The Rest of the Rocket Scientists
Some went west. This is the story of the ones who went east.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
(Page 3 of 6)
For the Russian rocket pioneers, it was partly a matter of pride. Korolev and Glushko had been at this business for years, and believed they could improve on the already outdated V-2 with no outside help. But Stalin himself was keen to have his scientists launch German missiles before moving on to their own. He believed that by copying Western designs, like that of the American B-29 bomber (see “Made in the USSR,” Feb./Mar. 2001), Soviet engineers could quickly absorb foreign innovations. Decades later, veterans of the Soviet aerospace industry publicly admitted they had done just that.
So in August 1947, Gröttrup and several other Germans boarded a train to a new launch range at Kapustin Yar, near the border with Kazakhstan, to assist with the first launches of V-2s. Out here, Irmgard wrote in her diary, the camels outnumbered the cars. Still, the engineers were excited to be launching rockets again. The atmosphere, she noted, was “just like Peenemünde when we made our first experiments.”
Upon returning to Moscow in December, the Germans continued to be shut out of important work. Gröttrup and his associates presented to their Russian hosts a concept for a new guided missile, the G-1, partially based on work done in Germany during the war. Also designated the R-10, it featured a number of improvements over the V-2, including a longer range. But despite positive Russian reviews of the concept, it went nowhere. Soon German engineers began losing their positions at NII-88 and were reassigned to a research facility on Gorodomlya Island, 200 miles northwest of Moscow, where half their fellow Germans had already been living since arriving in Russia.
Helmut Gröttrup had few regrets about leaving the frustration of NII-88, but his wife felt a pang of nostalgia: “Farewell Moscow!” she wrote. “In spite of everything, you meant a great deal to me—a host of good friends—a city, in which I quarreled, laughed, wept, and pondered much.”
In the Upper Volga region of Russia, surrounded by swamps and evergreen forest, lies magnificent Lake Seliger, and at its center, Gorodomlya Island. In 1629 a rich landowner donated the island to a Russian Orthodox monastery, and for most of the three centuries that followed, Gorodomlya remained virtually uninhabited. Mid-19th-century maps of the island show the lone house of a forester. In 1928 the Soviet government evicted the monks and established a biological research laboratory. According to local legend, one of the defiant monks drowned himself in the lake, and his ghost has wandered the island ever since.
The region around Lake Seliger saw heavy fighting during World War II, and the laboratory was evacuated in the face of the German advance. By the war’s end, Gorodomlya had become home to numerous Soviet military hospitals, and was connected with the outside world by an underwater telephone cable. But its real claim to fame was the rocket research conducted there in the years immediately following the war.
It took Gröttrup and his fellow Germans days to reach the island from Moscow, but I made the trip in five hours by car. From the shores of Lake Seliger, I boarded a ferry that takes a half-hour to reach Gorodomlya. Not far from the pier is a gated entrance and a guardhouse. By the time I reached the gate, it was already under siege by a group of teens from our ferry, who were quarreling loudly with a female guard. Apparently they were here for a dance party at a nearby club, and some of them did not have permits to be on the restricted island.
As I climbed the road past the security fence, I could appreciate Irmgard Gröttrup’s feelings when she arrived here a half-century earlier: “So great was our curiosity about the island that we hardly noticed the dreaded barbed wire once we had landed. I think we were all too anxious to know what went on behind it.” At the top of the hill, the asphalt road took me around a white stone building marked “LIBRARY.” It used to be a café, which doubled as a social club for the Germans. The newcomers, it seems, tried to make it feel like home.