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Blood on the Walls. Reading an astronomy pamphlet in the mid-1920s Von Braun saw a drawing of a rocket streaking through space to the moon. It illustrated an article about Pioneer Rocket Theorist Hermann Oberth, now 63 and a consultant to Von Braun's Huntsville team, which venerates him as "The Old Gentleman." Von Braun sent away for a copy of Oberth's classic book, The Rocket to the Interplanetary Spaces, was shocked to discover that it contained mostly mathematical equations. Until then, Von Braun had disliked math, and indeed had flunked it in school. "But," says Von Braun, "I decided that if I had to know about math to learn about space travel and rocketry, then I'd have to learn math." He did just that, wound up teaching physics and math to his fellow students at a boarding school on an island in the North Sea when the teacher fell ill.
Rocketeer Oberth's work had inspired many another young German rocket bug, most of them flirting dangerously with destruction as they pursued their untried hobby. Von Braun joined a small group firing rockets from an abandoned ammunition dump in suburban Berlin. When he left for a term at Zurich's Institute of Technology, he continued his experiments, built a contraption that spun mice in simulation of rocket takeoffs. Afterward, his roommate, an American medical student, dissected the mice, announced to Von Braun that the high acceleration caused cerebral hemorrhages. Their landlady had another kind of announcement: any more mouse blood on her walls, and the young scientists would go out on their ears.
Techniques of Flimflam. Von Braun returned in 1931 to his little Berlin group, joyously helped launch 85 primitive rockets. As it happened, the German army was then looking for some sort of long-range weapons not banned by the Versailles Treatyand it seemed just barely possible that rockets might be the answer. Captain Walter Dornberger, a boss of the embryonic program, watched some of Von Braun's rocket shoots and was impressed "by the energy and shrewdness with which this tall, fair young student with the broad, massive chin went to work, and by his astonishing theoretical knowledge." Result: in October 1932, Wernher von Braun, at 20, became the top civilian specialist for the German army's new (and only) rocket station at Kummersdorf, hidden in a pine forest south of Berlin.
"Our aim from the beginning," says Walter Dornberger, now technical assistant to the president of Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, "was to reach infinite space." But if Wernher von Braun had any notions about the German army's spending millions to achieve his dream of space exploration, they were quickly dispelled. Germany wanted weapons, period. The Budget Bureau would not even permit Kummersdorf to buy office equipment, and Von Braun learned early in the game the techniques of flimflamming the bureaucrats, e.g., it was a rare budget official who realized that Kummersdorf's request for funds to buy an "appliance for milling wooden dowels up to 10 millimeters in diameter" meant that the rocketmen needed a pencil sharpener. Years later, during the darkest days of the U.S. Army's missile program, Wernher von Braun was to put such Kummersdorf experience to historic use.