SPACE: Reach for the Stars

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U.S. Attention. Von Braun returned to Peenemünde to rain V-2 ruin on London (when the first V-2 smashed London, Spaceman von Braun remarked to a friend that the rocket had worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet). But the war was already lost for Nazi Germany. Caught between the advancing Russian and U.S. armies, Von Braun and most of his tried, tested rocket team decided to go with the West. They fueled trucks with rocket alcohol and headed south. Von Braun had printed official-looking stickers with the mysterious letters VZBV—standing for some fictional sort of "Special Project Disposition"—which cleared all roadblocks for them. During the trip Von Braun's driver fell asleep at the wheel, the car crashed, Von Braun's left arm was broken and his face gashed (he still has a scar above his lip). Von Braun and Dornberger stayed three weeks in a Bavarian mountain lodge, finally sent Von Braun's younger brother, Magnus, bicycling downhill to invite the Americans to come and capture Peenemünde's top rocketmen. (Says Magnus: "I was the youngest, I spoke the best English, and I was the most expendable.") The U.S. Army was delighted to accept that invitation and, in a project known as Operation Paperclip, selected Von Braun and 120 of his best team members to go to the U.S. under contract with the Army to build rockets.

"How Dignified?" Once it had them, the U.S. hardly knew what to do with the German rocketeers. The world was again at peace, and no Congressman in his right mind would appropriate money for missilery or for Von Braun's dream of space exploration. Von Braun and his men, lonely and discouraged, were set down at Fort Bliss, Texas, left to tinker around, pretty much by themselves, with old V-25, moved no closer to space. The Korean war changed that: in 1950 the German scientists were rushed bag and baggage to Huntsville (see box) with orders to build the Army a long-range missile with nuclear-payload capability. Result: the Redstone missile, successfully launched at Cape Canaveral in 1953.

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