Operation Paperclip and the Space Race

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With space tourists now orbiting the earth, I thought it may be nice to flash back to This Day in History where I discovered that Sept 20 was the day many of the German rocket engineers arrived at Fort Strong in Boston harbor to become part of Operation Paperclip.Operation Paperclip was a secret US Intelligence program in which more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians were taken from former Nazi Germany to the US for government employment after the end of WWII between 1945 and 1959. The Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) largely carried out this mission.

The purpose for Operation Paperclip was to gain a military advantage in the Soviet-American Cold War and the Space Race. Operation Paperclip  A similar Soviet operation took 22,000 German scientists in October 1946. Operation Osoaviakhim.

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In August 1945, the head of the Rocket Branch of Research and Development offered initial one-year contracts to German rocket scientists; 127 of them accepted. September of 1945, the first group of seven rocket scientists arrived in the US. Some of them became well-known for their contribution to our space program.

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As you can imagine, this was not a popular mission by many who were afraid that these men with Nazi ties would not be good allies. Some may even be candidates for war crime convictions. The  Joint Intelligence Committee rationale for gathering these men for their expertise was spelled out in the following memorandum.

 “Unless the migration of important German scientists and technicians into the Soviet zone is immediately stopped, we believe that the Soviet Union with a relatively short time may equal the United States developments in the fields of atomic research and guided missiles and may be ahead of U.S. development in other fields of great military importance, including infra red, television and jet propulsion. In the field of atomic research, for example, we estimate that German assistance already has cut substantially, probably by several years, the time needed for the USSR to achieve practical results.”


The first to arrive were Wernher von Braun, Erich W. Neubert, Theodor A. Poppel, William August Schulze, Eberhard Rees, Wilhelm Jungert, and Walter Schwidetzky. Later that same year, the men were relocated to Texas and New Mexico as “War Department Special Employees” The most famous of these men was Wernher von Braun.  (Laney, Monique (2015). German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past During the Civil Rights Era. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 26.)

Von Braun is in the center with a cast.http://NASA Marshall Space Flight Center photo

Wernher von Braun secretly moved to the US as part of Operation Paperclip and worked with the US Army on an intermediate-range ballistic missile program, He developed the rockets that launched the Explorer 1 in 1958. The first half of this newsreel about Explorer 1 mentions von Braun by name as a key contributor to its success.

Explorer 1 Newsreel

In 1960, von Braun became the director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and was the chief architect of the Saturn V that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon for NASA. Later he was inducted to the National Academy of Engineering and he received the National Medal of Science. He also advocated human missions to Mars. 
Another of the original seven, Eberhard Rees served as Wernher von Braun’s deputy from WWII through the Apollo program. As a US rocketry pioneer himself, he followed von Braun at the second director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Rees in far right.

William August Schulze also was part of this elite group and in fact, these three men were friends prior to their immigration to the US. A note Schulze sent to von Braun for his 60th birthday reflects back to remembering him at his 25th birthday. The actual plans for von Braun’s birthday celebration was made by none other than Eberhard Rees. http://libarchstor2.uah.edu/digitalcollections/items/show/502

Schulze made Huntsville, AL his home. He died in 2001 at the age of 95 and was honored  posthumously with an air mail envelope and a cancellation stamp, both bearing his image in 2002.Estimates vary with respect to how much time German scientists and technicians saved the United States as a result of Paperclip and other similar operations. Most say the operation cut from two to 10 years of time off strategic programs. What is irrefutable is that, thanks to the efforts of Wernher Von Braun and his team of rocket scientists from Germany, the United States achieved one of mankind’s greatest dreams, the landing of a man on the moon on July 20, 1969. Operation Paperclip  And it is probably safe to say that there would not be tourists in space today without their help.

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