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NASA and The Nazis: The Modern Impact of Operation Paperclip

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War Two, the effects of Nazi science can still be felt in analytical fields. The aviation community is once such body still fractured over the legacy of its fascistic peers. This division is not only based on the inhumane experiments, procedures and developments that infamously took place in Nazi Germany, but on the influence these aviation scientists and engineers had in the US after the war. It is relatively unknown outside of aeronautics, that post-war, many of the cogs in the wheel of the Holocaust were recruited by the US Government for the Cold War and their own gains, rather than be condemned for their crimes, as Nazi scientists under Hitler had come to be known as the best in their field. NASA was one of the main US organisations to benefit from this influx of former Nazis and to this day much of their work and influence can still be seen in NASA projects and ongoing developments. So how did it happen?

As World War Two came to a close, the Allied forces implemented the Nuremberg Trials, a number of tribunals that aimed to prosecute prominent, powerful Nazi officials and members of leadership for their crimes against humanity. However, only some of the most dangerous war criminals were ever brought to justice. There is a myth about Nazism in that people believe it died out and disappeared after the war due to the Nuremberg Trials. This was not the case however, with 1,500 of the top Nazi officials never facing trial. Furthermore, towards the end of the war, senior officials in the SS, who had begun to see the writing on the wall, approached the American Allies with offers of assistance to ensure self-preservation.  Under Operation Paperclip, a large number of these Nazi personnel were secretly ushered out of Germany and brought by the US military to the land of hope and liberty to work and live. Those who had patrolled slave labour camps and initiated the murder of millions, were now put on the US payroll as scientists to work alongside the US military and  contribute their expertise to the looming war, and space race, with the Soviet Union.

Under President Harry Truman, Operation Paperclip was set up to boost the US field of science and technology but was to exclude Nazi war criminals. But this restriction impeded the chiefs of the operation and their mission to recruit before the Soviets did first. To by-pass the President’s restrictions, and to avoid public hysteria, the chiefs doctored the files and whitewashed dossiers to cover up the Nazi past of many of the new recruits. They subsequently adopted new identities and lives similar to being in a witness protection programme because for the chiefs, political leanings were considered less important than the technology.

Below are some of the most significant war-time Nazis who played unquestionably large roles in the aeronautical and ballistic technological advancement of the US during the Cold War and whose legacies still live on in their respective fields.



Under Operation Paperclip, Kurt Heinrich Debus entered America despite being a member of the Nazi Party, and the paramilitary organisations the SA and SS, during World War Two.

As a qualified electrical engineering Debus worked as a rocket scientist under Hitler’s regime and was also involved in producing the V-2 missile for the Nazis. The V-2 was the world’s first ever ballistic missile which would be designed in sequence to attack Allied cities. Concentration camp prisoners were used in its construction and more of them died building the V-2, due to inhumane conditions, than were killed by it as a weapon.

Despite this, Debus escaped the Nuremberg Trials and was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas in 1945 and later Huntsville, Alabama where he became a huge asset for NASA. His work on a number of programs, including launching satellites, was so revered that in 1962 he was appointed the first ever director of the newly built Kennedy Space Centre. The KSC was originally built to launch the Saturn V which would eventually put a man on the Moon and has been used in every human space flight since.

Debus died in a Florida hospital in 1983.



Walter Robert Dornberger was a Major-General in the army of the Third Reich whose career spanned both world wars. During World War Two, he was a Senior Artillery Commander who had personal contact with Hitler and he was foundational in the development of rockets for the Nazis. With a passion and skill for engineering he became a leader in the V-2 missile program.

Along with his fellow German rocket scientists, Dornberfer escaped prosecution for his crimes after the war and ended up working for the US Air Force developing guided missiles. He played a key role in the creation of the X-15 aircraft which reached the edge of outer space and brought back with it valuable scientific data. To this day, it still holds the world record for the highest speed achieved by a manned aircraft. Dornberger also became the vice president of the Bell Aircraft Corporation, where he developed Bell’s Rascal, the first guided nuclear air-to-surface missile.

After his retirement, Dornberger returned to Germany where he died in 1980.


Von_Braun_and_Stuhlinger_discuss_Disney_special Ernst Stuhlinger (L) with Wernher von Braun

Perhaps one of the more behind-the-scene former Nazi scientists, Ernst Stuhlinger had a successful and varied career. After completing his studies in science in the 1930’s, Stuhlinger was drafted into the German army. He fought for Nazi Germany in the Battle of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad, before moving into guidance system research following injury.

Here he was drafted under Operation Paperclip and in late 1945 began work on guidance systems in US Army missile programs at Fort Bliss, Texas. He then progressed to become a scientist with NASA.

In the 1950’s he was made director of the Advanced Research Projects Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency – formed to develop the first US large ballistic missile. Stuhlinger was director of science at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville in the early decades of the space age and also played a key role in the official launch of a US satellite after the success of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1.

Before his death, he worked on the initial phases of the Hubble Space Telescope which still orbits the Earth to this day. He died in Alabama in 2008 after numerous hospitalisations.



Hubertus Strughold, also known as ‘The Father of Space Medicine’, was one of the more disreputable Nazi scientists, due to his medical experimentations, to enter America. He is still criticised for his supposed role in extensive human experimentation under the Third Reich, whereby he oversaw surgery performed without anaesthetic and the deprivation of oxygen to epileptic children in vacuum compartments.

In the US, Strughold played a prominent role in establishing and developing the field of space medicine as well as monitoring the building of space cabin simulators. At NASA, he was integral in the design of the pressure suit and the on-board life support systems used by Gemini and Apollo astronauts. His legacy lives on to this day in the Hubertus Strughold Award granted by the Space Medicine Association which is given annually to a top scientist or clinician for outstanding work in aviation medicine. The award is still subject to controversy with critics dismissing the name of the award as honouring a man who held a senior position in Hitler’s regime.

Strughold died in Texas in 1986.


19700202-wernher-von-braun-nasa-newoffice 1970Considered ‘The Father of Rocket Science’, Wernher von Braun is perhaps one of the most well-known former Nazis in the field of US aeronautics and his CV is both distinguished and lengthy. In Germany, von Braun had been a Major in the SS though he was subject to the suspicions and arrests of Hitler and his fellow men. As an aerospace engineer for Hitler, he became the chief developer of the V-2 rocket, leading the developments, and was answerable to by Debus and Dornberger.

Near the end of the war von Braun and his brother, also a rocket scientist, surrendered to the US army with von Braun saying in a press statement that he wanted to give his knowledge and ability to a nation guided by the Bible, thus ensuring another conflict, like that his country had just witnessed, would never happen again.  The Americans knew the importance of this offer, for von Braun had been top of their Black List and within a month, he and his department chiefs had been transported to the US.

Under his new identity von Braun became director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, in a similar high authority role to that of Stuhlinger. In this position, he led the development of the Jupiter-C rocket which launched America’s first satellite. Impressively he also served as director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre and while there acted as chief architect of the Saturn V, making him integral in landing the first man on the moon. The Saturn V is still the world’s tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever built and even now holds the record for its launching abilities. Von Braun closely modelled it on rockets he had worked on during Hitler’s rule.

It has been difficult for historians to determine whether von Braun and his peers became members of the Nazi Party through voluntary or forced means. While Hitler’s missile programs used many top scientists and engineers, not all of them worked willingly; with some of them working under his orders for the protection of themselves and their families. Certainly, von Braun seemed to imply that it had been forced, while Strughold denied any involvement in medical experimentations.

Of course, there are always two sides to a story and it is difficult to determine to what extent these men were Nazis ideologically. It has been said that NASA’s recruits were not of the same calibre as the Nazis who ran death camps or executed minority races, with Hitler ensuring that the scientific minds knew as little as possible about anything outside of the work they were doing themselves.

Undoubtedly, comparisons can be made in that both the US and Hitler used the genius of these men solely to advance each country’s respective goal in separate wars.

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