A fictional Nazi spaceship from the 2012 film “Iron Skies.” (Jussi Lehtiniemi/IronSky.net)
Sci-fi enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists tend to obsess about the possibilities of a space-faring Third Reich. Robert A. Heinlein authored a tale about a German lunar base as early as 1947. Nowadays, fans are abuzz for the 2012 release of “Iron Sky,” the Finnish film full of scene-chewing space Nazis and swastika-stamped spaceships.
Is there any factual basis for these outrageous fantasies? Did Nazi Germany actually have a space program?
Absolutely not, according to Smithsonian Space History Curator Michael Neufeld.
“This is a typical misunderstanding,” Neufeld says. “People equate a rocket program with a space program, and the German rocket program was about building weapons only. That was the only reason Nazi Germany supported rocketry. Their objective was to build the V-2 and, if possible in the future, larger and longer-range weapons.”
The Nazis held power from 1933 until the German’s surrender in 1945. It was a time of vast military expansion and ultimately total war. Very little scientific activity took place that did not directly benefit the war effort, and this was especially true of rocketry.
Even if German scientists such as Wernher von Braun dreamed of purely scientific space exploration, the only outlet for their skills was in the development of rocket-propelled weapons.
“They recognized the follow-on to the weapons program would be space exploration,” says von Braun biographer Bob Ward. “Eventually, there would be a space program, and this was the route that had to be traveled, through the military, to advance the technology. But I don’t think the German power structure had any plans for a space program.”
In fact, German space zeal took root not during Nazi rule, but prior to it in the 1920s and early ’30s. That was when German theorists, such as Hermann Oberth, wrote about the feasibility of space travel, says Neufeld.
“Then the Nazis came into power and started throwing money at military rocketry,” Neufeld says.
After the war, German rocket scientists went on to play important roles in both the American and Soviet space programs. The charismatic and highly articulate von Braun became a driving force at NASA. In doing so, however, he may have also helped fuel the myth of the Nazi space program.
“During the Cold War, von Braun and some of his key associates deliberately gave the misimpression that while they’d been building weapons, they really only cared about space,” says Neufeld, “which is very simplistic, to say the least. A lot of them certainly supported building weapons, and some were enthusiastic Nazis, which is something they left out after the war.”
As World War II continues to fade into the past, it’s easy to adopt a false dichotomy of good and bad Germans. We might file the scientific genius von Braun and his associates in one category, while we populate the other with names such as Heinrich Himmler and Josef Mengele. The reality, however, seems far more complex.
“As I wrote about it in my biography, von Braun was a space fanatic,” Neufeld says, “It’s what he really cared about, but he was also a right-wing nationalist German who had a lot of sympathy for the Nazis. So building weapons was no contradiction for him. He could build a rocket that would go in both directions just as well.”
When the Germans launched the first successful V-2 rocket at Peenemünde, Germany, project leader Walter Dornberger reportedly remarked, “This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era in transportation, that of space travel.” Designed to deliver a one-ton warhead at supersonic speed, V-2 rockets would claim the lives of 2,724 British people and injure roughly 6,000. Applications for space travel aside, there was no denying the vehicle’s true purpose.
Even with the end of World War II, V-2 technology continued to benefit military objectives. While German minds and German ingenuity helped fuel the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, they also led to the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology that made nuclear annihilation seem imminent throughout the Cold War.
“The V-2 rocket breakthrough basically did not benefit the Germans at all,” Neufeld says. “It benefited the Soviet Union, the United States, France and, indirectly, several other countries. It provided a foundation stone for getting into space.”
Might history have followed a different route if the Nazis had never risen to power? Would a world without World War II have seen the emergence of a true German space program in the 1940s? While such questions are impossible to answer, von Braun biographer Ward believes that human nature provides a clue.
“I think the space age would not have arrived till many years later,” Ward says, “War, sad to say, spurs technical advancements, whether it’s in aviation or virtually anything else. Space flight was inevitable, but it would have taken a longer time to get under way.”
Photo Information: A V-2 long-range missile, forerunner of the modern space launch rockets, before its 1944 launch in Cuxhaven, Germany. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)