Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

Forgotten cradle of the space age

By Anatoly Zak

Kummersdorf was the cradle of Germany's rocket programme

A few dozen miles south of Berlin, Germany, in the province of Brandenburg, a narrow tree-lined road weaves across scenic meadows and lake-side villages.

Near the town of Kummersdorf, a complex of old brown buildings resembling military barracks stands at the intersection of a seemingly abandoned railway line.

Right across from it, a barricaded road made of rough concrete blocks cuts through the thick pine forest.

As it curves into the wilderness, strange ruins appear, lurking in the depths of the woods.

Covered with Russian-language graffiti, these semi-collapsed bunkers can be easily mistaken for remnants of the Soviet military bases which litter Eastern Europe.

Yet, these unmarked structures represent a forgotten cradle of the Space Age.

These were powers that were trying to catch up, they were willing to entertain rather outlandish ideas like rockets
Michael Neufeld, National Air and Space Museum
It is here that the German military initiated the world's first large-scale rocket development programme in the first half of the 20th Century.

This programme led to the development of the infamous V-2 rocket, used by Germany against the allies during World War II.

And it is also here that Wernher von Braun and other key figures in the German "rocket team" started their professional careers in rocketry, culminating almost four decades later with the first Moon landing.

Unproven technology

At the beginning of the 1930s, rocketry was the domain of science fiction novels and small groups of amateur enthusiasts, who were largely looked down upon by respectable scientists.

V-2 rocket (Nasa)
The work begun at Kummersdorf would lead to the infamous V-2 rocket
Still, the German military, or Reichswehr, which was hungry to re-arm itself after World War I, put its bets on this unproven technology and its fanatical enthusiasts.

Many early historians and veterans of the German rocket programme distilled the reasons for the military interest in rockets to a loophole in the Versailles Treaty.

Signed in the wake of German defeat in World War I, the document severely limited the number of troops and the calibre of weapons of post-war Germany. The Treaty, however, said nothing about rockets - thus technically making them legal.

"This explanation doesn't quite add up, because they (the Germans) were secretly violating the Versailles Treaty, as much as they could get away with," says Michael Neufeld, head of space history department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, and author of a biography of von Braun.

Along with rockets, the German military was engaged in a chemical warfare programme, and, in an unlikely alliance with the USSR, the Reichswehr was developing conventional weapons, such as tanks, aircraft and artillery in bland violation of the Versailles Treaty.

The decaying structures are unmarked and overgrown

"It doesn't meant the Versailles Treaty is not important, clearly it created the situation where… there was openness to the radical new solution to military problems, and to some extent, it is true for the Soviet Union as well," Dr Neufeld says.

"Because these were powers that were trying to catch up, they were willing to entertain rather outlandish ideas like rockets."

Kevin Madders, author of A New Force at a New Frontier - a book on the history of Europe's space programme - adds that it was a lack of ability to mass-produce big guns by German industry in the aftermath of World War I, rather than the omission of rockets in the Versailles Treaty, which pushed the German military to try this exotic technology.

"It was that specific restraint (of the Treaty) on their artillery pieces... that was the driver (for the rocket programme)," Mr Madders explains.

Humble beginnings

On November 1, 1932, a new civilian employee reported to work at the newly created army rocket lab in Kummersdorf.

Wernher von Braun, then aged 20, had joined from one of the amateur rocket groups, based in Berlin, calling themselves the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, or the Society for Space Travel).

The son of a minister in the government of Germany's Weimar Republic, he was wildly enthusiastic about space.

VfR (Nasa)
Von Braun (second from right) had been involved in amateur rocketry
Unlike his friends at VfR, von Braun had no reservations about working within the secretive confines of the military. In fact, he thought that it was the only path from "toy rockets" to the passenger-carrying spaceships of which he dreamt.

Starting with only one assistant, von Braun's task was to investigate the most exotic type of rocket technology - liquid propulsion.

Although much more promising than the traditional powder fuels, liquid propellants were unwieldy, untested and highly dangerous.

In December 1934, after two years of sleepless nights, frustrating failures and violent explosions - one of which killed three people - von Braun's fledgling rocket team succeeded in launching its first liquid-fuelled rocket - the A-2.

It climbed to the altitude of about 1.8km, higher than any rocket had reached at the time.

The site's original rocket testing facility still stands

The success of the A-2 demonstrated to the sceptics that liquid-propellant rocketry was no crackpot dream.

Much more importantly for von Braun's army sponsors, it was now clear the rocket could be turned into a weapon of war, perhaps exceeding the capabilities of long-range artillery.

While Germany was descending into Nazism, the secret rocket team in Kummersdorf was showered with extra funding and promises of expansion.

Although Hitler officially tore up the Versailles Treaty in 1935 and could now openly develop all traditional weapons, there was no sign of discontinuing the rocket programme.

Unknown programme

"The Nazis came to power with an ideological commitment to increase armament spending massively, across the board," says Kevin Madders.

"They weren't concentrating on the most successful systems, but rather were producing global ability across their armed forces."

Early photo of Wernher von Braun (Nasa)
von Braun's team experienced many failures before launching the A-2
Although by 1935, the scale and scope of the German rocket development programme far exceeded any similar effort in the world, it was apparently unknown to the West's intelligence services until at least 1939.

It was in this year that a document now known as the Oslo report was dropped into the mailbox of the British embassy in Norway. The report outlined a number of weapons systems being developed by the Nazis.

However, post-Cold War Russian publications reveal earlier attempts to penetrate the German rocket effort in Kummersdorf.

As early as 1935, the Soviet government apparently received its first intelligence reports about the secret German missile programme.

Soviet intelligence services were reportedly receiving information from Willy Lehmann, a high-ranking SS official, overseeing the security of the military industry in the Third Reich.

Lehmann personally witnessed numerous firings of liquid-propellant engines developed by von Braun.

Lehmann had been relaying information to Moscow since 1934, via Vasily Mikhailovich Zarubin, the head of the Soviet spy network in Berlin.

At some point in the 1930s, a detailed written report on German missile tests by Lehmann was delivered to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. However, it appears that Lehmann was eventually discovered and shot, perhaps shutting the last peephole into the German rocket effort.

"(Apparently), they had this one isolated report (to Stalin). In general, there was very little information on German rocket programme in any country," says Michael Neufeld.

During the 1930s, Soviet rocket development had been growing at least as briskly as the German effort until Stalin's purges of 1937 dismantled the main rocket research team.

Moving premises

With the dramatic expansion of Germany's rocket programme in 1935, the ambitions of von Braun and his army bosses also soared.

Still looking at artillery as a potential competitor for rockets, von Braun's engineers conceived a vehicle which would double the range of the most powerful cannon.

To build and test this device, along with an entire arsenal of different rocket-powered weapons, von Braun's architects drafted blueprints for an entire research city near the Baltic Coast village of Peenemuende.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon during Apollo 11 mission (Nasa)
The V-2 rocket, conceived at Kummersdorf, would lead to vehicles that could propel humans toward the Moon

This was to include research labs, test stands, a wind tunnel, a residential village and a concentration camp - something that would return to haunt von Braun and his fellow workers in later years.

Most of von Braun's engineers had left Kummersdorf for Peenemunde by May 1937.

In 1944, von Braun's A-4 rockets - renamed Vengeance Weapon 2 (or V-2) by Nazi propagandists - began raining down on London and other allied population centres.

Although it failed to change the outcome of the war, the A-4 did not die.

First conceived in the walls of Kummersdorf, the A-4 left a far-reaching legacy across three continents. Soviet, French, British and Chinese rocket efforts were all influenced by and benefited from the A-4 (or V-2) technology.

Wernher von Braun was captured along with many of his engineers by the Americans in 1945, as World War II drew to a close.

The German rocket chief transferred to America to work on rockets for the US military.

Wernher von Braun and many of his team would stand at the helm of US missile development and the country's space programme until the day the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the Moon in July 1969.

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