Historian talks rocket development, Space Race

Michael Eckers spoke at the Pella Public Library in celebration of the summer reading program theme, “A Universe of Stories,” and the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

Author and historian Michael Eckers visited the Pella Public Library to discuss how rocket technology developed during World War II led to the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union on July 23.

The first liquid fuel rocket was developed in the United States by Doctor Robert Goddard in 1926. According to Eckers, Germany paid great attention to this new development because of limitations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. The treaty prevented Germany from possessing certain weapons, such as submarines and naval aircraft. However, Germany was not limited on rocket development.

“Liquid fuel rockets were really the quest, because we thought a solid fuel rocket, or solid propellant, was not possible to drive a rocket into the stratosphere,” said Eckers.

German weapons that resulted from the first liquid fuel rocket during World War II included the Panzerfaust, a rocket-propelled grenade; the Nebelwerfer, a wheeled rocket launcher; the Fritz, a plane with technology to guide bombs and missiles; the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, a rocket-powered fighter plane; the Vergeltungswaffen V1, a rocket-assisted plane; and a Vergeltungswaffen V2, a guided ballistic missile.

The United States developed similar weapons, including the bazooka, the “Screaming Mimi” and the F4U Corsair Firing Rocket Salvo. The British, Soviet Union and the Japanese also developed their own but similar versions of rocket technology during WWII. Most notably, the Japanese developed the “Okha,” which was a rocket propelled plane that could destroy an aircraft carrier.

After WWII, the United States initiated Operation Paperclip to capture prominent Nazi war figures for American employment, including top rocket scientists. A total of 149 Nazis surrendered to British and American forces, including Walter Dornberger and Werner von Braun.

Dornberger played a key role in developing the North American X-15 aircraft and the space shuttle.

Von Braun invented the V-2 rocket, one of the war’s deadliest weapons, and was responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 slave laborers. Later, von Braun helped the United States win the Space War against the Soviet Union by developing the Saturn V, which was the rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969.

“It’s a part of American history that you might not want to read, but it impacted us and still does to this day,” said Eckers. “Without him, we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon.”

Eckers has been studying American and military history for close to 50 years and served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He travels across the country and speaks about a variety of topics in American history, including the Civil War, WWI and United States’ World Fairs. Eckers is also the author of seven books.