The group had soon developed a small, liquid-fuelled rocket called the Mirak-1 (Minimum Rocket-1), which was propelled by a highly-volatile mixture of liquid oxygen and gasoline. The first successful static test of a Mirak-1 took place at Bernstadt, Saxony, giving the team tremendous encouragement to continue. During a second static test-firing the following month, however, the liquid-oxygen tank split open and their diminutive rocket exploded.
Despite these setbacks, the development programme continued. In 1932, von Braun's impressive work with the VfR managed to attract the early attention of a former artilleryman, Captain Walter Dornberger.
Acting on behalf of the Ordnance Department of the German Army, Dornberger had been assigned the task of heading a covert investigation into the feasibility of rockets and their potential for military use. At this time, the Army was vitally interested in the development and production of a weapon that did not contravene the many strictures attached to the Treaty of Versailles, and one that could provide Germany with future defence capabilities. Signed at the end of the First World War, this treaty forbade Germany from manufacturing a whole raft of armaments that could potentially be used in warfare, although the army's military analysts had noted that it only precluded solid-fuel rocket research.
Dornberger convinced von Braun he had a future beyond amateur rocketry, and Colonel Karl Becker, chief of ballistics and ammunition for the German Army, concurred. He told von Braun that once he had received his bachelor's degree the Army would underwrite his graduate study at the University of Berlin, where Becker was also a professor. The only proviso was that von Braun's principal study had to be on liquid-fuelled rocket engines.
The first recorded experience of von Braun's involvement in animal experiments relating to acceleration forces came about in 1931, while he was in Zurich completing a semester of study. Together with a fellow student named Constantine Generales (who would later become an eminent biomedical investigator) he rigged up a rudimentary centrifuge with a bicycle wheel as its centrepiece, in order to determine the effects of acceleration on a living creature. The crude machine worked, and in time several mice had been strapped to the inner circumference of the wheel and spun at great speed. One day their unappreciative landlady found sprays of blood on her wallpaper, and further experiments involving mice were abruptly curtailed.
Once he had received his bachelor's degree and begun his doctoral research, von Braun was put to work by Dornberger (by then promoted to Colonel) in an official capacity at the Army's Ordnance Research and Development Office in Kummersdorf, 17 miles south of Berlin. A static test site for ballistic missiles had been established there, in a clearing deep within the Brandenburg Forest.
In his post-war book V2, Dornberger wrote: "Our nineteen-year-old 'student', Wernher von Braun, had come to us fresh from his work on the rocket airfield ... That enterprise was slowly dying of chronic lack of money, so he had joined the Army Weapons Department on the 1st October 1932. He now belonged to my specialist staff'' .
Von Braun was swept up in the excitement of this new challenge, which he actually saw as a way of inducing the German Army to give much-needed funding to the Rocket Society for their experiments, and claimed that he was not overly concerned about the possible military consequences of his work. ''Besides, in 1932 the idea of another war was absurd,'' he would stress many years later. ''The Nazis were not then in power. There was no reason for moral scruples over the use to which our researches might be put in the future. We were interested in only one thing - the exploration of space'' .
With little to guide them other than their own experience and the published works of American rocket pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, combined with the theories of Romanian-German scientist Hermann Oberth, von Braun's team began to design and develop a rocket motor that would eventually produce an amazing 650 pounds of thrust. Known as the A-1 (Aggregate-1, or Prototype-1), it embodied a liquid-oxygen fibreglass tank located inside a larger tank filled with alcohol, and was equipped for flight stability with a 70-pound flywheel gyroscope secured in the nose section. It was a problematic beast, however, with the awkward fuel arrangement making it prone to exploding without warning.
Dornberger later wrote that the A-l was too top-heavy. "The centre of gravity lay too far ahead of the centre of pressure," he reflected. Undaunted, the team then worked on a new design. "So far as the motor is concerned, it was a replica of the A-l, but the gyroscope had been moved from the nose of the missile to the middle, between the oxygen and alcohol tanks" .
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