German Story Lives On In Space Success
November 5, 2010
- "It is always important that everyone know the Army story and I need to continue to tell that story."
- The Army's role in space, Baker said, has gone "full circle" with today's mission.
- "I still hear things like 'I didn't know Dr. Wernher von Braun worked for the Army.'"
- "The von Braun team was a team of not just Germans. It was a team of Germans and Americans, and it was 4,700 people strong."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Historians are known for telling the stories of people and events that are long since passed and no longer part of living history.
But for Mike Baker, the historian for the Aviation and Missile Command, the history of Redstone's rocket past and its German rocket team is still very much alive in the ongoing science and technology development that has put Redstone Arsenal and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on the world map.
"Konrad Dannenberg (a German rocket scientist who died in 2009, and who was responsible for the production of the Redstone and Jupiter rockets, and was deputy manager of the Saturn program) used to call me 'Mr. Redstone.' He would tell me it is always important that everyone know the Army story and that I need to continue to tell that story even after all the German scientists are gone," Baker said.
"Everyone thinks of NASA when they think of space. But the success of the 1950s when we built up missile and rocket technology helped lay the foundation for space. It's a fascinating story."
The Army's role in space, Baker said, has gone "full circle" with today's mission that incorporates space technology in national defense, with the role of the Space and Missile Defense Command, the Missile and Space Intelligence Center and other military space agencies, and with several Soldiers taking lead roles in space exploration, including Col. Doug Wheelock, the first Army astronaut in command of the International Space Station.
"Even with all these Army accomplishments, groups are still surprised to learn about the role Redstone Arsenal and the Army has had in space exploration," Baker said. "I still hear things like 'I didn't know Dr. Wernher von Braun worked for the Army' and get questions like 'How did a NASA facility come to exist on an Army post''"
When he was hired in 1979 as an archivist for the then Missile Command, Baker's job allowed him to delve deeply into the history of the German rocket scientists and the early days of space exploration. In 1990, more than 10 years later and after assuming the command's historian post, Baker met some of the scientists who made that history happen.
And he has enjoyed his association with the group ever since.
In his early years at the Missile Command, Baker had casually met a few of the German scientists through the now deceased Doris Hunter, who ran the archives at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
"Doris Hunter used to help put together reunions for the Germans and Americans who worked together during the early days of space," Baker said. "She started introducing me to the German rocket scientists."
As he prepared for the National Space Club's Salute to the Army in Space in May 1990 in Washington, D.C., Baker worked closely with Walt Wiesman, a member of von Braun's team.
"An award was created - the Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris Award for Army Achievement in Space (named after Maj. Gen. John Medaris who commanded the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone in the 1950s) - and it was given to a number of individuals who were early pioneers in the work of space," Baker recalled.
"Gen. Chen (Maj. Gen. William Chen, commander of the Missile Command) decided to fly some of the German scientists to D.C. for the ceremony. We had four of them. I had to get their biographies together. I delivered nine trophies for the ceremony and then I became an escort officer with the instruction to 'take good care of these guys.'"
And so he did, even making sure German rocket scientist Dr. Eberhard Rees could get into his hotel room.
"He couldn't get that big key card with the holes in it to work in his door," Baker recalled. "He said to me 'I can put man on the moon, but I can't get in this room. Please help me.'"
Baker's assistance went far beyond helping Rees with his hotel key. Since then, the historian has freely told the stories of the German rocket scientists, shared their achievements and championed their successes.
That job hasn't always been easy. With the McCarthy-style manhunt of the 1980s that threatened to export German rocket scientists long after the heyday of man's first achievements in space, the German scientists and their families closed ranks, not talking to historians, scholars or the media about their days at Peenemunde, Germany, where they launched the first rocket into space; their transfer to the U.S., where they worked for the Army and then NASA, and where they became citizens and heroes of the space program; and their accomplishments that are still very much part of the nation's space program.
In 1982, German rocket scientist Arthur Rudolph - who was responsible for the development of the Army's Pershing missile as well as being the project director for NASA's Saturn V that took man to the moon and who received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and NASA Distinguished Service Medal -- was investigated by the Office of Special Investigations, which claimed he was in the U.S. illegally.
In 1983, under duress and fearful for the welfare of his wife and daughter, Rudolph agreed to leave the U.S., return to Germany and renounce his U.S. citizenship. He was investigated in Germany for possible prosecution. Eventually, it was concluded there was no basis for prosecution and Rudolph was granted German citizenship.
When the investigation surfaced in the American public, Medaris, Huntsville city officials, the American Legion and former NASA associates called for an investigation of the OSI's activities regarding Rudolph. The scientist tried to regain his U.S. citizenship, but died in Germany in 1996.
"There was a real fear because they didn't know what was happening ... I just think it was a grave injustice what happened. There's a lot of revisionist history going on. You can't look at history in today's terms. I think that is wrong," Baker said.
At the end of World War II, von Braun's team was sought out by American forces and urged to come to the U.S. where they could further develop their missile technology.
"The Russians wanted the German rocket scientists. Can you imagine where we would be today if that had happened' The technologies we got from the Germans gave us military strength and started our space program. They taught our American engineers," Baker said.
"The U.S. made a decision to bring them here. We invited them to come here. We said it was OK for them to be here and to be citizens. There may have been an issue (during World War II). But they were brought here legally, they were allowed to become U.S. citizens, they swore an oath to this country. To me, that ends the case."
Baker said there are many American scientists who went on to excel in the fields of military and space rocketry because of what they learned from the Germans.
"The von Braun team was a team of not just Germans," he said. "It was a team of Germans and Americans, and it was 4,700 people strong."
Throughout his 30 years at Redstone, Baker said the height of interest in the history of space came in 1998 with the 40th anniversary of the Explorer I launch. That interest continues to peak at major anniversaries, such as the 50th anniversary of Explorer I when Baker spoke about the Army's role in space at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas, and this year's 50th anniversary of the creation of NASA and the 60th anniversary of the Germans coming to Huntsville.
"If it hadn't been for von Braun's team, we wouldn't be here today. The launch of Explorer I literally put Huntsville on the map," Baker said.
"When Explorer I launched, there was no NASA. If it hadn't launched there might not have been a NASA and probably not a Marshall Space Flight Center. Explorer I solidified the fact that at least the Army at Redstone could make things happen."
Baker said to fully understand the accomplishment, people need to look at it through the climate of the late 1950s.
"Russia had launched two Sputniks. America was embarrassed at that time. We answered that at Redstone with a spirit of achievement. What happened in 1958 with Explorer I was a building block of all our success," Baker said.
"It's something that all Soldiers and Army civilians should be proud of. The Army helped lay the foundation for our U.S. space program."
Army officers such as Medaris and Maj. Gen. Holger Toftoy were the visionaries who helped von Braun and his German team develop a space mission.
"When I interviewed (German scientist) Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger a few years before he died, the gentleman broke down in tears, saying Toftoy was like a father to us. That was a universal opinion with all the Germans," Baker said.
When they came to Redstone, they found an Army post that had been closed and a small town with cotton as the major industry. They brought science and technology, and economic and community growth with them -- Huntsville went from a population of 16,000 in 1950 to more than 70,000 by 1960 - that continues even today.
"They had to have people to do the mission," Baker said. "Scientists and engineers were drafted into the Army and then sent to Redstone. They joined the German scientists to develop rocket science.
"They had to hire people to build test stands and everything they needed out here. They hired contractors - mostly from GE at the time - to provide mission support. And in those early days, the first Redstone missiles were built at the Arsenal. It was quite an effort when you think of what all went on and when you realize it is still very much a part of our history here."