Rocket Pioneers

By Hasenauer, Heike | Soldiers Magazine, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Rocket Pioneers


Hasenauer, Heike, Soldiers Magazine


ROCKET Pioneers Wernher von Braun, Bernhard Tessmann and Karl Heimburg built early U.S. military rockets at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., home of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in April 1950.

Their stories, first reported in Soldiers magazine in 1989, recap the beginning of the U.S. Army's rocket program, born of war and today preventing war, and they trace one man's dream of space exploration from World War II Germany to America's continuing space program.

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LEGEND has it that in 1924, when he was 12, Wernher von Braun strapped skyrockets to his wagon, ignited them and watched the charged toy soar down a busy Berlin street. While his friends spent summer days admiring the newest Daimlers and Mercedes touring his fashionable neighborhood, von Braun gazed at the clouds and dreamed of possibilities far beyond.

It would be another 45 long, though fruitful years before he would help land the first man on the moon in July 1969 via his Saturn V rocket. When astronaut Neil A. Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface, von Braun realized part of his own dream of man in space.

The story began long before America's Apollo program or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were born, and long before everyday citizens started to believe that the fantasies that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrote about would come true.

Von Braun conducted his earliest official research in Germany in the late 1930s at Kummersdorf, a proving ground about 45 miles from Berlin. He first built small rockets to learn more about guidance systems, said Bernhard Tessmann, a rocket engineer who was responsible for test facilities. Tessmann worked at a Berlin locomotive company when he met von Braun through a colleague in 1936.

"He invited a group of us to dinner at his house one night, but he never got around to cooking it," Tessmann said. "He kept drawing calculations on his blackboard for a rocket to the moon."

"We always had space on our minds," said Karl Heimburg, who began working for von Braun as a mechanical engineer while serving as a private in the German army from 1942 to 1943. "If we talked about space, though, people thought we were crazy. It was too fantastic an idea."

While the men may have talked space, their mission was a military one. Capt. Walter Dornberger convinced Adolf Hitler in the '30s that von Braun's rockets might be a way to circumvent the Versailles Treaty. The treaty ended World War I and prohibited Germany from developing artillery that could fire beyond 15 kilometers--it said nothing about missiles.

To test the missiles, von Braun needed a location where the rockets could be launched out to sea, Tessmann said. His mother suggested Peenemuende, a small island on the Baltic coast, where his father often hunted and fished. The team began work on missiles, dubbed the "A" series. The first real engine test for the team's A-4 long-range bombardment missile was on May 7, 1938.

After years of refinement, the A-4 became better known as Hitler's Vengeance Weapon 2, or V-2. The first was aimed at Paris in September 1944, and for the next seven months, the Germans would rain another 4,000 on France, England and Belgium.

"In 1944, Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler tried to recruit von Braun into the SS," Heimburg said. "Von Braun told him: 'If you fertilize and water a plant too much, you'll suffocate it.'"

Von Braun was hauled off to jail but released two weeks later after the intervention of Dornberger, by then a general.

In prewar America, a West Point ordnance officer, Maj. Leslie A. Skinner, was responsible for the Army's rocket program. The Army had assigned him to its new rocket research group of the National Defense Research Committee in Washington, D.C., in 1940. …

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