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
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
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
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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