Opportunity Knocks

In 1932, the VfR prepared a liquid-fueled rocket demonstration for an audience of military personnel at their Raketenflugplatz launch site. Their experiments were beset with the usual problems of instability and overheating, and the demonstration was less than a success. Von Braun, however, made an impression on Captain Walter Dornberger of the German army. Dornberger presented von Braun to his boss, Colonel Karl Becker, who offered von Braun a civilian position developing rockets for the army under the condition that he earn his doctorate in physics at the University of Berlin. To the young scientist, this was a huge break. Von Braun accepted the position, though he knew he would be asked to develop ballistic weapons. He nevertheless saw it as an opportunity to further his idealistic goal of someday sending humans into space in a liquid-fueled rocket.

On October 1, 1932, Wernher von Braun became a civilian employee of the German army. In 1933, he moved to the army installation at Kummersdorf, 20 miles (32 km) south of Berlin, where the army supplied him with a test station and three colleagues. He entered the University of Berlin, and in 1934 he earned a doctorate in physics with a thesis on liquid rocket propulsion.

At Kummersdorf, von Braun and his team worked on the same problems he experienced while with the VfR, including the big problem of the lack of rocket guidance. The team was soon ready to launch its first liquid-fueled rocket, named the Aggregat 1, or A-1, which employed a finless guidance system based solely on a gyroscopic spinner placed in the nose cone. The rocket was 55 inches (140 cm) in length and weighed 85 pounds (39 kg). Its fuel was alcohol and liquid oxygen, with pressurized nitrogen in a separate tank used to force the propellants into the combustion chamber. The gyroscopic guidance system in the nose proved inadequate, rendering the flight a failure.

Replacing the A-1 design was the A-2, which repositioned the gyroscopic spinner to the middle of the rocket in an attempt to make the device less top-heavy. This design worked, with the rocket reaching an altitude of 6,500 feet (1981 m) by the end of 1934. At this time, von Braun's A-2 rocket was superior to all previous rocket technology.

While von Braun was busy testing rockets, Adolf Hitler, director of the Nazi (National Socialist) Party, had become the new chancellor of Germany. The new Nazi regime prohibited rocket testing to all except the government, which caused the dissolution of the VfR. It was during this time that the German air force, called the Luftwaffe, became interested in rocket power as a supplement to its propeller-driven aircraft, to provide short bursts of power and speed. Upon being asked, von Braun set to work on designing a rocket for this purpose.

By this time, von Braun had earned his pilot's license. In 1936, the Kummersdorf team, with von Braun at the controls, successfully proved that rocket power could work on regular aircraft. Between 1936 and 1938, he served in the Luftwaffe and qualified to fly fighter planes, such as the Messerschmidtt, and dive bombers, such as the Stuka.

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