Saturday, October 15, 2011

On the Side of the Winners

The man, who was supposed to bring victory for Germany with his "wonder weapon," the V-2, experienced the end of the war in comfortable peace. In the town of Oberammergau he enjoyed, under the watchful eye of the SS, the spring weather in the company of his colleagues from the military experimental station at Peenemünde: "we sat on our mountain, and below, through the valley, moved the Allies." Wernher von Braun had already been prepared for a while to go over to the enemy. On May 2, 1945 - the radio had just announced Adolf Hitler's death - he sent his brother on a bicycle into the valley to the American troops. "My country had lost two world wars," he wrote. "This time I would like to be on the winner's side."

The victors would grant him this wish. Yesterday's enemy became a friend and helper, and so the history of Wernher von Braun is not only about the opportunism of the individual, but rather also about the opportunism of a great nation: after 1945, the American brought more than a thousand German scientists - rocketeers, aviation engineers, and biologist specializing in space flight - into the country; an operation which began under the code name 'Overcast' and which was carried forward for more than twenty years as 'Project Paperclip.'

Wernher von Braun would lead his German scientists to create both America's military missile program and its peaceful civilian space exploration missions. As NASA's leading engineer and researcher, his triumphs would extend from manned landings on the moon to unmanned spacecraft reaching Jupiter, Neptune, and beyond. And it all began with a bicycle ride through the beautiful mountain countryside of southern Germany!