For every technology developed since World War II, there is at least one claim that it was actually designed by the Germans during the war. One claim that almoststands up is for the satellite launching space rocket.
What is known is that the Germans developed and fielded the first sizable ballistic missile, the A-4 (a.k.a. the V-2). This liquid propellant missile was capable of hurling a one-ton warhead several hundred miles… enough to target London from France, but not enough to reach across the Atlantic. So early in WWII, design efforts were undertaken to develop the A-9/A-10 combination. The A-9 was to be a winged version of the A-4; the A-10 was a similar, but larger, vehicle that would serve as a booster for the A-9. While the A-10 was intended to splash down in the Atlantic with the aid of steel-mesh parachutes after a launch from French bases, the A-9 would glide to an impact somewhere in the vicinity of New York City… again with a one-ton warhead. This would have been a weapon of dubious reliability and even more dubious utility: an entire ICBM launched with only a one ton chemical explosive warhead, and with a circular error probability very likely measured in dozens of miles. And the first stage splashdown and recovery? Even if made practicable, the splashdown area would soon become infested with US Navy submarines, standing ready to sink and German vessels that attempt to approach. Soon, the A-10 boosters would be in US hands. Not unsurprisingly, the A-9/A-10 project was abandoned early on.
In the years after the war, stories came out that the Germans had gone beyond the A-10, to designs such as the A-11 and A-12. Thed A-11 was reported to be still another big stage, this time under the A-9/A-10 stack. The result would here be that the A-9 would now be put into orbit, with its one ton payload. The A-12 was a further larger stage under the A-11; the A-9 disappeared, and the A-10 was turned – somehow – into a manned, winged, recoverable “shuttle.”
The documentary evidence for the wartime development of the A-11 and A-12 designs has always been lean to the point of nonexistence. Simply put, it all depends on taking Werner von Braun at his word that such designs were indeed produced. But immediately after the war, he (and his team, and their data, and a number of A-4s) was in the hands of the United States Army. This was by his choice… he knew the war was lost and that they would be captured and put to work by one of the allied nations… and Britain did not have the resources to fulfill von Braun’s dreams of spaceflight, and the Soviets were rightly seen as pure evil and horrible bosses. That left the US. But von Braun, as well as being a good manager and a good engineer, was a great pitch-man. He proved that in Germany when he convinced the German military to expend vast sums on his crazy rockets, and he proved that after the war when he convinced the US military to expend vaster sums on his less crazy rockets, and vaster still sums by NASA on his truly crazy moon rockets. In retrospect, he clearly knew what he could accomplish. At the time, his goals were often seen as unattainably nutty. But he was able to sell ’em nonetheless. Billy Mays eat your zombie heart out.
So, the A-11 and A-12. Other German rocketeers have claimed no knowledge of such projects. No wartime records of such designs have to date been produced. At the end of the war the A-10 project was three years dead; the team of rocketeers who had succeeded in putting the first man-made object into space were hard at work on rather small “flak rockets” to combat the swarms of American and British strategic bombers that were busily converting German industry into gravel. There is no way that a satellite launcher or a space shuttle would have been funded. So at best, they would have been von Brauns personal “ideas,” and not actual “projects.” So,how did the A-11 and A-12come about?
My own hypothesis is this: when von Braun was being interrogated by the US Army, he had to think on his feet. He wanted the US military to fund his work… but they proved that they already had his work. His carefully hidden stash of technical reports and drawings and such were quickly found by the US Army. They already had the V-2. So of what use was von Braun? Well… if he could promise Bigger And Better Things, he might have felt that that would improve his bargaining position. And so, the one, single, solitary illustration that can be tangentially linked to both von Braun and the A-11 concept was created at White Sands in 1946. This painting represents a satellite launcher that clearly resembles the A-11 concept, featuring a huge clunky first stage, an A-10-like second stage, and a V-2-like third stage. The painter, one “de Beek,” was the illustrator at Peenemunde. It is safe to say that it was painted under von Brauns direction.
Suddenly, so goes my hypothesis, von Braun claims to have designed vehicles capable of putting sizable payloads into orbit. In 1945, the US military could see the use for such things… especially after August 1945. A rocket that can put a satellite into orbit can drop a bomb anywhere on the planet. Once von Braun found out about the American atom bomb, he undoubtedly spent mere milliseconds putting the ideas together, and thus was able to claim that he had already laid the groundwork for an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Is the hypothesis the way it actually happened? Dunno, but to me it seems reasonable. If so, would it have been necessary to secure a place in American industry for von Braun and his team? Possibly. The United States had, at least by 1946, several companies actively working on space launch systems of their own; in several cases, much more advanced than the clunky “A-11.” But being able to claim to have a several-year head start couldn’t have hurt. And if that was the story von Braun told to get himself in the door, he could hardly back out of it later. Interestingly, a few technical details about the A-11 and A-12 were revealed some years later, and proved to be remarkably similar to the weights and thrust data used for the von Braun “Ferry Rocket” made famous in the Collier’s magazine series. But which came first… the A-11/A-12 data, or the ferry rocket data? The ferry rockets were worked out in considerable detail. It would have been easy to simply claim after the fact that the A-11/A-12 had much the same features, now that such features were known.
For more on the A-9/10/11/12 and other German “space projects” from WWII, check out Aerospace Projects Review issue V5N6.