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Home > Wernher von Braun > Recollections of Childhood

Recollections of Childhood

Early Experiences in Rocketry as Told by Werner Von Braun 1963

Rocket propulsion is a fascinating field of engineering that did not exist as a career field when I was a boy.

Although basic principles of rocket propulsion have been known for centuries, only recently has it become a highly useful tool of man. It evolved slowly from the crudely fashioned "arrows of flaming fire" which the ancient Chinese used as implements of battle and the sparkling fireworks displays which have been used for years to entertain and amaze. Modern technology revived and nourished the ancient art of rocketry, and this field has come rapidly of age within our lifetime.

In the first third of this century, interest was limited to a few lone-wolf scientists who were often labeled "crackpots." One such "crackpot," Dr. Robert H. Goddard, is now credited with being the first to fly a liquid rocket, complete with a "re generatively cooled" combustion system and a simple guidance system to keep it on course. Dr. Goddard, a truly great man, was a professor of physics at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. His rockets, which were flown starting in 1926, may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles.

The first years of development of modern rockets were cloaked in military secrecy. It was World War Il that brought rockets to public attention, as thousands were fired by opposing sides, on land and sea. The largest and most advanced rocket, by far, was the German V-2. Although the V-2 was a weapon of war, it was born through a dream of a group of scientists inspired by the writings of Professor Hermann Oberth. He first suggested that a practical rocket could be built which could propel man into space to explore the universe. Professor Oberth, who is still living in Germany, was a great inspiration to me and to many of my associates in our early struggles to build rockets which would reach high altitudes.

When World War II came, our inspiration was pressed into service to develop a family of military missiles, among them the V-2. The V-2 was a truly remarkable machine for its time. It embodied many of the principles we still use in the field of rocket propulsion, although some twenty years have passed since its development began. In those early days of rocketry leading up to development of the V-2, we were foolhardy and took chances, chances we would never take today.

When I was 12 years of age, I had become fascinated by the incredible speed records established by Max Valier and Fritz von Opel. So I tried my first practical rocket experiment. It resembled one tried in 1500 by a Chinese named Wan Hoo. This visionary Oriental foresaw the use of rocketry in going to the moon. And he wanted to be the first to do it.

Using the technology then available, Wan Hoo fastened a huge kite to a sedan chair on which he had strapped 47 solid propellant rockets. Bravely he sat in the sedan chair while coolies held torches to the rocket fuses. Wan Hoo disappeared in a burst of flame and smoke.

Although I had not heard of Wan Hoo's fateful experiment, my approach was similar. I chose a coaster wagon instead of a sedan chair. Selecting half a dozen of the biggest skyrockets I could find, I strapped them to the wagon. Since there were no coolies to apply the torch, and lacking Wan Hoo's courage and determination, my wagon was unmanned, and I lighted the rockets myself.

It performed beyond my wildest dreams. The wagon careened crazily about, trailing a tail of fire like a comet. When the rockets burned out, ending their sparkling performance with a magnificent thunderclap, the wagon rolled majestically to a halt.

The police who arrived late for the beginning of my experiment, but in time for the grand finale, were unappreciative. They quickly took me into custody. Fortunately, no one was injured and I was released to the Minister of Agriculture (my father).

I was attending the French Gymnasium school in Berlin, but was not a star pupil. A fellow student and I had a far more absorbing project than our school books. We were building an automobile in my father's garage.

My grades improved after my father transferred me to a boarding school, the Hermann Lietz School in ancient Ettersburg Castle near Weimar. There we worked in the afternoons in groups to develop technical skills, to build things. And before bedtime I was permitted to examine the stars for an hour or two with a small telescope my mother had given me as a confirmation gift. I was 14 when I became seriously interested in space and astronomy.

One day in 1925, I saw in an astronomy magazine an ad about a book called "The Rocket to the Interplanetary Spaces," by Hermann Oberth. I wrote for it at once. To become an engineer and to build such rockets -- that would be a challenge worth living for, I figured.

When the book arrived, I opened it breathlessly. To my consternation, I couldn't understand a word. Its pages were a baffling conglomeration of mathematical symbols and formulas.

Rushing to my math teacher, I cried, "How can I understand what this man is saying?"

To my dismay, he told me to study math and physics. But in the glamorous prospect of a life devoted to space travel, these subjects took on new meaning for me. Determined to master them, I buried myself in their mysteries, and after a few years I even succeeded in graduating a year ahead of my class.

As soon as I graduated from school, Willy Ley, already a prolific popular writer on space and rocketry, introduced me to Professor Oberth. The professor was working to prove his contention that liquid fuels instead of solids were the best approach to rocket power for space vehicles. In my spare time, after working eight hours a day as a mechanic's apprentice in a Berlin machine factory, I joined Klaus Riedel and Rudolf Nebel, two other members of the German Society for Space Travel, as Professor Oberth's assistants.

Our equipment was elementary, and our ignition system was perilous. Klaus Riedel would toss a flaming gasoline-soaked rag over the gas-spitting motor, and then duck for cover before Oberth opened the fuel valves and it started with a roar. We were temporary guests on the proving grounds of the Chemical and Technical Institute, the German equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Standards.

In August 1930, Professor Oberth's little rocket engine succeeded in producing a thrust of 7 kilograms for 90 seconds, burning gasoline and liquid oxygen. An official of the Institute certified the demonstration. The liquid-fueled rocket motor was thus recognized for the first time in Germany as a respectable member of the family of internal-combustion engines.

This was a tremendous forward step. But because he had to eat and support a large family, Professor Oberth was forced to return shortly thereafter to his teaching job in Romania.

Our zeal for space travel was undaunted, but with Oberth's departure our status as guests of the Chemical and Technical Institute expired.

Looking around for a place where we could continue the work we had been doing under Professor Oberth's direction, Nebel soon found an abandoned ammunition storage depot near a suburb of Berlin. Eloquent as he was, he persuaded the city fathers to grant us a lease on it -- free and for an indefinite period. Weeds and underbrush were taking over the 300-acre site. We selected one of the blockhouses for our laboratory, and hung out our shingle, Raketenflugplatz Berlin (Berlin Rocket Field).

We had no financial backers. Rudolf Nebel did an amazing job of scrounging free materials, which we swapped for skilled labor, such as tinbending or welding. Klaus Riedel sketched out a design for a "Minimum Rocket," and we started to build it. The motor was located in the nose, not for any scientific reason, but simply because Nebel had scrounged a truckload of aluminum tubing which could only be used if the motor dragged the tanks by the fuel lines.

In June of 1931, I interrupted my studies at the Institute of Technology of Berlin by a semester at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. I returned in October of the same year, however, for the first public firing of Klaus Riedel's minimum rocket. Several local industrialists had been persuaded by Nebel to pay one mark to witness the demonstration. When the moment of truth came, the rocket moved halfway up the launcher tracks, then settled peacefully back on the pad. We were embarrassed, but we did not return the admission fees!

The trouble with our rocket was found to be unreliable pressurization of the fuel tanks. This was corrected, and within a few weeks successful launchings became commonplace. The rocket reached an altitude of about 1,000 feet.

A small parachute carried in the tail section would float it back to earth. Klaus Riedel would dash across the field in an old car, jump out, and sometimes catch the rocket before it struck the ground. After such a lucky "hand recovery," we could fire the rocket again immediately.

While I attended all these exciting activities on a two-hour-a-day-plus-every-weekend basis, I continued my formal engineering studies.

In the spring of 1932, I was graduated from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering. During semester vacation in 1931 and 1932, I had also taken gliding lessons. In 1933, I took up motor flying and received my first private pilot's license that summer.

My early exposure to rocketry convinced me that the exploration of space would require far more than applications of the current engineering technology. Wanting to learn more about physics, chemistry, and astronomy, I entered the University of Berlin for graduate study. I was graduated with a Ph. D. in Physics in 1934.

My thesis, reflecting my absorbing interest, was on liquid rocket propulsion. While solid propellant rockets had been in use for centuries, liquid propulsion was new. Only miniature motors had been built and tested, although they used the same liquid oxygen and watered alcohol propellant combination later used in large ballistic missiles, I wanted to attempt to measure and analyze in detail some of the puzzling phenomena that take place in a rocket engine, such as injection of fuels, atomization, combustion, and expansion of gases. Such scientifically oriented experimentation had never been conducted anywhere. But it would be costly, of course, and entirely beyond my personal financial means, which were nil. Under these circumstances considered myself fortunate when the research department of the German Army Ordnance Corps, under a University grant program, took over the sponsorship of my thesis and permitted me to conduct my highly dangerous experiments at the Kummersdorf Army Proving Ground.

After my graduation, I became a civilian employee of the Army and continued the work I had begun as an Army-sponsored University student.

Thus, I began a career in rocketry that has stretched over three decades. There have been ups and downs, feasts and famines, and stop-and-go progress. But through the years there has always been a singleness of purpose, a certain consistency, that has guided my efforts and those of my teammates. And while for many years, and on two continents, the more immediate task (and the one for which alone support was available) was to build rockets as weapons of war, our long-range objective has remained unchanged to this very day -- the continuous evolution of space flight.

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