Spaceflight History: Nazi Rocketry

Michael Neufeld’s book details the biography of the Werner von Braun, a Third Reich rocket engineer who worked for NASA after WWII

It is common knowledge that during the Cold War, international competition between the United States and the Soviet Union fueled space exploration. Less known, perhaps, is that the rocket technology powering the space race was largely born out of World War II. One of the most important rocket engineers who helped NASA reach the Moon was a former Nazi named Wernher von Braun.

We spoke with Dr. Michael Neufeld, Senior Curator in the Space History Department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. He wrote the definitive biography of von Braun and recently wrote Spaceflight: A Concise History. We asked Dr. Neufeld about von Braun, the relationship between military and space technology, and space history.

How did Wernher von Braun’s Nazi past come back to haunt him in the United States?

After World War II, von Braun quickly came to America to work for the US Army, where he developed guided missiles and space vehicles for fifteen years. As part of Project Paperclip, which brought over a thousand German and Austrian scientists, engineers, and technicians to the US, his Nazi record was classified. His status as an SS officer, though, did create delays behind the scenes in converting him to a regular immigrant.

But as he rose to fame in the 1950s as an advocate of spaceflight, he had to explain to the public his prominent role in the Third Reich. Fortunately for him, his SS membership remained classified. Furthermore, little was known in the public domain about the murderous exploitation of concentration camp workers to assemble V-2 missiles in the Mittelwerk underground plant. He felt he could not conceal that he had been a member of the Nazi Party, but explained it as necessary to protect his career.

The fact that he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 for ten days on the grounds that he made defeatist statements, as well as his displaying more interest in space than weaponry, were bonuses in explaining away his behavior. (For a detailed analysis of the facts, see my book, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.) That, plus the pervasive fear of Communism, and his role in developing rockets against the Soviet Union, was enough to fend off most public discomfort in the 1950s.

Michael Neufeld recently wrote a book summarizing the history of spaceflight

In 1960, his Army rocket group was transferred to NASA and he became centrally involved in the race to the Moon. Von Braun remained a hero to many Americans, notably after helping launch the first US satellite in 1958. But as the Cold War consensus in American culture broke down in the sixties, he was subject to more questions. He was lampooned as a Nazi opportunist by comedians Mort Sahl and Tom Lehrer. But the more serious threat was the possible exposure of his SS membership and his role in crimes against the prisoners. Communist East Germany and French survivors of the underground plant tried to change the narrative in the Western media in the mid-sixties, but had little luck.

In the late sixties and early seventies, more information leaked out, but still von Braun was mostly protected. He died prematurely of cancer at age 65 in 1977; seven years later, the US Justice Department revealed that one of his closest associates, Arthur Rudolph, had gone back to Germany rather than contest his role in the crimes committed in the Mittelwerk. That opened a lot of previously classified documents to the public, and von Braun’s posthumous reputation was severely damaged. He remains controversial to this day.

Do you think that military and space technologies’ interconnection is lessening with time?

As I have noted in my recent short book, Spaceflight: A Concise History (published by MIT Press), military and civilian rocket and space technologies have been completely intertwined from the outset. Indeed, without the development of ballistic missiles by Nazi Germany, and then by the United States, the Soviet Union, and other powers during the Cold War, we would never have gotten into space so quickly. All space and rocket technologies are “dual use” – equally valuable for civilian and military applications. That is not going to change any time soon. I should also note that many military and national security space satellites are crucial to international stability. Reconnaissance and missile-early-warning satellites have lessened the anxieties that might have led to a global nuclear war. They continue to be crucial today.

What advice do you have for aspiring space historians?

Simply put, become a professional historian. Acquire a PhD or Master’s in the discipline, or in related ones like space policy, political science, or economics. You can always carry your space enthusiasm with you, and use it in the search for research topics, but you need to have the training in order to do work that will be more than the collection of facts. You need to set those facts into interpretations that can influence academic fields, the media, and the public. Jobs are available as university professors, museum curators, official historians in space agencies, and members of non-profit think tanks.