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Launchbox PoD 9: For Want of a Paperclip

By Andy Cooke

The Moon Race was a close-run thing.

Oh, not that the Soviets were close to winning. Even before Korolyev died on the operating table, they were well behind; afterwards, they had no chance.

The real race was with the deadline that JFK issued: "Before this decade is out"

There were a bunch of decisions and incidents that increased or reduced the chances of success - at least one accident actually made it more likely (in retrospect), while another accident that could easily have happened would have made it all but impossible.

The choice of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the success of Mercury and Gemini, the evolution of the Saturn V rocket - all of these are simply the most prominent decisions.

I, however, want to look a little further back.

Were our Germans better than their Germans?

When Sputnik 1 was launched and stunned the Western public, Bob Hope joked, "All it means is that their German scientists are better than our ones."

Twelve key ex-Peenemunde specialists at Redstone Arsenal. Wernher von Braun is to the right of centre, looking out to the left,

It was a good line. Not, however, completely true. Not even mostly true. It wasn't even the opposite of true (people said, years later, that Apollo 11 proved that "our Germans were better than their Germans"),

The contention that it was all down to the ex-Nazi rocket scientists on both sides was not true.

There was, however, some truth to it.

The German rocket scientists of the Third Reich were influential - more so in the US than in the USSR. This was primarily down to the fact that von Braun's key team made the decision to try hard to be captured by the US rather than anyone else, and the US made the decision to try to pick up as much of us from the German rocket programme.

Paperclip (and Overcast)

I've briefly covered the specifics of Paperclip in my first article on Launchbox - how the US managed to spirit away von Braun and hundreds of key personnel, even large quantities of rocket parts, documentation, and tools - even entire V2s. This was done despite the archives, design headquarters, and manufacturing facilities at Peenemunde having been occupied by Soviet forces. The Americans explicitly infiltrated and stole what they wanted from under the Soviets' noses - diverting the inspecting Soviet Officers while they evacuated tonnes of material.

The Soviets broadcast offers of high salaries and excellent positions to the assumed fugitive German rocket scientists, but they'd almost all already surrendered to the US forces. Hardly any of the top-rank Germans accepted the Russian offer - the Russians did get a few thousand production engineers and technicians, but very few of these were from von Braun's creative and design teams.

Paperclip to Redstone

Wernher von Braun and his key lieutenants - with about a hundred top designers and assistants - were eventually set up in Huntsville, Alabama (nicknamed "Hunsville" by locals for a while afterwards), at the Redstone Arsenal. From there... they were largely sidelined for years. The jokes that both the US and USSR's programmes were primarily run by expatriate German rocket scientists was not true. The USSR drained all the information they could from their captured Nazis and concluded that they could go further and faster without them. The US story was more complex: inter-force politics and jockeying for position between the Army (who adopted von Braun's team), the Navy (who therefore wanted nothing to do with them), the Air Force (who were doing their own thing entirely) and civilian teams meant that von Braun's influence ebbed and flowed accordingly. Nevertheless, the information in their brains was picked in depth.

In the early Fifties, the US seemed uninterested in rockets and space. A proposal to launch a satellite for the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year was rejected out of hand by President Truman (who called it "hooey"). As rocketry languished in the US, von Braun did what he could to raise pop culture awareness.

Collier's March 22, 1952 "Man Will Conquer Space Soon"

The cultural impact of the Collier's series cannot be overstated. It brought the feasibility of space travel out of pure science fiction and made it "respectable" for the masses.

Still, it took until 1955, and the new President Eisenhower being convinced of the potential of space intelligence, for the US programme to kick back into gear. Even then, it wasn't a high priority.

Wernher von Braun

The rest of the story is fairly well known. But of all the German rocket scientists - for all the skills of Dornberger and Rudolph and the others - it is von Braun's influence that runs through the US efforts in the Moon Race like a golden thread. He dominated the Saturn rocket development programme, was the inaugural Director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre, and it was only when he changed tack to accept the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mode that the method of getting to the Moon was finally agreed (for all the legacy issues that this method left over).

The big PoD for this week is therefore: what would things have looked like in the Space Race had Operation Paperclip not successfully brought von Braun and his team to the USA? He could have failed to be picked up by the US in the first place. He could have been shot by nervous American soldiers. The US interrogators could have concluded that they did not want these "unrepentant Nazis" at all and refused to take them to the USA (insisting on interrogating them in Germany and releasing them there, or trying them as war criminals).

The United Kingdom had tentatively offered them refuge, but von Braun had decided (correctly) that the British couldn't afford them. But what if they'd had no choice? If the Americans wouldn't take them (they'd take their knowledge, sure, but the human packages that surrounded the knowledge in their brains - that could cause them to jink), it would be the Russians or the British. And von Braun feared the Russians.

Wernher von Braun and three of his key lieutenants after his surrender to the US team (he had broken his shoulder in a car accident)

In OTL, von Braun and his team played the game very well. They had agreed a plot to withhold just enough information from the interrogators. Enough to convince their captors of their value, but not enough to make them think they'd wrung them dry - and end up abandoning them to go to the Russians or (best case) the British... or even leave them to try to make their own way as best they could in the ruins of Germany. With no chance of continuing their dream of space exploration.

There was another choice nearly came to pass: the original plan for Operation Overcast was to bring the key German scientists into the US on a short contract (no more than a year), and without their families. They would then be used further (for the war against Japan) before being returned to Germany. Even this worried some US official, such as Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson.

What could have happened

There were multiple routes by which von Braun could have not been brought into America and, eventually, brought to the heart of the NASA programme. Any of these would have seen:

  • No Collier's pop culture series

  • No Explorer 1 launch to respond to the USSR (leaving the US response considerably later than in OTL - Vanguard did not successfully launch until March 1958)

  • No Redstone rocket (which launched Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom in the first Mercury flights)

  • No Saturn V rocket.

... and those are just the most obvious items.

The launch of Apollo 11. Without Operation paperclip, could the US have developed a suitable launcher in the same timescales?

The lack of a super-heavy launcher was what doomed the Soviet lunar attempts. Building a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V - and rocket engines as potent as they were in the Saturn V first stage were well beyond the Soviets at the time, and beyond anyone else, as well - made it possible for Apollo to land on the Moon.

As I said earlier, the lazy catchphrase that the Space Race was all down to the fugitive Germans (on both sides) was largely fictional - but that didn't mean that von Braun and his men were meaningless. They weren't. Although there were many areas of the US Space Programme that went on without any need for them (and the US would still have reached space - just not quite as quickly), these areas were indeed crucial and were indeed heavily influenced by von Braun.

Would JFK even have issued the challenge without the Redstone team being available? Would NASA have advised him that it was impossible in that timescale? Would the US simply have accepted Russian dominance in manned space travel? Could they have accepted it?

If not - what could they have done?

A world without Wernher von Braun as a key figure in the US space programme would have been very different to OTL, and not just in space. The potential loss of the Space Race at the start could have had enormous repercussions across the piece.


Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP


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