The German Space Program That Never Was

A previous post discussed the creation of the V-2 rocket, the first man-made object to reach space. Designed and built at the Peenemünde Army Research Center during World War II, the V-2 was intended to be a weapon of mass destruction, but ended up being far more effective as a tool of discovery than it ever did on the battlefield. In fact, historians now estimate that more people died during the development and construction of the V-2 than did in the actual attacks carried out with it. But even though it failed to win the war for Germany, it still managed to change the world in another way: as it served as the basic blueprint for all subsequent rockets right up to modern-day vehicles.

But the V-2 wasn’t the only rocket-powered vehicle that the Germans were working on, a whole series of follow-up vehicles were in the design phase when the Allies took Berlin in 1945. Some were weapons, but not all. Pioneers like Walter Dornberger and Wernher von Braun saw that rocketry had more to offer mankind than a new way to deliver warheads to the enemy, and the team at Peenemünde had begun laying the groundwork for a series of rockets that could have put mankind into space years before the Soviets.

Upgrading the V-2: A-4B

Credit: Spike Rendchen / GFDL

The only one of the vehicles planned to succeed the V-2 (at this point still known by its development name, A-4) which actually got built was the A-4b. As this design was a direct evolution of the already deployed A-4/V-2, it was allowed to progress much farther than if it had been a completely new vehicle. In fact, a few test flights were even performed, though none completely successful.

To put it simply, the A-4b was a V-2 rocket modified with swept-back wings. The wings allowed the rocket to generate lift when it reentered Earth’s atmosphere, thereby extending the operational range. It was believed that adding wings to the V-2 would have more than doubled its range without a major redesign of the vehicle and production lines. As Germany was pushed farther and farther back by the advancing Allies, this would have allowed them to continue launching attacks into Britain for much longer than otherwise would have been possible.

Test flights of V-2s modified to the A-4b configuration were flying as late as four months before Germany surrendered to the allies, giving some indication of how badly they wanted to see this version brought into service.

First Multistage: A-9/A-10

Credit: Spike Rendchen / GFDL

The team at Peenemünde understood early on that a single-stage rocket would never get more than a few hundred miles with the technology available to them. There was simply too much dead weight being dragged along with the rocket as it traveled farther and farther downrange. If Germany ever hoped to strike the mainland US from European launch sites, they’d need a multistage vehicle that could shed off the dead weight as it continued on its journey. The vehicle was accordingly referred to as “Amerika Rakete”.

Interestingly, the stages of this proposed rocket were to be treated as two distinct vehicles. The first stage booster, the A-10, would have essentially been a super-sized V-2 burning diesel and nitric acid. The A-9 second stage would have been an evolved version of the A-4b, but manned as it was believed that the technology to automatically guide the first stage accurately over such great distances simply wasn’t feasible.

Contrary to popular belief, there has never been any indication that the A-9/A-10 was intended as a suicide weapon; the pilot was likely meant to eject once the A-9 was set on course for impact. Had the A-9/A-10 flown (a first test flight was planned for 1946), its pilot could have potentially beaten Yuri Gagarin to be the first human in space by 15 years.

Reaching Orbit: A-11/A-12

Building on the A-9/A-10 program, an additional two stages were planned. With all four stages combined into one stack, the final A-12 configuration would have been a true orbital-class vehicle. Less than 1/3rd as tall as the Apollo-era Saturn V that would eventually take mankind to the Moon, but with 50 engines firing on the first stage, it would have been something to behold on liftoff.

Assuming, of course, that it was actually a real thing. Some historians doubt that the A-11/A-12 were ever formally considered, and maintain that it was more likely a dream project of Wernher von Braun’s. No official wartime information about the A-11/A-12 has ever been provided, and as far as anyone can tell, the first mention of it was when von Braun was already in the United States and pitching ideas to the Air Force.


Wernher von Braun and the team at Peenemünde weren’t the only ones in Germany working on advanced rocket vehicles. Eugen Sänger came up with a spaceplane he called the “Silbervogel” (Silver Bird, in English): a sub-orbital bomber which could take off in Germany, bomb the mainland United States, and then land in Japan. The key to the Silver Bird’s theoretical range was its advanced lifting-body design, which would allow the craft to “bounce” off of the Earth’s atmosphere. Each time it rebounded off the atmosphere and traveled back up into space, it would extend its range farther.

The Silver Bird’s lifting body design was decades ahead of its time, and despite some promising work on the propulsion system, the vehicle never got off the drawing board. However, the ideas pioneered by Sänger would eventually find practical application in various test programs of the Air Force and NASA, which ultimately led to the development of the Space Shuttle.

An Engineer’s Dreams

It’s safe to say that no country enters into war planning to lose, and Germany was no different. While these vehicles were all developed during war, their designers envisioned a time in the future when similar craft would embark on missions of peace. In 1944, Wernher von Braun was even arrested on a charge of sabotage, as he was overheard telling a colleague that his true goal with the A-4 project was not to develop a weapon, but make space travel possible.

In his book, V-2, Walter Dornberger mentions some of the fantastic ideas he and his team bounced back and forth at Peenemünde:

With our big rocket motors and step rockets we could build space ships which would circle the Earth like moons at the height of 300 miles and at a speed of 18,000 miles per hour. Space Stations and glass spheres containing the embalmed bodies of pioneers of rocket development and space travel could be put into permanent orbits around the Earth. An expedition to the Moon was a popular topic too. Then we dreamed of atomic energy, which would at last give us the necessary drive for flight into the infinity of space, to the very stars.

Modern material science and computer simulations tell us these incredible designs had little chance of working in the real world. The engineers at the time simply didn’t have the knowledge necessary to fully understand the challenges of manned spaceflight.

For starters, a close examination of these vehicles show dry weights (the weight of the craft with no propellant on board) that are beyond the technology of the time; it would be decades before the lightweight alloys and composite materials required would be available. Heat shields capable of withstanding the fury of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere aren’t even mentioned in the designs of these vehicles, betraying an ignorance to one of the most challenging aspects of developing an orbital vehicle.

With time, these challenges would have become clear to the engineers working on these projects. It’s possible they would have even solved some of them. But time is not something Germany had on their side, and the end of World War II also marked the end of Germany’s space program. It would take until 1978 before a German citizen reached space aboard a Soviet rocket, and to this day, no orbital rocket has ever launched from German soil.

89 thoughts on “The German Space Program That Never Was

    1. Ich musste Google verwenden, um Ihre Kommentare zu übersetzen und zu verstehen.

      +1, weil es lustig ist zu sehen, ob nichtdeutsche Sprecher das bekommen. Und wenn Deutsche denken, dass ihre Übersetzung schlechtes Ingenieurwissen ist.

      Auch diese Übersetzungssoftware fügt zufällige Großbuchstaben ein …

    1. The Americans were smart enough not to stress this point – they basically kept him out of the public eye – but it is a permanent shit stain on NASA. And for what? I’m sure the US could have filled the knowledge gap with the Soviets in a couple of years without those Nazi’s.

      1. The soviets were already pegged to be the next enemy before the war ended, and I guess that might be one reason to try to keep ahead in rocket technology, and its spinoff; jet engines.

          1. Well true, so not so much a spinoff, but it’s similar in that you have to deal with high speed and its effects on aircraft. And the V1 was sort of a cruise missile, although not with any terrain following or extreme speed, but with a rocket engine and flying horizontally. The design of aircraft had to follow aerodynamics at high speed though same as missiles. So I expect the lessons learned from designing rockets did help in some way with learning about the things you need to take into account, after all it took a while to get the V1 to work and AFAIK they had actually pilots fly them initially (pilots who did not all survive).

          2. I know MAC, that’s why is wasn’t so fast, and made the typical sound the people so easily recognized back then, and the ‘oh dear’ once it suddenly stopped indicating it reached the end of its journey.
            But to me it’s close enough. I guess I’m too liberal in my wording for this crowd though, this is the second correction I can’t deny.

            It’s a fascinating sound though these types of engines make, when you hear it on youtubes, it’s so unique.

      2. Did you ever notice that ideas are a different thing than its originator? If you call the german heritage in Nasa a shitstain then you can probably not discern the difference. I’ve upped my reasoning standards, now please up yours too.

        1. The point is, that if Von Braun hadn’t been handy around a rocket, he’d likely have been prosecuted for war crimes. The Americans protected him from facing justice, because they had a use for him.

          1. Doesn´t matter which faction of the victors got Von Braun, he most certainly would have been put to work for the brits, russians or the french had they gotten their mittens on him. Instead of bellyaching about Von Braun, perhaps it would be more productive if your noble sense of justice found a more suitable target, ie, the hundreds of SS and Gestapo operatives that the american intelligence agencies hired for counter espionage in post war Germany. They all got handed individual Tabula Rasa´s.

      3. My understanding is that the US entered the war with relatively slow, non-agile and poorly armed aircraft, resulting in what is politely referred to as “high combat losses”. The officer corps would have been responsible for writing the letters informing the widows and families of the resulting deaths of US pilots and crew, and recruiting and hastily training their replacements, and trying to get existing and new aircraft designs built in quantity.
        I can understand them perhaps holding their noses and hiring Germans who would be willing and able to help keep this from happening in the next war. Especially (IIRC) as the Soviets had grabbed all of the German rocketry experts and equipment they could get their hands on.
        Part of morality is considering the effects of following your moral scruples.

    2. The Soviets also employed as many ex-Peenemünde engineers as they could find, and both sides grabbed as many A-4’s and rocket parts as they could get their hands on.
      In the end the German engineers in Russia were sidelined and a purely Soviet team learnt as much as they could from the A4 before going on to create their own rockets.

  1. ” In 1944, Wernher von Braun was even arrested on a charge of sabotage, as he was overheard telling a colleague that his true goal with the A-4 project was not to develop a weapon, but make space travel possible.”

    I could see nationalistic pride being invoked as a valid reason for a nation to do something.

    1. Interesting tidbit: More slave labor died from the V2 project than did from the actual use of them on their enemies.

      Another interesting thing is that they fired more at Belgium than at Britain I read, odd, I had no idea.

      1. Churchill mentions in his memoirs that London was much better protected by fighter planes, artillery and balloons than Antwerp. This has to be taken into account looking at the number of hits on Antwerp. Also, the Germans only started attacking with V1/V2 after D-Day and some of the launch sites for London were soon freed from the Nazis. Antwerp remained in range for much longer.

  2. Towards the end of the war, the Germans designed several “this is totally not a suicide weapon” piloted flying bombs, including a piloted version of the V1. They generally put in some sort of method of ejecting or bailing out, but a lot of these had experts wondering what the odds were that the pilot would have actually survived. Not sure any of them actually reached operational status.

      1. The Japanese had a weird obsession with midget submarines thought out the war. They used a few at Pearl Harbor and started mounting them to bigger submarines. The idea was that they would launch two torpedoes and return to the mother ship.

        In reality we were pretty dam good at sinking them if they even managed to find any thing. In some ways the human powered torpedo made more sense than a doomed midget sub. They were already a suicide weapon in practice.

        1. Well, in some battles of some wars, most weapons were practically suicide weapons… And when a nation at war makes cheap weaponry in great amounts because they understand that military personnel using them will live approximately 15 minutes into the battle on average, it is obvious that suicide is implied.

    1. I don’t know if Wikipedia can be believed on the rig, but they had severe problems. It seems that the basic rig was demonstrably unstable. And the piloted idea was used to see why. Also a lot of them were fired from modified bombers and transports because we kept bombing their choice launch locations.

    2. Nah, it was all make-believe to satisfy Hitler’s desire for super “revenge weapons” (Vergeltungswaffen). In reality, Germany no longer had the resources to actually produce them. Like they developed the first operational jetfighter (ME-262) but were unable to make enough of them to make any difference.

  3. Yeah well I’m glad those frigging Nazi’s never made it to space.

    “glass spheres containing the embalmed bodies of pioneers of rocket development and space travel could be put into permanent orbits around the Earth.”

    LOL…. the vanity!

    1. You know, if I had twitter I would put this same topic to Elon Musk. Really, he wants to put an old car of his into orbit around the next planet he wants us to inhabit? We don’t already have enough space junk here?

  4. There was no such thing as a “german space program”, it was just a propaganda-driven program, an endless leap-ahead, the same way that they did with all the wunder-waffen their wochenschau movies were filled with.
    They were stupid enough to put enormous amount of money, engineers, strategic materials and slave laborers into a thing that was less efficient than a B-24 that costed nothing compared to an A4 – and was reusable (most of the time). What a great deal !.

    During the cold-war the soviets and the usa did the same kind of thing with the moon project : a pure political decision to get national pride. At least all these “programs” resulted in some valuable knowledge for the real spaces programs that followed years latter. But what a waste of resources !

    The A4 was a team-work led by Walter Dornberger. Wernher von Braun was a major part of it, but he was not the “father of the german rockets” in any way. He managed to save his life at the end of the war, but he was a too big fish for the allies to investigate too much on him.

    Btw Peenemünde was quickly abandoned after the first allies air-raid and the research center was moved in Poland.

      1. “US led forces focused on sheer volume of bulk armaments.”
        Not exactly. The Allies had better Radar than the Germans. The B-29 was the most advanced long-range bomber in production. US aircraft carries where also the most advanced “yes you could get into the whole Britsh Armored decks vs the US wooden deck debate but that is a complex debate at best.” The P-51 was the best long range fighter of the war as well and the P-47 was arguably the best fighter-bomber of the war.but you could also argue for the F4U, Hawker Tempest, and the FW-190. And the US did field the most complex weapon system of the war. The B-29 combined with the Atomic Bomb.Even the standard US rifle the M-1 was better than the standard German rifle.
        The US and allies were good at judging the complexity to value ratio of weapons while the Germans were not. The US was also good at organizing research while the Germans had a lot more infighting between different groups.
        The US was great at mass producing really complex weapons and making them reliable.

        The V-2 was not worth the effort. The ME-262 was never produced in large enough numbers to make any real difference and the idea that it could have been in service is a myth.
        The allies produced thousands of high quality weapons and produced two super expensive, complex, and devastating weapons. The German just could not get the benefit t cost ratio correct.

        1. The infighting was a big problem for the Nazi war effort. It reminds me of the Hotel Moskva story. Stalin was shown 2 competing sets of plans for a new prestigious hotel to be built in Moscow. Somehow he ended up signing off on both of them, his minions having mistakenly submitted both of them for his approval.

          Nobody dared bring his mistake up in front of him, so they ended up building half of one hotel, attached to half of the other.

          The story’s possibly apocryphal, and I’ve no idea what Stalin is supposed to have said if he ever saw the finished building.

          The way to get ahead in Nazi Germany, was to suck up to Hitler and gain his personal favour. As his mind disintegrated towards the end, this meant a lot of infighting, with German factions more worried about being stabbed in the back than fighting the Allies.

          If Hitler had been the demi-god his cult of personality made him out to be, he might have been capable of running an entire world war by himself. But as a slightly loopy monotesticular failed art student, he was a critical liability.

          1. “”The way to get ahead in Nazi Germany, was to suck up to Hitler and gain his personal favour. As his mind disintegrated towards the end, this meant a lot of infighting, with German factions more worried about being stabbed in the back than fighting the Allies. “”

            So pretty much like working for a any fortune 500 company today then ?
            Suck up to the boss to get ahead,
            Be worried more about being stabbed in the back by coworkers than whatever the competition is up to.

        2. Better radar? A british invention called the cavity magnetron is what made it. Gifted to the yanks as part of the Tizard Mission.
          Ah the P51. Essentially a slow and inferior plane at altitude until the UK gifted the Merlin engine (from the spitfire) to power it at which point it could compete against the Luftwaffe.
          M1 vs the K98? Depends what you’re marking on. Volume of fire, ease of reload sure. Accuracy no. Inability to reload until the 8 round clip was used. bzzt.
          Atomic bomb? The biggest most expensive massive project ever undertaken up until that point which resulted in only 3 usable deployable weapons at that time and took decades of development. Which was used in the closure of the war more as a deterrent agasint the next one, when it was already clear we’d won.

          The US had massive manufacturing capabilities. Like the Russians you built things in massive numbers rapidly. That is what prevaled on the battlefield.
          Your Tanks were death traps. But you could throw more men into them than the Germans could. The russians did the same. – they were better at the cost benefit, they valued a rifle over a human life. Their tanks were designed to last mere days.

          The UK gifted the US pretty much all the cool stuff we were working on, and in return the US sold the UK, that’s sold not gifted, arms which we eventually paid off the debt by 2006 !!
          But they forgave Germany any debt, keeping their UK Ally under control and German occupied.
          A pretty shitty deal all considered.

          The UK lost the war as did the rest of western Europe to the US and it’s foreign policy which has dictated world events since 1945.

    1. “There was no such thing as a “german space program”, it was just a propaganda-driven program, an endless leap-ahead, the same way that they did with all the wunder-waffen their wochenschau movies were filled with.”

      Isn’t that exactly what the article says? It’s the space program that “Never Was”, and says in the closing that these vehicles were beyond the technology of the time. They were just ideas. Impressive ones that were ahead of their time, but still just ideas.

  5. Actually, the V2 was based on the work of Robert Godard.The V-2 even used the same graphite vanes in the exhaust that the V-2 did. Von Braun was a great self-promoter. Many of the design elements of US rockets like the Thor, Jupiter, Titan family, and even the Saturn family seemed to be more based on the work of the Martin company and the Viking rocket. The Redstone was the last rocket that you could trace to the V-2’s design. The Saturn was designed and built by many people in the US and was a very American design. It would have probably been for the best historically to have ditched Von Braun but this whole. It was the Germans that got the US to the moon first is just a fable.

  6. “which ultimately led to the development of the Space Shuttle.” Not that again! The Shuttles had zip, zero, nada, no lifting body features. The only thing the Shuttle project got from NASA’s lifting body research program was the landing trajectory, that it was possible to make a very steep descent and flare without needing a booster rocket or jet engine to avoid pancaking into the ground.

  7. Revisionist Bullshit. The slave laborers at Peenemünde were worked to death. There was a constant supply of fresh slave laborers from nazi occupied territories. And there was ZERO concern for the safety of the laborers.

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