Operation Paperclip and the rocket race
With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission passing in July, historians have been reexamining a lesser-known aspect of space travel: how the U.S. snatched a gang of Nazi rocket engineers before the Soviet Union could.
This long-term operation, code-named Operation Paperclip, would eventually provide the knowledge and personnel that would serve as the foundation of NASA.
And yes, there were a hell of a lot of (former) swastikas present. In the words of satirical spy chief Malory Archer:
Rockets! Which put him [Neil Armstrong] on the moon. After the war ended, we were snatching up Nazi scientists like hotcakes. You don’t believe me? Walk into NASA sometime and yell ‘Heil Hitler!’ WOOP! They all jump straight up!”
Getting the goods
Nearing the end of WWII, U.S. intelligence officials were stunned to find that Nazi scientists had not only developed an advanced arsenal of nerve agents, but also a bubonic plague bioweapon (yikes).
Coupled with their groundbreaking efforts in rocketry, Nazi technology was roughly 25 years ahead of any developed nation at the time.
According to Annie Jacobsen, author of Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, “This was when the top brass realized ‘We need these weapons for ourselves’.”
It was well known by Allied intelligence that the German V-2 rocket program was overseen by a genius (albeit a stable one) named Wernher von Braun. The V-2 had an operational range of 200 miles in a time period of six minutes and was paramount of the time.
Despite the V-2’s stratosphere-breaking capabilities, it single-handedly killed more than 2,000 people during the London Blitz.
Wernher’s big adventure
Von Braun was a former SS-Unterscharführer (lieutenant) that exploited slave labor from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp to construct his rockets. He would later serve as NASA’s Walt Disney-esque figurehead, plying space travel to a captive audience of American citizens.
A public who, at large, was misled regarding their new scientist’s fascist background.
While some survivors accused him of being responsible for nearly 20,000 deaths, others viewed his joining the Nazi Party as a form of coercion or conscription for the sake of his research.
You know, that old chestnut: “Just following orders.”
The main research center for the V-2 program was located in Peenemünde, Germany (on the Baltic coast), but there were several auxiliary testing and manufacturing facilities in the country’s interior.
As the Soviets began to take the surrounding areas, they sought a similar goal — capture von Braun and his top engineers before the Allies.
Von Braun and a skeleton crew then fled south with all significant plans, research, and physical components of their work.
Allied forces, led by U.S. intelligence officials, conducted their mission from the west. And on May 2, 1945, von Braun, his brother, Magnus, and dozens of other rocket engineers surrendered to an Allied convoy in Bavaria.
The former Nazi could now continue his research, as it didn’t matter to him who paid for it (human rights violations be damned).
The enemy of your enemy
While the Soviet Union and the U.S. were allies during WWII, their relationship was tenuous at best.
“The main breach of trust [as viewed by the Soviets] was the U.S.’ failure to land in Europe before 1944,” says Pierre Asselin, professor of history and Dwight E. Stanford Chair at San Diego State University. “When they did show up, the Soviets felt as though they were very late to the party.”
“And, the Soviets had already incurred the most losses out of any other country. Then, after the U.S. dropped the bomb(s) on Japan, Stalin views this as a direct threat to him: ‘Stay out of Asia, or this is what can happen to you,’” Asselin explains.
This mutually assured paranoia would ultimately shape diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. for decades to come. So much so that the U.S. was willing to turn a blind eye to their new engineers’ fascist pasts simply to “beat” the Soviets.
Between September 1945 and early 1946, Wernher von Braun and 125 other team members arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Over the next 15 years, von Braun and associates worked with the U.S. Army to expedite the development of ballistic missiles and assist in V-2 launches at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico.
Operation Paperclip, in its entirety, would see the involvement of nearly 1,600 German rocket scientists and technicians.
The Soviets had a similar program in place, Operation Osoaviakhim, where the NKVD (not-so-secret police) and army removed more than 2,200 German specialists from the occupation zone to work for them.
They released Sergei Korolev, a brilliant rocket engineer, from the Gulag in 1944 to work with Valentin Glushko on the A-4 ballistic missile. In an ironic twist, Glushko was the man that fingered Korolev during Stalin’s Purges, ultimately getting him sent away for the better end of six years.
So yeah, they were pretty tight.
Korolev and Glushko then worked together under close watch to reproduce the A-4 with additions from scraps/plans found at research and testing facilities. Despite several failed attempts, they eventually doubled the flight trajectory to 500 miles in 15 minutes.
Let’s not bring on WWIII … M’kay?
Stalin saw what the Germans were capable of in both World Wars and did not want to risk a third conflict of that scale. The U.S. viewed Stalin as another Hitler: power-hungry and ever-expanding his empire.
According to Asselin, in reality, Stalin was simply positioning himself on the chessboard of international diplomacy.
Paranoid? Check. Inferiority complex? Check. Stupid little mustache? Nope.
If the U.S. had von Braun and the atomic bomb, the Soviets felt as though they should have similar technology as well, or else end up liquidated … literally.
Another point of contention between the two world powers was their inherent differences in economic structure.
These factors all played into the cataclysm that was to follow, with repercussions felt along the fault lines of history — unfortunately, to this day.
“Here, we have these two competing visions of development,” says Asselin. “So, how do you prove which one is best? You go to space.”
The space race
In the early 1950s, Korolev imagined the applications of rocket technology in space travel.
After the U.S. began to publicly postulate on sending a satellite into orbit, Korolev emphasized the Soviet need to get there first.
In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 (which was powered by an R-7 rocket). Over the next 12 months, Sputnik 2, which had a dog as a passenger (paging Sarah McLachlan), and Sputnik 3 were sent into orbit.
At this point, von Braun and his crew of engineers were working at a feverish pace to produce Redstone rockets, a derivative of the V-2 designed to break the Earth’s orbit.
The “Redstones” were initially designed as ballistic missiles and eventually powered the successful launch of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite — as well as the Mercury-Redstone launch vehicles that carried the first astronaut into space.
Von Braun and company further developed a derivative of the Redstone, the Jupiter rocket, and also the Saturn V rocket.
On July 24, 1969, Saturn V rockets powered the Apollo 11 mission that successfully landed Americans on the moon (before the Soviets).
So … The next time someone is trying to one-up you at a party, let them know about Wernher von Braun, Nazis, and NASA.
It’s sure to liven things up a bit.
A deeper dive: Related reading on the 101
- A look into Theodor Geisel’s “Dr. Seuss” wartime propaganda.
- Alexander Archbold takes his hobby for antiques and makes a career out of it.
- Examines SpaceX’s recent groundbreaking developments in space travel.