By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneOctober 29, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- There was only one choice for Hans Fitchner in 1940.
And that choice was Peenemunde.
His future with the U.S. space program began when -- as a drafted soldier in the German army - he was forced to become a scientist on Dr. Wernher von Braun's team.
"My battalion commander was approached to let me go to Peenemunde (a town in northeastern Germany where a large military installation and the Army Research Center had been established)," Fitchner said. "But I didn't know anything about Peenemunde. Time passed and we didn't talk about it. That happened three times. The third time it was an order."
Fitchner, now 93, nearly blind and living in Huntsville, was ordered out of the army and sent as a civilian to Peenemunde, where von Braun and his team were working on the V-2 rocket.
"I was given a certain job. I said 'Sorry, it's not my line.' I was an electrical engineer and that was a mechanical job," Fitchner said. "A friend of mine told me to go talk to von Braun directly, and tell him what I want and what he can do for me."
So, only an hour or so after arriving at Peenemunde, Fitchner was in von Braun's office.
"He agreed with me and said 'But I have a job for you.' He made me an electrical systems designer and said 'You start here and work here until we establish the guide beam group.'"
About three months later, Fitchner was transferred into a special group that worked on the development of the V-2's control system.
"It was a weapon for the army," he recalled. "I worked there until 1945 and I was with von Braun at the end of the war. We went to an interrogation camp and signed a contract to come to the U.S. Our opportunity to work in our field was only here in the states. Our opportunity to continue our work was only here."
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Exactly what their role was to be in the U.S. was unclear. But the German scientists knew it was their best choice for a future. The question was if that future included more work on army rocket systems that would be used in war or in space.
"It was not clear that we were working on a rocket for space," Fitchner said. "I went to White Sands (New Mexico). A whole bunch of equipment was shipped over from Germany. We sorted it out, built rockets and established flights for the U.S. Army, Navy, whoever. We had a requirement for outer space, but we were not yet space oriented."
Even during those days, Fitchner lived with the knowledge that space exploration was a possibility. He was there at Peenemunde when von Braun's team launched a rocket into space.
"The first one did actually not work," Fitchner said. "From the beginning, it was not designed properly. I worked at that time already on a solution that was actually used in the second flight."
On Oct. 3, 1942, the V-2 rocket went into space.
It was the first step into the world of space exploration. But at the time, it was just another test to the German scientists.
"We didn't see it as that important at the time. We just did our job. There was always a pressure on us. We had to perform to meet a schedule," Fitchner said.
Even when the German rocket team moved to Huntsville, their work at Redstone Arsenal was questionable in regard to space exploration.
"We got a contract from the Army to develop the Redstone Rocket. It was our first official design work for the Army," Fitchner said. "It was still a military vehicle. It had nothing to do with space. In later years, we did use the Redstone for space applications."
The Redstone became the launch vehicle for the nation's first satellite in space.
"And that developed into the space frontier," Fitchner said.
It also developed into an opportunity to leave the Army in the pursuit of putting man on the moon.
"In the beginning, we wanted to stay with the Army," Fitchner said. "But NASA formed and we didn't have much of a choice. Our mission was with the Army and then the mission became part of NASA. We continued what we were doing just under a different flag."
As the chief electrical designer, Fitchner's work was crucial in the development of the Redstone, and the Saturn, Pershing and other rockets. He was the scientist who insisted the Saturn had to be automated and then formed an automation board to ensure that the proper sequence in launching occurred every time the rocket was launched.
Fitchner is proud of his work.
"We became famous with the first moon shot. We became famous all of a sudden. You felt pretty high," he said, recalling the national attention and the ticker tape parades in Huntsville following each successful space launch of those early years.
The rest, for Fitchner is history, a history that he left behind in 1975 when he retired from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
"I just couldn't go anymore. I had enough. I had to just go," Fitchner said.
In retirement, he did work a few years as a consultant to the European Space Agency, a time that he enjoyed very much.
Today Fitchner does occasionally attend historical events such as the 50-year celebration of the first satellite in space and the dedication of the memorial to the German rocket team that is located at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. In years past, he has also talked to school groups about space exploration.
"I felt pretty honored by those things," he said. "But I've seen quite a few of us go to the cemetery in all these years. It's not easy losing all those friends."
In 2005, he lost his wife, Christa, who he had met all those years ago at Peenemunde. But he still has his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and good friends. He still has his memories of those first years of space exploration, memories that his grandson Christopher Scott hopes to keep in the family.
"I give him everything I can and he will take care of it. He will see to it that it is preserved," Fitchner said.