The Rest of the Rocket Scientists

Some went west. This is the story of the ones who went east.

Launch of a German V-2 rocket, dated October 3, 1942. (NASM)
Air & Space Magazine

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When an angry Helmut Gröttrup asked when he and his colleagues might return to Germany, Dmitry Ustinov, the head of the ministry responsible for missile development, joked, “As soon as you can fly around the world in a rocket!” Gröttrup boarded one of the 92 trains transporting the deportees and immediately dictated a letter of protest to his secretary, but it was to no avail. He arrived in Russia a few days later.

Growing up in Moscow in the 1970s, I spent my summer vacations at a dacha in Valentinovka, in the city’s northeastern suburbs. It was a place of magnificent pine and birch trees, gravel roads, and unpaved trails, twisting between ageless wooden cottages with brick chimneys and glass-covered porches. Back then, the hemorrhaging Soviet economy left local food stores largely empty, prompting my mother, in her never-ending quest for groceries, to make frequent trips to nearby Podlipki, where the shelves always seemed well stocked.

Official Soviet encyclopedias listed timber production as Podlipki’s main industry, but even then we knew it was home to the rocket industry, whose privileged workers could find cheese and milk even during the worst shortages. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the town’s true mission was made public, and it was renamed Korolev to honor the luminary of the Soviet space program, who spent the most productive years of his life there. It was here that Helmut Gröttrup was sent, to work at the newly established NII-88 scientific research institute, the first Soviet industrial facility dedicated to rocket development.

Boris Yezhov, a Korolev town historian, says that about half the Germans were accommodated in vacation houses in the northeastern suburbs. Most of the residences no longer exist, but at least one, in Bolshevo, is still standing. On the way to see it, Yezhov showed me an old black-and-white photo of a majestic stone mansion, sitting oddly in the middle of a forest. Today it’s a vacation house for Russian movie executives. But when Germans lived there it was nicknamed the “Fascist Palace,” and it housed “I don’t know how many tenants,” according to Irmgard Gröttrup. She and Helmut moved into a six-room villa more befitting his status, and were given a chauffeur-driven BMW. Later, though, when Helmut was transferred out of Moscow, Irmgard would spend a few months in the Fascist Palace. During her first night in the crowded building, her Russian hosts asked when she and her fellow Germans were going to bed. She recalled, “We looked at the 10 bottles of vodka on the table and laughed out loud: We hadn’t the slightest intention of going to sleep.”

Other Germans were housed according to their jobs. Specialists in guidance and radio systems, perhaps the most challenging task in the Soviet missile development program, settled in the town of Monino, farther east on the Yaroslavskaya Railroad. Another group, led by V-2 propulsion specialist Erich Putze, was attached to the collective of Valentin Glushko, the other principal figure in Russian rocketry at that time. Glushko worked on rocket propulsion systems at the OKB-456 design bureau, now known as NPO Energomash, the company that builds engines for almost every Russian rocket as well as the U.S. Atlas booster. Like Korolev, Glushko was not enthusiastic about German participation in his work. “He distanced himself from the Germans,” says Vladimir Sudakov, a historian at NPO Energomash.

Without support from above, Gröttrup struggled with badly equipped laboratories and a lack of tools. The Germans working for Glushko were taken off work on a more advanced engine for the V-2, designated RD-102, and given secondary and often humiliating jobs, such as designing the foundation for industrial buildings.

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.”


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