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)
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Three days after Christmas 1948, a delegation from NII-88 arrived at Gorodomlya to review progress on the G-1 project. Gröttrup bluntly told his bosses that further development of the rocket made no sense unless he and his co-workers were allowed to do experimental work. The review ended on a positive note, but there was no further discussion of building the G-1 rocket. Soviet officials continued visiting the island over the following year, seeking proposals for various rocket concepts, but nothing came of any of them.

By the end of 1950, with no prospect of returning home and no hope of creative engineering work, Gröttrup asked visiting Soviet officials to relieve him of his duties as head of the German collective. He hoped that as a show of solidarity, none of his German colleagues would agree to fill his position. He was wrong. Johannes Hoch, the flight control system expert, was appointed to take his place. But only four days later, possibly due to negative reactions from other members of the team, Hoch and five of his supporters were transferred to Moscow to join a team developing anti-aircraft missiles; it was led by Sergei Beriya, the son of Lavrenty Beriya, Stalin’s infamous secret police chief. Boris Chertok agrees with Irmgard Gröttrup’s perhaps biased characterization of Hoch as a “crypto-Communist.” According to Chertok, Hoch applied for Soviet citizenship and even tried to join the Communist party. “He also was an extraordinary talented engineer,” says Chertok, “and if not for his premature death could have been one of our chief designers.”

By the time Helmut Gröttrup walked away from his job, the Soviets had gotten about all they wanted from their foreign experts. As more newly trained Russian engineers took over key jobs on the island, the Ministry of Armaments decided to discontinue the German collective’s missile development project, and the secret work at Gorodomlya ceased. Around the same time, back at the OKB-456 design bureau, Glushko authored a document essentially asking the government to send the Germans back home. Meanwhile, the German scientists were assigned such tasks as designing aerodynamic weighting mechanisms or boat engines. Depression, heavy drinking, and even suicide attempts plagued the team and their families.

In 1951, the first group of Germans was allowed to return to East Germany. The Gröttrups remained until November 1953, when all but a few of the remaining Germans were sent home. The rest, mostly guidance experts, eventually were transferred to Moscow. Helmut and Irmgard returned to Germany and even succeeded in moving back to the western sector. Again Helmut was offered a job in the United States, and again he opted to stay in his home country. He went on to a successful career in the electronics industry, and turned his back on the past.

On August 21, 1957, the Soviet newspaper Pravda boasted that the U.S.S.R. was in possession of intercontinental ballistic missiles. As Western intelligence confirmed the Soviet claim, one high-ranking official at NATO’s European headquarters reportedly exclaimed, “We captured the wrong Germans.”

His comment was based on a rather common belief in the West: that Soviet breakthroughs in rocketry, including the triumphant launch of Sputnik 1 a few weeks later, were due to the contributions of German rocket scientists. When Wernher von Braun and his team answered Sputnik the next winter with the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, a popular joke was that the two orbiters exchanged greetings in their common language—German.

Historians, however, disagree about the impact of German rocket scientists on the Soviet program. “In reality, the Germans did not build anything for the Russians, did not ‘supervise’ the firings, and did not introduce innovations,” wrote German-born rocket historian (and von Braun colleague) Willy Ley in 1968. Nearly three decades later, Boris Chertok echoed the opinion in his memoirs. The R-7, the Soviets’ first ICBM and the vehicle that launched Sputnik, bore no German “birth marks,” he wrote.

However, Olaf Przybilski, an historian at the Technical University of Dresden, disagrees. His analysis, published in Germany in 1997, points out a striking resemblance between a cone-like aerodynamic shape the Gröttrup team had proposed for several rockets and the conical shape of Korolev’s largest designs—the R-7 and the ill-fated N1 moon rocket.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Germans did not design the Sputnik or its rocket, but the ideas developed by Gröttrup’s team on Gorodomlya did influence Soviet designers and accelerate their efforts. On her last day on Gorodomlya Island, Irmgard Gröttrup wrote in her diary: “Once more we had a meal with our friends, draining glass after glass and taking stock of the past years. We came to the conclusion that they had not been wasted, as we had so often believed. The men agreed that…the long-range rocket has made the conquest of space a definite possibility in the foreseeable future.”

Whether or not their work ultimately mattered, there is no question that the Germans who went east after the war had a markedly different experience from those who headed west. Wernher von Braun would eventually supervise construction of NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket, rise to the top levels of agency management, and win the National Medal of Science. Kurt Debus, another Peenemünde alumnus, headed launch operations at Cape Canaveral during the Apollo program. Helmut Gröttrup was happy just to make it back home to Germany.


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