Von Braun and his team surrender to U.S.

Project Paperclip and the Space Race

Dr. Wernher Von Braun Portrait
Robert Seamans and Models
Robert Gilruth, George Low, and Christopher Kraft

What stolen Nazi secrets helped the U.S. land the first man on the moon?

When WWII ended the US secretly uncovered a treasure trove of scientific expertise and technology hiding in Nazi Germany. In a race against the Soviet powers for this intelligence, the US brought home roughly 1,600 German scientists and their families and hired them to work on advancing America’s capabilities in military and space technology. The secret program was soon named Project Paperclip. While these men did spur a ‘giant leap forward’ for US technology that would lead to the moon landing, many had been Nazi officers responsible for creating the same technology used to kill millions of innocent lives. The Soviet Union had their eye on the same talent and so the U.S. realized recruiting these engineers and rocket scientists would keep them out of the hands of their enemies.  

The covert Project Paperclip operation was officially sanctioned by President Truman in 1945. The officials within the CIA’s forerunner organization then moved quickly to cover up the years of incriminating war crime records for these scientists. One of the recognized names on the docket was Wernher Von Braun, who developed the V-2 rocket used to devastate England during the war. At that time Von Braun and his team were the only men in the world who knew how to successfully build a long-range rocket. NASA hired Von Braun who went on to become the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight center and the architect of the Saturn V rocket which would launch all of the Apollo moon missions.

Von Braun was also one of several high profile figures to visit Draper's lab at MIT. It was up to Draper's team to showcase the innovative technology of the Apollo Guidance Computer and convince Von Braun of its merits. With a simple bouncing ball they showcased how the computer could calculate the position of the ball on a screen at a rate of a hundred times per second and adjust for gravity and elasticity. It was like a video game of math calculations that even Von Braun was impressed with.

Another key figure to come out of the German group was Georg von Tiesenhausen who created the first original design for the lunar rover. Although his work was dismissed early on, the moon landing used a lunar rover design almost identical to the one he initially proposed. Hubertus Strughold, who designed NASA's on-board life-support system and was called 'the father of space medicine', also came to the U.S. via Project Paperclip. Other former Nazis were the engineers behind the rocket launch facilities at NASA and even the space suit designs of the astronaut crews in the Apollo program.

Today a number of the people involved in Project Paperclip are publicly known; as is the technology they brought over from Germany and further developed here in the US. However, many documents and information about the program are still classified. So while we know these individuals were instrumental in developing critical technologies for the Apollo missions, there are still many aspects of their Nazi past and the lethal technology they created that remain a secret.