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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

German Rocket Builders' Legacy Lives On

APAerodynamics expert Dahm standing by a bronze bust of von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Walter Jacobi, one of the few remaining German technicians whose genius helped put American astronauts on the moon, is frail now. At 84, he doesn't move as quickly as he used to.

But sitting recently in the lobby of a space museum, his eyes sparkled when asked about the legacy of the team of 119 scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, who arrived in this north Alabama city a half-century ago and turned its cotton fields into a landmark of space exploration, including the first moon landing in 1969.

"I don't know how to describe it, it's a tremendous achievement, you know?" he said. "We always knew we could do it."

Their number now down to about a dozen, the German team's accomplishments are indisputable: manned space flight, including lunar landings, the space shuttle and the international space station -- all the direct result of their work developing rockets in the United States following World War II.

But to some that legacy is marred by the group's initial work creating rockets for the German military that were used during World War II .

Michael Neufeld, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, said it's important to remember that von Braun and many members of his team were to some degree complicit in the Nazi regime. "I think he blinded himself to the kind of government he was working for," he said.

Only about a dozen of the group of the scientists who first began arriving in the United States in late summer 1945 are still alive and residing in Huntsville.

All are in their 80s and 90s, and only one, aerodynamics expert Werner Dahm, still works for the space program.

The first group of six of von Braum's German team came over in 1945 after surrendering to U.S. soldiers advancing toward Berlin. They set up shop under strict oversight of the army at Fort Bliss, Texas. They labored there until moving to Huntsville as part of the newly christened Redstone Arsenal Ordnance Rocket Center in 1949.

Despite von Braun's lifelong ambition of sending rockets into orbit and landing men on the moon, army brass were mostly interested in ballistic missile development as a countermeasure to the Soviet Union under Stalin.

"The space function was really an afterthought," said Konrad Dannenberg, a member of the original team.

With "Project Paperclip" under way, army officials gave the German team the task of continuing work on the V-2 rocket developed under Hitler.

The V-2 was created and produced by von Braun's team from 1940 to 1945 at an isolated outpost on the Baltic Sea. V-2 work later was also done at Mittelwerk at the foot of the Harz mountains in central Germany.

The V-2, shrieking across the sky and exploding into homes and buildings, was used on England in the closing months of World War II.

"They wanted to know everything about the [V-2s]," Jacobi said of the U.S. Army officials who first worked with physicist von Braun and his team. "Quite a few people thought that going into space was a crazy idea."

Dahm, who still works at the Marshall center, said one part of the group's legacy is their contribution to the United States' efforts during the Cold War arms race after World War II.

Russia was aggressively building intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons even as the German team's work led to the creation of the Redstone missile in 1954. Dahm said it was essential to build rockets for military purposes: "If we had not done this, we would be Reds nowadays because Stalin would not have stopped."

Dannenberg and others who knew him say space flight was always the driving force behind von Braun's work.

In Germany before the rise of Hitler, von Braun knew that the only way to get the kind of funding and resources necessary to develop his rocket science would be through the military.

It is known that von Braun was an honorary officer in the SS and that V-2 production was made possible by slave labor. There is at least one document in which von Braun discusses a trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he apparently spoke to the commandant about obtaining more skilled laborers.

Von Braun himself, Jacobi and others point out, was briefly imprisoned by the SS, supposedly for talking about going to the moon. Germany was losing the war and the government wanted him to concentrate on missile production.

"What's the definition of slave laborer?" said Jacobi. "In a certain sense, we were slave laborers. Under certain dictatorships you have to do certain things."