April 8, 2008

Space Race Began at Nazi Missile Testing Site

Many German people are completely unaware that the global space race began on a remote and sandy island off the Baltic coast, a modest place with wide open skies and rows of pine trees.

However, it was at this place that the world's first long-range ballistic missiles were tested for the Nazis. At the Peenemuende testing site in 1942 a team of engineers under Wernher von Braun laid the foundations for sending man to the moon and the Cold War missile race.

Germans, in general, don't celebrate the site because of the moral ambiguity at the heart of one of the last century's most significant technological breakthroughs.

Some believe Peenemuende lead the way to space travel since the weapons tested there were prototypes of all later booster rockets. Others see it as a place where the deadliest weapons of the age were created.

The rockets were called "Vengeance Weapon 2" (V2s) and were developed to give Hitler military superiority with a stealthy weapon that could devastate enemy cities without putting a crew in danger.

The testing site's power station is a monumental brown-brick building in the flat land on the island of Usedom which borders Poland.

"This place was both heaven and hell," said Christian Muehldorfer-Vogt, director of an exhibition at the site.

V2s and V1s (also called "Doodlebugs") killed around 15,000 people in Britain and Belgium in World War Two. About 20,000 slave laborers died building them.

It was at this place the charismatic von Braun made what Muehldorfer-Vogt describes as his "pact with the devil", and cooperated with Hitler's Nazis to pursue his dream of putting a man on the moon. Von Braun would eventually be the brains behind the U.S. space program.

The site would be a focus for national celebration in other countries, but Peenemuende's sober Historical Technical Information Centre battles even to secure public funding.

"In Germany, we cannot have the same attitude towards our technical history as in Britain or the United States because of the historical associations," said Muehldorfer-Vogt.

Plans to name the school in Saxony after Klaus Riedel, a top Peenemuende scientist, were protested after critics said it was wrong to celebrate a man who made weapons for the Nazis.

Muehldorfer-Vogt says that problem illuminates the contradictions of their legacy and argues Peenemunde's historical burden was one reason, alongside mammoth costs, for Germany to bind its modern space research into European projects.

A media buzz was created even when Germany's major contribution to Europe's Columbus space laboratory at the International Space Station was overlooked.

"Public interest in the future of aerospace has grown recently but I see no clear trend looking back," said Lutz Richter of the German Aerospace Centre.

A celebration in 1992 for the 50th anniversary of the V2 test sparked outrage from the British and former chancellor Helmut Kohl's government had to scale back plans for a big celebration.

Outside the Peenemuende museum a black-and-white V2 prototype points to the sky.

Hitler hoped the V2 would strike fear into the hearts of the enemy and boost flagging morale at home. The V2 first deployed in the fall of 1944 and while it didn't change the course of the war, it did have a devastating effect.

The element of surprise regarding the V2 added to its psychological impact.

"At first no one knew what to make of them," said Betty Sansom, 79, who lived in London during the war. A V2 wiped out a petrol station near her home and after she felt the explosion nearby she took cover.

"These things suddenly landed straight from the heavens with no radar traces and exploded. All we could conclude was the Germans had found something to put them in a different league," said Sansom.

At Peenemuende, the development of guiding technology and liquid oxygen as a propellant laid the foundations for all subsequent rocket development, including Cold War missiles.

Germany fired some 3,000 V2s on enemy cities mainly from the French coast in 1945. They also fired 22,000 of the more primitive V1s, unmanned planes which crashed to earth with a warhead when the engine ran out of fuel.

Around 230,000 people a year visit the Peenemuende exhibition since it opened in 2001.

Amongst the exhibits included is a massive pile of rubble created by the rockets. Also exhibited are concentration camp workers' clothes and Nazi propaganda celebrating the breakthrough.

Soon a 48-metre-long firing-off ramp will be unveiled outside.

The museum also focuses on von Braun, who was the technical director from 1937 to 1945, and also one of the more controversial figures in its history.

Von Braun, who was a member of Hitler's elite SS, surrendered to the Americans in 1945. Shortly after he was recruited under the secretive Operation Overcast and taken to the United States to work on its space program, which culminated in the 1969 moon landing.

Von Braun was integral to the development of the Saturn V which propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

Critics say Von Braun only escaped serious scrutiny for his role in the Third Reich because of his contributions to the U.S. space program.

"He needed the SS for his idea. He wanted to get to the moon and saw no other way," said Hartmut Kuechen, who was head of the Peenemuende power station.

The V2 missiles were produced in 1943 at an underground factory near Peenemuende by more than 40,000 prisoners from Mittelbau Dora concentration camp. The inhumane conditions and hard physical work claimed the lives of about half of the laborers.

In 1943, a British air raid destroyed the site and after the war it was used a military base in East Germany.