyed itself at about 12,000ft. With little delay, Midway began aircraft launch operations once the V2 was gone. The test was called successful because it showed the possibility of handling a large rocket like the V2 aboard a ship at sea, then launching it without impeding the ship’s normal operations. The US Navy’s missile aspirations were whetted by the Operation Sandy flight. But what if rough seas caused a calamity in which a V2-type missile tipped over on deck after being fueled? Operation Pushover used a replicated section of steel aircraft-carrier deck installed at White Sands, plus two V2s that were deliberately toppled at different times in the pre-launch sequence to gain an appreciation for the inferno a fully fueled missile could cause. Ultimately, the US Navy’s unique leg of the strategic triad in American nuclear deterrence would come in the form of specialized submarine-launched Polaris missiles.
The USAAF’s (later USAF’s) Cambridge Research Laboratories in Massachusetts participated in upper-atmosphere measurements made aboard V2s launched over New Mexico. Instrumented balloons of the day typically only reached about 19 miles high; the V2s promised altitudes of 100 miles or more. It was in the service’s interests to quantify as much as possible the characteristics of the upper atmosphere and near exoatmosphere, to aid in the development of viable high-altitude aircraft and even higher-flying missiles.
Records show seven V2s were assigned to the Cambridge labs, under the name Blossom. They were modified by lengthening them about 5ft 5in. in the midsection, as well as extending the nose cone and developing parachutes for instrument and experiment recovery purposes. Their modifications were designed to cause the Blossom V2s to break up in flight, separating research sections for, hopefully, survivable landings in the desert. Four of the seven Blossom V2s were considered to have successful missions.
The American testers of V2s in the desert gained valuable experience with large-rocket staging when they mounted an American product, the WAC Corporal rocket, to the nose of a V2. The staging and separation enabled the WAC Corporal to ride aloft, boosted by the massive liquid-fueled V2, and then accelerate ahead to achieve research altitudes unattainable by other means of the day. Suggested in mid-1946 by Col Toftoy, the ensuing lash-up of the American and German rockets constituted the first multi-stage liquid-fueled rocket tested in the United States. The modified missiles were operated under the project name Bumper. The existing WAC Corporal was modified with the addition of another fin and the enlargement of all fins to help stabilize it in the extremely rare atmosphere in which it would begin its solo boosted flight after separation from the V2. As the WAC Corporal eased out of the V2 nose cone on rails, two small rocket motors imparted a gyro-stabilizing spin to the smaller missile to enhance the accuracy of its flight into space. The first Bumper launch was on May 13, 1948. It was a test of the system. The Bumper team made several launches of varying degrees of success leading up to Bumper 5 on February 24, 1949. The full-up V2 and WAC Corporal combination delivered as designed, and after leaving its V2 booster behind, the slim Corporal reached the then-astounding altitude of 244 miles above the stark desert, and a speed of 5,150 mph. It was the highest a man-made object had soared at that time.
Two Bumpers were earmarked to explore flight dynamics around Mach 7. This required a flatter trajectory and not maximum altitude, which translated into a long 250-mile downrange profile. Even the vast reaches of White Sands could not contain a run that long, so Bumpers 7 and 8 were launched from the USAF’s newly designated overwater range at Cocoa Beach, Florida, on Cape Canaveral. They inaugurated the Florida facility. One of the Florida Bumpers boosted its WAC Corporal in a trajectory that enabled the smaller rocket to reach nine times the speed of sound – a record.
Seventy-two Americanized V2s are counted in the launch statistics between April 16, 1946 and September 19, 1952. Of these, only 68 percent were called successful launches, although some of the failed missions still yielded useful information and experience. If the scientific research was sparse over this large batch of V2s, the experience gained in missile operations and how to conduct missile research was very valuable, and is generally credited with saving the US years of delay in maturing its missile development program.
One can only imagine the excitement of US Army, US Navy, and industry rocket testers as they pondered the availability of as many as 100 supersonic German V2 missiles in 1946. These early American rocketeers were fresh from victory in the most technologically complex war the world had known. Yet by their very use of appropriated German technology, they had to be cognizant that even as they were pioneering new experiments, they were doing so with a design made by their erstwhile mortal foe. Subsequent space developments would show just how important the sometimes-controversial decision to bring German rockets and rocket scientists into the United States would be.
If Wernher von Braun’s enthusiastic, upbeat, yet authoritative persona made him the natural leader of the transplanted German rocketeers in America, he wisely kept his wartime deputy, Dr. Eberhard Rees, close at hand and in pivotal positions in the nascent postwar American rocketry discipline. Rees, a mechanical engineer by training in Germany in the 1930s, was summoned to join the rocketry team at Peenemünde in February 1940. It would be his introduction to rocketry, and to Wernher von Braun. Years later Rees recalled how he and von Braun discussed the spaceflight potential of rockets – the kind of talk that once got von Braun incarcerated for a brief time. Both men agreed that their peacetime vocations would involve development of rockets for spaceflight.
When Wernher von Braun was chosen to be the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, he tapped his old colleague Eberhard Rees to be deputy director to handle technical and scientific issues. At Marshall in the 1960s, Rees and von Braun were seminal to the success of the evolutionary Saturn I, I-B, and Saturn V that were required to boost manned Apollo vehicles to the moon. Rees would later say the Saturn development was the most interesting work in his career. When von Braun departed Marshall, Rees assumed duties as director until his retirement in 1973.
Nor did the early American rocket breakthroughs end with the last captured V2 launch in 1952. General Electric built upon another German rocket, the unfielded surface-to-air Wasserfall. Smaller than a V2, but with similar aerodynamic shaping, the Wasserfall silhouette had German research to back up its reasoning; General Electric capitalized on this research, but improvised with a different internal motor system in their variant known as the Hermes A-1. The wealth of experience General Electric gained in its White Sands V2 and Hermes efforts can be traced through several iterations, each more original than the previous, leading to the US Army’s successful Redstone surface-to-surface missile.
The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company – Convair – was, like all American aircraft manufacturers after war’s end, in search of new business. Convair diversified its aviation portfolio with contracts for the giant B-36 strategic bomber, forays into twin-engine airliners, and exploratory military work. When the USAAF solicited proposals for projects as part of a decade-long study of guided missiles, Convair received approval to explore a theoretical 5,000-mile-range ballistic missile projected to deliver a nuclear warhead with an accuracy of just under one mile. The first step in this ambitious plan was creating a smaller liquid-fueled missile to validate the use of swiveling rocket nozzles instead of movable vanes for control. The use of telemetry, and improvements in guidance systems also were to accrue from this demonstration missile, given the USAAF project designator MX-774.
Convair’s Vultee division undertook the challenge. Vultee lead engineer Karel Bossart began with a known quantity – the V2 – and his resulting MX-774 bore a strong resemblance to the German wartime product. But Bossart and his team made a salient change that saved substantial weight. Where the V2 had a steel shell housing separate fuel and oxidizer tanks, the Convair engineers reasoned that the external skin of the rocket body could be the outer wall of integral tankage for the two fuel components. The pressure of the liquids in the tanks lent rigidity to the missile while on the ground; in ascent, the loss of fluids due to fuel burn was offset by gas pressure to maintain rigidity. This clever mating of German silhouette as a design shortcut, plus revolutionary integral tanking and swiveling nozzles, permitted the MX-774 to be built in less than two years. After static engine tests, the first launch of an MX-774 took place at White Sands on July 13, 1948. It and two other copies suffered problems in their flights, but they validated two key concepts – swiveling nozzles and thin-wall integral fuel tank/rocket body construction.
The Germanic connection does not stop there; photos of MX-774 launch recovery operations show what appear to be German-inspired ribbon parachutes intended to slow the fall of the instrument-laden missiles.
Convair MX-774 Vultee “Hiroc” Missile
The innovative design of the MX-774 gave Convair and the USAF sufficient confidence to proceed with an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) derivative – the much larger, and finless, Atlas. Late variants are still in use as satellite boost vehicles at the time of writing. Visitors to the Atlas assembly plant are surprised at the hollow, vibrating drum-like sensation that comes from thumping the skin of a cradled and unpressurized Atlas. The original Atlas missiles deployed by the Air Force as ICBMs in October 1959 no longer looked like V2s, but they owed their successful development time to the use of V2 aerodynamics in the MX-774 more than a decade earlier. Withdrawn from USAF service as an ICBM in the middle of the 1960s, the Atlas will forever be associated with its decades-long service as a boost rocket, including the mission that put John Glenn, America’s first orbital astronaut, aloft in 1962.