Huntsville and the German Rocket Team by pengtt


									              Huntsville and the von Braun Rocket Team
                                Placide D. Nicaise

Part 1: From one Life to Another

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany was one of the most
technologically advanced nations in the world. The German people had a
tradition of engineering and craftsmanship that produced some of the most
precise and innovative machines ever built. But, they also had a tradition of
militarism and authoritarian rule that led them into two world wars.
The Wehrmacht rolled across Europe in the opening years of the Second World
War, defeating every army on the continent that opposed them. Although the
English Channel protected Britain from a ground invasion, the Luftwaffe flew
devastating raids against London and Coventry. These raids became increasingly
expensive to German aircraft and were not able to take Britain out of the war.
The huge Russian Army to the east and the vast industrial capacity of United
States were even a more serious threat to Germany. They needed a long-range
weapon that they could use against their enemies. The Treaty of Versailles had
forbidden Germany the use of long-range artillery, so they had turned to the
development of unmanned aircraft and rockets.
The first “vengeance” weapon was the V-1 buzz bomb, a small, pulse-jet
powered aircraft that could fly an explosive warhead into enemy territory. Many
of these were launched at Britain, but they were slow and vulnerable to
defending fighter planes and anti-aircraft fire. Officers from the Wehrmacht were
immediately interested in another type of weapon when it was learned that some
Germans civilians had been experimenting with rockets. These rocket-powered
craft had the potential of sending warheads on a ballistic trajectory into enemy
territory at supersonic speed. Because of their high speed and high altitude
approach, they were invulnerable to any defense available at the time.
One of the members of a German Rocket Society was Wernher von Braun, a
bright, enthusiastic young man from an aristocratic German family. The German
Army hired von Braun when he was only 20 years old. He soon earned his
doctorate in physics and went on to lead the effort to develop a ballistic missile
for military use. Von Braun's Rocket Team worked at Peenemünde, a secret
laboratory on the Baltic coast. They eventually developed a reliable, liquid-fueled
rocket engine, and a guidance system that could place a warhead on target up to
320 km (about 200 miles) away. This V-2 was the first ballistic missile, and the
forerunner of those Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) that threatened the
world during the cold war years.

Hitler initially had no confidence in rockets as weapons, but changed his mind
when the Allies achieved air superiority. London and other European cities were
bombarded with the V-2, but by then it had come too late to save Germany. Von
Braun was imprisoned briefly by the Gestapo because they felt he was spending
too much time talking about rockets for space travel when they wanted him
concentrating on weapons. In the spring of 1945, as the war approached an end,
von Braun led his team out of their base in Peenemünde toward the west. They
had decided to surrender to the American Army rather than risk the hardships
and possible execution by the Russians that were advancing from the east.
                            At the time of their surrender, Colonel Holger N.
                            Toftoy, served as the chief of the Ordnance Technical
                            Intelligence team in Paris. He advised his superiors
                            that the von Braun Team, as well as its hardware
                            and paperwork were vital to the U.S. Army. On July
                            23, 1945 Toftoy met with von Braun and offered a
                            one-year contract for him and 127 members of his
                            team. They all accepted and by early 1946 had been
                            moved to Fort Bliss, Texas in what was called
                            Operation Paperclip.
                             This operation also moved enough hardware to
                             White Sands Proving Grounds to fill 341 railway
    Gen. Holger N. Toftoy    cars and to build about 100 V-2 missiles. Concurrent
                             with the transfer of hardware was the search for and
transfer of vital documents. Von Braun had implemented a critical plan before
leaving Peenemünde. He had ordered a vast archive of documents hidden in a
tunnel near the town of Dorten. These documents were recovered and moved to
the USA. (History of Rocketry by Cliff Lethbridge)
                             The Germans soon earned the respect and
                             acceptance of their Army overseers. Von Braun had
                             always been more interested in using rockets for
                             space flight than as weapons of war. Perhaps he
                             sensed that he was finally working for someone
                             with the resources to make that dream come true.
                             His military supervisors must have as quickly
                             realized that he was not only the world’s greatest
                             rocket scientist, but also the world’s greatest
                             salesman for rocket programs. In the years to
                             follow, he would demonstrate that he was also the
                             most capable director of these programs that his
   Von Braun & V-2 model     adopted country would ever have.

As the German team successfully fired longer-range rockets on the nearby White
Sands Proving Ground, they began to attract media attention all across the
country. Everyone began to realize that an atomic warhead would make these
rocket powered missiles the preeminent offensive weapon. Whatever nation
possessed such a weapon would have military superiority. The Army was eager
to use their German team to develop a more sophisticated ballistic missile
program for the USA, and the Germans were eager to get out of the desert and
into a climate more like their native land. Their chance came in 1950 when the
Army decided to move the team away from Fort Bliss to make room for activities
supporting the Korean War effort.

        Von Braun Rocket Team at Fort Bliss, Texas before transfer to Huntsville

One trip to the green mountainsides of Huntsville, Alabama convinced the
Germans that this was a place they could live in comfort and rebuild lives
shattered by war. It was a small town—the 1950 census indicated only 16,437
residents, but it was much more like rural Germany than the desert of West
Texas. The Army’s Redstone Arsenal was nearby that could provide the facilities
and room for growth that a high priority military program would require. They
would also be close to the new test range that had just opened up at Cape
Canaveral, Florida. So in the spring of 1950, the renowned von Braun Rocket
Team moved to the sleepy, mill town in North Alabama known as the “Water
Cress Capital of the World.”
Huntsville has always held itself a bit above most of the towns in the state. After
all, its pioneers had included aristocrats from Georgia and the Carolinas. They
came in and displaced the original settlers around the Big Spring. They built
their big mansions up on Echols Hill and large plantations out on the north edge
of town. Throughout its history Huntsville seemed to have more class and more
visionaries than most towns in Alabama. It prides itself on a rich history that

seems graced with good fortune. It didn’t suffer any major destruction during
the Civil War. It had no major upheavals during the Civil Rights demonstrations.
It attracted industrial development but these were not like the smoke stack
industries that blighted Birmingham. It has the benefits of the nearby mountains,
the encircling Tennessee River and cheap TVA power. Huntsville citizens seem
to be more broadminded and tolerant than others in Alabama. The politicians
and city planners were capable, ambitious people that had long dreamed of
making Huntsville a modern city of the Old South.
It is hard to imagine how the residents of even this liberal-minded Southern
town would accept these strangers from an alien culture. Old men still sat on
benches around the courthouse square, whittling away their Saturday
afternoons. The statue of the Confederate Soldier on this same courthouse square
was a reminder of another bitter war that they had fought generations before.
They still despised the Yankees. No one could predict how these people that had
lost brothers or sons so recently fighting the Germans would accept these
strangers from an enemy nation. How could the Germans who had suffered such
devastation and loss ever be comfortable living among their former enemies?
Perhaps Huntsville city fathers recognized this as a golden opportunity to build
the city of their dreams. Perhaps von Braun and his team were determined to
start anew in this adopted land. Perhaps the Army felt that this project was so
vital to national security that they had to make it work. Whatever grave doubts
existed beforehand, this may have turned out to be one of the most successful
social experiments in history. The Germans settled in quietly, many of them on
Monte Sano and others in established neighborhoods in the valley. Huntsville
provided the relaxed, small-town environment that the Germans had not seen in
years, and their adopted city came to enjoy fame and fortune like it had never
seen before.
The dissention that developed in the coming years was not between the Germans
and Huntsvillians, but between the Army, Navy and Air Force who fought
savage turf battles over who was to control the development of military rockets.
The Army had a strong hand because von Braun was a magician when it came to
promoting his projects and grabbing funds from his competitors. He and his
ideas about space flight were in a national magazine almost every month. He and
his team even put out their own magazine titled, The Space Journal. He was an
advisor to Walt Disney. A movie was made about his life titled; I aim at the Stars.
Of course his critics quipped, “He may have aimed at the stars, but he hit
London!” None of the snipping mattered because he was untouchable. He could
walk into congress and they would shower him with more money than he could
carry away. His big, handsome head was constantly in view in newspapers,
newsreels and on TV.

The Navy and Air Force simmered with jealousy that the Army Ballistic Missile
Agency (ABMA) could sit out in the middle of a cotton patch in North Alabama
and monopolize the national spotlight. The Army reassigned promising young
military engineers and recruited from local state colleges to expand their in-
house civil service team. They sent many of them to some of the best schools in
the country for advanced degrees. It would not be an all-German team any
longer, but one integrated with Americans who learned from the Germans and
followed in their footsteps. This team designed, built and tested their own
rockets in their own way. In contrast, the Navy and Air Force turned most of
their design, building and testing over to giant aerospace corporations with
thousands of employees stretching from coast to coast.
The other services initially decided to build air-breathing cruise missiles, which
were bigger versions of the original German V-1. They felt that ballistic missiles
would never have the range and payload capacity of these rockets with wings.
These short-lived creations were given the fanciful names of Snark and Navaho.
The Rocket Team would chuckle about “the Snark infested waters off the Cape”,
and “the Never-Go Navaho.” It drove their competitors into distraction when a
Redstone Rocket lifted off vertically, then thundered down range. The citizens of
Huntsville watched the contest and rejoiced in every success.
                          Von Braun and his rocket team reported to Major-
                          General John B. Medaris, the commander of ABMA.
                          Medaris fought the other services day and night, but it
                          eventually became clear that he was losing the war.
                          Even with von Braun’s charisma and the most
                          successful rocket program in the country, political
                          power and money were winning. The Army belatedly
                          realized that many contractors and widely distributed
                          contracts had overwhelming influence on congress.
                          Also, the powerful aerospace corporations opposed the
                          German approach of doing their own in-house design,
   MG John B. Medaris
                          providing close technical supervision, then testing
everything the contractors built. The Germans built the first units in-house so
they were able to specify how much it should cost to build and how long it
should take. If one bidder wouldn’t meet their terms, they would find another
one or they would build it themselves.
It was difficult for the Army to make much of a public case for their rocket
program because most of the comparative data were classified. Although they
felt their missiles were more reliable and more accurate, they were not permitted
to release the numbers. Perhaps in frustration, Col. John C. Nickerson, who
worked for the Army at ABMA, released some classified information and a
memo critical of the Defense Secretary’s decision to restrict the Army’s role to
short range missiles. Instead of making his case, Nickerson received a general

                         court martial in Huntsville on 25 Jun 1957. He was
                         found guilty and was transferred to the Panama Canal
                         Zone where he could not get his hands on any more
                         rocket test data. He was a local hero for his efforts, but
                         his military career was tarnished. He never returned to
                         the Rocket Team and was killed in an automobile
                         accident in New Mexico in 1964. (History of Rocketry
                         by Cliff Lethbridge)

   Col. John Nickerson      In the late 1950’s Eisenhower was still president and
                            understandably may not have had a lot of fondness for
Germans, or for Colonels who didn’t follow orders. Whatever the case, national
policy shaped up with the Air Force getting responsibility for developing all long
range ICBM’s (Inter-continental Ballistic Missiles). To make matters worse, the
Navy got the go-ahead to develop a completely new Vanguard booster for
launching the first artificial satellite. The Army was specifically directed not to
put a payload into orbit. This left the Army and their German team with only
battlefield missiles with a range of 200 miles (320 km) or less. This was a
devastating setback. Simpler, solid propellant motors had obvious advantages
for these shorter-range missiles. It seemed that the Army was sure to lose the
liquid propellant engine expertise that was the German’s forte, and the key to
von Braun’s dreams for space travel.
                                                  Huntsville had been expanding
                                                  dramatically, but it’s hopes for
                                                  becoming a shining metropolis of
                                                  technology were beginning to fall
                                                  apart. It was a single industry
                                                  town, and that industry was
                                                  severely threatened by decisions
                                                  made in Washington DC. There
                                                  was even talk of Germans leaving
                                                  the team and going to work for
     Gen. Medaris, von Braun and Gen. Toftoy
                                                  higher paying jobs in industry.
However, von Braun held most of them together even in the darkest days.
Perhaps they had been through so much together for so long that they had
developed an intense loyalty toward him. Yet, even the young American
engineers showed this same loyalty. He was a natural leader who earned the
respect of his entire team by his ability, his consideration for them, and his
single-minded determination to build the machines to take man into space.
Suddenly in the midst of all this turmoil and uncertainty, an event occurred that
shocked the nation like nothing since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the

Russians put up an artificial satellite, called Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957. The entire
nation was shocked. The public was frightened, realizing that a rocket which had
the power to put up a satellite could as easily put a warhead anywhere in the
country. The talk of a “missile gap” had become a reality. The Soviets had
rounded up a few of the German rocket engineers that remained at Peenemünde
and the Mittelwerk (the underground V-2 production facility). They eventually
took them to Russia and used them to beat us at our own game. Americans did
not like to lose, and certainly not in a race to develop science and technology. The
politicians were beside themselves and the news media were frantic.
The eyes of the whole country were focused on the launch of the Navy’s new
Vanguard rocket that was to attempt to put up the first American satellite on
December 6, 1957. At the instant of liftoff, the slender, pitiful looking Vanguard
was enveloped in flames and crumpled slowly back onto its pad. The rocket and
the launch pad were destroyed in the explosion that followed. The mood of the
nation was dark and furious. The politicians were desperate, so desperate that
they finally called on the Army and asked them if the Von Braun Rocket Team
would make an attempt at orbiting a satellite.
                               The Army team had secretly been preparing a
                               rocket just for this eventuality. It was an
                               elongated Redstone rocket with some solid
                               propellant rockets arranged in a rotating canister.
                               It was called a Jupiter-C rocket in order to steal a
                               bit of funding from the legitimate Jupiter rocket
                               program. This hybrid rocket was taken out of
                               hiding and rushed to Cape Canaveral. Even some
                               members of the rocket team doubted that this
                               strange combination of solid rockets mated to a
                               modified Redstone would work. The whole
                               country was watching, and the city of Huntsville
                               was holding its breath on January 31, 1958 as the
                               clear-burning Redstone hybrid lifted off and
                               thundered out across the Atlantic Ocean. No one
                               knew if it had really worked for about an hour
                               and a half. Then as its trajectory came back
                               around the Earth, the ground stations suddenly
                               began to pickup the beep-beep of America’s first
                               orbital satellite.
                              Jubilation broke out in the blockhouse and people
                              were soon dancing in the streets back in
    Explorer I, Jan 31, 1958
                              Huntsville. Citizens began calling it Rocket City,
USA. Von Braun and his team were instant celebrities and national heroes. Mobs
of people were waiting for them to get back from the Cape. A large celebration

was planned around the Courthouse Square. Crowds filled the square and
stretched out down the adjoining streets. Von Braun got to say only a few words
to the crowd before he was hoisted onto the shoulders of James Record and other
local politicians and paraded around to the cheers of a new class of citizens. The
sons and daughters of enlisted men, mill workers and cotton farmers were now
citizens of the space age. It must have been a heady moment for this man that
had risen from the ashes of his old fatherland to find such acceptance and
acclaim in a new homeland.
                                                     The Army and the citizens
                                                     of Huntsville saw this
                                                     success as a clear-cut
                                                     victory, but it was only one
                                                     battle in a long war. In some
                                                     circles, there was dark
                                                     muttering about the Krauts
                                                     and Rednecks down at
                                                     "Hunts-patch." The future
                                                     for the Army rocket
                                                     program, its Von Braun
                                                     Rocket Team, and the plan
     Von Braun & daughters on parade in Huntsville   for a great new city built
                                                     around high technology was
floundering. The Air Force still had all the ICBM development and probably any
future effort toward space flight. The Navy had decided not to use the ABMA
developed Jupiter missile at sea. They would develop their own Polaris missiles
and submarines taking up much of what was left of the defense budget. The
Army was forced to concentrate on solid rocket motors being used in new
missiles such as Pershing. The space race with the Russians was in full swing and
the von Braun Rocket Team was sidetracked with an organization restricted to
missions of small, short-range surface to surface missiles. The dreams of the
Army missile engineers and the citizens of the Rocket City were being replaced
by the bitter taste of defeat and frustration.
General Holger Toftoy, the man responsible for bringing the Von Braun Rocket
Team to the USA retired from the Army due to ill health in 1960. He was a close
friend of von Braun and a strong advocate of the Army missile program. He died
on April 19, 1967, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and
was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
General John Medaris, the energetic and forceful commander that had been in
the forefront of the fight for Army missile programs retired on January 31, 1960.
He moved to North Carolina where he was ordained an Episcopal Priest. He

died in 1990 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Serious rumors began to circulate that von Braun was planning to leave his
position with the Army and take a job in private industry. Some even speculated
that all the German team would probably leave Huntsville. The Alabama
politicians were trying but it seemed that they just didn’t have the power to
compete with Silicon Valley, and the giant aerospace industries in California.
Meanwhile, the Soviets continued to make space flight history, first putting up a
dog—Laika, then finally sending Air Force Major Yuri Gararin into orbit around
the Earth on April 12, 1961. The US seemed hopelessly behind and powerless to
match the Soviets in this period when the cold war was at its coldest, and the fear
of communism was at its greatest.

                                Lab Directors (from left to Right)
         Director                       ABMA position                    MSFC position
1.    Dr. Ernest Stuhlinger         Research Projects Office          Space Sciences Lab
2.    Dr. Helmut Hoelzer            Computation Lab                   Computation Lab
3.    Mr. Karl L. Heimburg          Test Lab                          Test Lab
4.    Dr. Ernst D. Geissler         Aeroballistics Lab                Aeroballistics Lab
5.    Mr. Erich W. Neubert          Sys. Analysis & Reliability Lab   Quality Lab
6.    Dr. Walter Haeussermann       Guidance & Control Lab            Astrionics Lab
7.    Dr. Wernher von Braun         Development Operations Div.       MSFC Director
8.    Mr. William A. Mrazek         Structures & Mechanics Lab        Propulsion & V E Lab
9.    Mr. Hans Hueter               Sys. Support Equipment Lab        Sys. Support Equip Lab
10.   Dr. Eberhard F. M. Rees       Dep. Development Opers. Div.      MSFC Deputy Director
11.   Dr. Kurt Debus                Missile Firing Lab                LOC Director at Cape
12.   Mr. H. H. Maus                Fabrication & Assembly Lab        Fab. & Assembly Lab

But, the machinery of the US government had began to move back in 1958. A
whole new agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) had been created. This was a civilian agency that would take over all
non-military space research. A major NASA center, the Marshall Space Flight
Center (MSFC), was formed on Redstone Arsenal on July 1, 1960. The von Braun
Rocket Team, including their civilian workers and a few hand-picked Army
personnel were transferred from the Army and formed the basis of the new
center, with Wernher von Braun as its first director. The nation had placed their
hopes for overtaking the Soviets with this 48-year-old icon of the space age and
his newly integrated German/American Rocket Team. The Army was suddenly
out of the space business, but MSFC was at center stage, and Huntsville,
Alabama was to be that stage. They had both achieved what only a few months
before had seemed like an impossible dream.


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