SPACE: Reach for the Stars

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Despite its difficulties, by 1935 the Kummersdorf group had successfully fired two liquid-fuel rockets, christened Max and Moritz (the German cartoon equivalents of the Katzenjammer Kids), and had outgrown the Kummersdorf facilities, moved on to a new range at desolate, marshy Peenemünde, on the Baltic Coast.

Adolf's Attention. At Peenemünde with its 250-mile rocket range, Germany's missiles went higher and higher, building steps into space. That was fine for Von Braun—but it was not yet the sort of military hardware that Germany wanted. World War II put on the pressure: Peenemünde must either produce a devastating military weapon or get out of business. Peenemünde's answer was the A-4 (standing for Aggregate-4, but later named V2, for Vengeance Weapon Two, by Hitler's gang). Its first test was a dismal flop. So was the second. For Peenemünde, the third test was do or die. On Oct. 3, 1942, the A-4 soared supersonically to a history-making height of nearly 60 miles, functioned perfectly. Peenemünde's men danced and wept in their joy. Walter Dornberger turned to Wernher von Braun. "Do you realize what we accomplished today?" he asked. "Today the spaceship was born."

The success ultimately won Hitler's personal attention, but Hitler's blessing proved only a curse. Impossible production schedules were set for the V2, driving Von Braun to the point of resigning. Nazidom's power-grabbers began fighting for control of the weapon Hitler had approved, and in February 1944, Wernher von Braun was jailed by Heinrich Himmler's black-shirted SS because he declined to connive in putting the Peenemünde project under SS control instead of army control. Only after Dornberger convinced Hitler himself that the V-2 program would collapse immediately without Von Braun was Von Braun released. By that time he had begun to like his jail. "I had plenty of time to think," says he, "and it was so quiet there."

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