Encyclopedia Astronautica
German Civilian Rocketry



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German Rocketry
German Liquid Propellant Rockets of the 1930's
Credit: © Mark Wade
A German rocket craze seized the country from 1928 to 1933, inspiring a generation of young engineers and scientists that manned spaceflight could be a reality in their lifetime. The Nazi government put an end to this civilian effort, instead putting the engineers to work developing military rockets. After the war, an attempt was made to revive German civilian rocketry, but safety fears resulted in all further work being shut down in 1964.

Hermann Oberth's Die Rakete zu den Planetenräume (The Rocket Into Interpanetary Space) was published at the very end of 1923. The book made it clear to young German engineers that manned flight into outer space was achievable. It was only necessary to develop the technology!

The first German rocket craze ran from 1928 to 1933. Impatient German enthusiasts such as Opel, Valier, and Tiling demonstrated everything from motorcycles to aircraft powered by existing black powder rockets. Quacks like Zucker capitalised on the craze by equipping large hulls with powder rockets and making outlandish performance claims. Schmiedl, Zucker, and Tiling used powder rockets to send letters from town to town, and such 'rocket post' became sought after by philatelists. But the performance of the black powder rocket was so poor that it was evident that they could never be used to reach space.

To those seriously interested in reaching other planets within their lifetimes, it seemed that development of the liquid rocket engine was necessary to build space ships. This would require collaborative effort. In June 1927 Johannes Winkler called to order in Breslau the first meeting of the world's first Society for Space Travel (Verein fuer Raumschiffahrt or VfR). The membership grew from three to 500 within the year. Willy Ley was instrumental in publicising the Society and editing its newsletter.

The space craze caught the attention of the Ufa film studio. Famed director Fritz Lang began production of the first film to realistically portray spaceflight - Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). Lang turned to Oberth for technical advice, and gave Oberth funding to build and fly a working liquid propellant rocket before the film's premiere. However Oberth was a theoretician, not a practical engineer, and vastly underestimated the task. He fled the capital in panic when he realized that his rocket could not be made to work in time for the film's premiere on 15 October 1929.

Oberth's assistant, Nebel, proposed to use the rocket engine developed for the film as the basis for a 'Mirak' - a Minimum Rocket - that would fly and demonstrate liquid rocket technology to the public. In September 1930 Nebel was able to obtain use of an abandoned German army munitions storage area in a northern suburb of Berlin for use as a Raketenflugplatz - the world's first rocketport. Riedel, the most talented engineer of the VfR 'Berlin Group', worked feverishly to perfect the Oberth engine. But it was Winkler, heading the 'Breslau Group', who flew the HW-1, the first liquid propelled rocket in Germany, in February 1931. Riedel's Mirak Repulsor flew three months later. In parallel with all of this a Hannover Group, headed by Puellenberg, began development of refined liquid propellant rockets.

But events were already conspiring against the rocket enthusiasts. The stock market crash of 1929 dried up funding from wealthy benefactors. Valier and Tiling were killed in accidents in their laboratories. In 1930 a Colonel Dornberger of the German Army was directed to pursue research into the rocket as a weapon of war from a proving ground at Kummersdorf. An enthusiastic young engineer of the Berlin Group, Wernher Von Braun, was recruited by Dornberger, and in the economic depression many of the other VfR engineers went with him. Nebel, Winkler, and Tiling continued independent work until the fall of 1933. Then the new Nazi government ordered the Gestapo to shut down all private rocket development in Germany. Only Puellenberg continued development in secret, until finally giving up in 1938.

It took von Braun's German Army team nine years to develop the primitive Mirak through the A1, A2, A3, and A5 into the world's first long range ballistic missile, the A4 - V-2. After the war, groups of German engineers were recruited to transfer the technology to the winning allies. Von Braun and 107 engineers went to America; Groettrup and 307 others to Russia; Bringer and 29 others to France. The rockets they designed there took those countries into outer space.

Back in occupied Germany, Nebel, Puellenberg, and Staats began renewed work on private rocketry. They formed a new rocket society, and got the Allied ban on German rocket tests lifted in 1952. A new rocketport was founded at Cuxhaven, on the North Sea coast. A new generation of private German rocket enthusiasts flew rockets from Cuxhaven until 1964 (with those of Seliger reaching 120 km altitude). Then Zucker, the old nemesis of the serious rocketeers, managed to kill a boy in one his rocket tests. This led once again to the prohibition of further private serious rocket research in Germany - and the end of private rocketry to space.

More... - Chronology...


Associated Launch Vehicles
  • Maul Camera Rocket German sounding rocket. Maul conceived of using powder rockets to launch film cameras for military reconnaissance in 1901, beginning an 11 year development process. More...
  • Opel Fritz von Opel sponsored early tests of rocket-powered automobiles and aircraft, popularizing the idea of rocket propulsion in Germany. More...
  • Schmiedl Friedrich Schmiedl used powder rockets to make regular rocket mail service between two Austrian towns from 1931 to 1933. More...
  • Oberth German sounding rocket. Rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth agreed to build and fly a liquid propellant rocket to publicise the Fritz Lang film Frau im Mond. Oberth's design was too ambitious and the rocket was never completed in time for the film's premiere. But the engine developed for it would be further refined and used in the Mirak rocket, flown in 1931-1933. More...
  • Valier Max Valier, first with the backing of automobile magnate von Opel, then in competition with him, was instrumental in popularising rocketry in Germany in the 1920's. He dreamed of rocket-propelled transatlantic aircraft, but was killed in a rocket engine test in 1932. More...
  • HW-1 Johannes Winkler was a founding member and president of the VfR. On 14 March 1931, his HW-1 lifted off from a field outside of Dessau, Germany, becoming the first liquid fuel rocket in Europe to be successfully launched. More...
  • Tiling Wing-recovered compressed powder rockets that set altitude records in Germany before being surpassed by liquid propellant designs. More...
  • Mirak Mirak - a 'Minimum Rocket' - was conceived by Rudolf Nebel to demonstrate the practicality of the liquid rocket, using the thrust chamber developed for the abandoned Oberth rocket. Mirak was realised not by Nebel, but talented engineer Riedel. It flew over 100 times in 1931-1932 and convinced the German Army of the practicality of the rocket as a weapon of war. More...
  • HW-2 German sounding rocket. Johannes Winkler followed up his experimental HW-1 by the much larger and ambitious HW-2, which had an aerodynamic teardrop-shaped outer shell and a very respectful fuel mass fraction of 72% using an aluminium-magnesium structure. More...
  • Zucker Rocket The Zucker Rocket was not an operational rocket at all, but a series of flashy-looking hulls powered by powder rockets like those used in fireworks. Zucker travelled through Germany in 1931-1933, displaying his rocket, selling tickets to launches, and then selling fraudulent postal covers carried aboard the 'flights'. The highest recorded altitude achieved in Germany was 15 m. More...
  • Magdeburg Rudolf Nebel's subscale prototype for a man-carrying rocket was flown eight times in 1933. Further tests were prohibited by the Nazi government. This would be the largest German rocket launched until the A3 in 1937. More...
  • Puellenberg Albert Puellenberg began construction of a series of increasingly sophisticated rockets in 1928. After further private rocketry development was prohibited in 1934, Puellenberg continued his work in secret, culminating with the extremely sophisticated VR12 rocket in 1938. This was the end of the line and the last privately-developed rocket built in Germany until 1956. More...
  • Mohr Rocket Engineer Ernst Mohr of Wuppertal, under the auspices of the German Rocket Society, developed a sounding rocket that was designed to reach altitudes of 50 km. A solid rocket motor with 7800 kgf would take the separable payload section to a speed of 1200 m/s. The booster had a diameter of 0.30 m, a length of 1.7 m, a total mass of 135 kg including 75 kg of solid propellant. The payload dart was 56 mm in diameter, 1.25 m long, and had a total mass of 15 kg. More...
  • Kumulus Kumulus was a single-stage sounding rocket developed by the German Rocket Society in the late 1950's. It could carry meteorological, postal, or biological payloads up to a speed of 750 m/s and an altitude of 20 km. All launches were made from Cuxhaven, and discontinued when the German government prohibited civilian rocket launches in June 1964. The propellant was developed by the DRG and fabricated at Liebenau Company for Production of Chemical Materials (GmbH zur Verwertung chemischer Erzeugnisse Liebenau). More...
  • Seliger German sounding rocket. Berthold Seliger's firm designed a modular series of sounding rockets in 1961-1964. One, two, and three stage versions were built, reaching 52, 80, and 120 km altitude. More...

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