It is over fifty years since man landed on the moon, but discover the real history of where space exploration began. How the first test sites are abandoned and forgotten, and how a Nazi put Man on the moon.

Surrender

May 2nd 1945, two days after the suicide of Adolf Hitler in the Chancellery bunker in Berlin, a 33-year-old man surrendered to the American and Allied forces. Adorning a black pinstripe suit, his left arm encased in plaster and a leather coat hung over his shoulders, he surrendered to allied soldiers. He was tall, with a strong face and well-groomed. Carrying the rank of Sturmbannführer (major) in the SS and top of the Black List, the allied list of the most wanted Nazi scientists and engineers, he posed for photographs. His name, Wernher von Braun, or rather, the man that put America on the moon.

Wernher von Braun is famous to space historians and World War Two historians alike. But the two histories are more tied together than is commonly thought. It was von Braun’s rockets that had rained down on London but also became the first man-made object into space on 20 June 1944.

These rockets, the a4-V2 that stood 14 meters tall (45ft 11in) and travelled at over four times the speed of sound. Powerful and frightening they became part of Hitler’s famous Vengence Weapons program. Produced and developed most famously at Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea by slave labourers. Today at Peenemünde there stands a museum. However, it wasn’t here that the Nazi rocket program of von Braun began. Rather it began on a predominantly forgotten patch of land forty kilometres (25 miles) south of Berlin.

Sperenberg

Surrounded by a dense cover of trees an almost forgotten airfield sits on top of a slight rise in the predominantly flat landscape of Brandenburg. From the street or nearby town, there is no evidence that a two-runway airfield is close by. An airfield large enough to accommodate an Antonov An-124, once the largest plane in the world. It is also not immediately obvious how one could get there. There are no signs and no obvious infrastructure. Google Maps has very little detail of roads and paths, and with time, roads have been reclaimed by the forest. Yet it is as you wander through this often eerie forest you are presented with history protruding from the ground, waiting to tell its story.

ruined bunker amongst trees-min

The mystery unfolds

Around the airfield, the German forces had constructed a ring of defence. A ring of concrete machine-gun emplacements and defensive bunkers. Some of these bunkers were the reason for the rubble-strewn forest floor. They had been blown up by Soviet forces, during one of the final battles, or shortly after, of the Second World War. But smaller ones, today housing illegally disposed of asbestos sheeting, remain. But what were they protecting?

Lost bunker

The Birth of the Space Age

Sperenberg airfield was not just an airfield, it was part of the much larger Kummersdorf complex, the home of the German Army’s future weapons department. It was to this department that Ferdinand Porsche submitted designs for Tiger tanks and alike. It was also here that Wernher von Braun, at just twenty-two years old, along with a team had launched two rockets. Rockets that flew to heights of 2.2 and 3.5 kilometres (1.4 and 2.2 miles), and their test ground, Sperenberg airfield.

Abandoned aircraft hanger

Werner von Braun followed this, at the now age of twenty-five, by testing reward thrust rocket engined planes. Rocketry, however, was still very much in its infancy and the first flight test resulted in the aeroplane catching fire. The Nazi elite and Hitler saw there was proof of concept for game-changing weapons.

Money and manpower started to flow into Wernher von Braun’s department. Nonetheless, his work needed to be kept away from the spies of friend and foe alike.

Secrecy was of the utmost importance. von Braun’s early thesis on rocketry Konstruktive, theoretische und experimentelle Beiträge zu dem Problem der Flüssigkeitsrakete ( Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket) from April 1934 was labelled Top Secret and was not released for public reading until 1960. For this reason, also Sperenberg was deemed to be too public, and Kummersdorf had far too many focuses for the growing department under von Braun in rocketry to thrive. So a new location was chosen, Peenemünde.

Rust and Rubble

Sperenberg airfield was initially abandoned at the end of the Second World War. Its modest structures left to rot with time, that was at least until the cold war began in earnest.

From 1958 until 1974 Sperenberg was gradually expanded. Buildings were constructed and the runways extended to 2.5 kilometres in length. Over 5,000 soviet troops were stationed at any-one-time at the airfield until the fall of the wall. But with the signing of the 2-plus-4 agreement all the former Soviet forces were recalled from the former East Germany.

The airfield became semi-forgotten only having its name mentioned as the new united Berlin debated where to build its new airfield. Sperenberg was amongst the favourite and better locations. However, instead, Schönefeld Airport of the former east was chosen, and the new grand building and runway of Berlin Brandenburg Airport was due to open in October 2011, but as of yet remains unopened and a major financial and PR disaster for not just Berlin, but also Germany.

As for Sperenberg, grass has started to grow in the cracks, roots are uplifting tarmac, buildings with splatterings of Graffiti have started to fall, only one hanger, still impressive in scale, survives.

Bunker in trees

The Nazi and the Moon

Wernher von Braun and his missile program in Peenemünde produced over 3,000 slave labour manufactured V-2 rockets that reigned down on London, Antwerp and Liège killing 9,000 civilians and resulted in the deaths of 12,000 forced labourers.

After his surrender, he was whisked off to the United States, where his Nazi party record was expunged and he continued his work on rockets. However, there was little interest from the United States Government, that was at least until the Soviet’s launched into orbit Sputnik. In retaliation, the United States Government established NASA on 29th July 1958 and on the 1st July 1960 Wernher von Braun became NASA’s first director and would go on to oversee Apollo 11 and man’s first steps on the moon.

Wernher von Braun died on 16th June 1977 of pancreatic cancer.

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