Ernst Stuhlinger: A Legend of the Space Age

His life story could have been written by a sci-fi novelist

11 min read

One of the guiding lights of space exploration passed away on 25 May. In many aspects, his career reflected the struggle of those who tried to balance the necessities of life on this planet with a desire to travel to the stars.

In an era when the most difficult problems imaginable were jokingly referred to as ”rocket science,” Ernst Stuhlinger launched real rockets into space as Wernher von Braun’s right-hand man. He lived a long and remarkable life, beginning in Germany and ending in the United States. A longtime advocate of interplanetary exploration, he died as word of the landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander circulated in his adopted hometown of Huntsville, Ala. (”Rocket City USA”), where he made most of his breakthrough contributions to space science. He was 94.

Stuhlinger was born on 19 December 1913 in the Bavarian village of Niederrimbach, the son of a schoolteacher, in the twilight of Imperial Germany. He took an interest in the new field of rocketry early on. By the time he was a teenager, he had already built his own handmade rocket, using old water pipes and gunpowder.

He earned a doctorate in physics at the University of Tübingen at the age of 23, specializing in what came to be called cosmic rays. For a few years, the young scientist participated in early research on high-altitude radiation at the Berlin Institute of Technology, demonstrating his skills in instrumentation, under the auspices of the government’s nascent nuclear physics program.

”First of all, he had a superb education. He studied with Hans Bethe and worked for Werner Heisenberg. And he was very comfortable talking with other scientists, whereas a lot of the rocket engineers in the program were not,” recalls Frederick I. Ordway III, Stuhlinger’s longtime friend and colleague at NASA.

This promising work was halted in 1941, however, when Stuhlinger was conscripted into the German army and assigned to the notorious Russian Front. He was wounded in the Battle of Moscow and later saw action in the deadliest engagement of all time, the Battle of Stalingrad. At one point, an artillery round destroyed a farmhouse where his unit was sleeping, burying everyone inside. When another round exploded, it opened a hole for Stuhlinger to crawl through; he was the only member of his 40-man unit to survive.

From Russia to New Mexico

In 1943, their Russian campaign in ruins, Nazi leaders began a massive effort to improve the status of their war technology by finally recalling Germany’s brightest intellectuals from combat roles. Stuhlinger was transferred from the infantry to a posting at the top-secret rocket facility at Peenemünde, Germany, to conduct research and development on guidance systems for a series of ballistic missiles that culminated in the Aggregate-4 rocket (later renamed the V-2), the first artificial object to achieve suborbital spaceflight. At Peenemünde, Stuhlinger soon impressed the facility’s technical director, Wernher von Braun, and by the end of the war in Europe in 1945, Stuhlinger had become his trusted aide.

With Allied forces closing in from two directions, many of Peenemünde’s scientists decided to surrender to U.S. troops in hopes of eventually pursuing von Braun’s prewar goal of space exploration. Stuhlinger was one of about 120 elite scientists and engineers to be granted immediate acceptance as War Department Special Employees by the Rocket Branch of the Research and Development Division of U.S. Army Ordnance, in a secret undertaking called Operation Paperclip.

Stuhlinger and his Paperclip colleagues set about transferring their knowledge of rocketry to the American effort. Their new test center at the White Sands Proving Grounds, in New Mexico, was a spare facility, featuring a single hangar and decrepit barracks, which they hastily improved, largely by scrounging. Under constant security in a new nation, far from their families, the von Braun team relied on one another for morale. Stuhlinger taught the others a new language. Years later, he remarked: ”Those of us who had learned English at school taught those who had not, with the result that a Made-in-Germany accent will prevail in the English of the Paperclippers for the rest of their lives.” They formed a close-knit group that endured for years.

”Stuhlinger and his German colleagues brought with them the most priceless possession of developmental engineering, a finely-honed judgment,” says James Oberg, a veteran space journalist and former NASA employee. ”It wasn’t blueprints or microdots or secret fuel formulas that the von Braun team contributed to the American missile and space programs they joined. It was their experience at analyzing problems, imagining and then developing alternative solutions, testing them effectively, and finally picking the best, and then repeating the cycle over and over again. They obtained that good judgment the old-fashioned way, by making and fixing hundreds of misjudgments in the V-2 program.”

Between 1946 and 1952 the Germans managed to build and test-fire 66 rockets from the parts of captured V-2s, giving the United States its first practical experience in launching large missiles. Just as important, it gave the country a unique opportunity to use some of the test flights for scientific experiments, chosen by an informal group of American researchers advising the army. Stuhlinger served as the von Braun team’s liaison to the panel of scientists.

Finding a Home in the United States

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the German rocket specialists were relocated to a new Army post, at the defunct Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, which five years earlier had served as a wartime chemical weapons factory. After years in the desert at White Sands, the von Braun team fell in love with the green hills of Alabama. Soon the team members also had real houses for their transplanted families to live in and a community they could embrace.

”My father was very proud to be an American,” his son Hans Christoph Stuhlinger said. ”Even though he traveled to Germany many times, it was always as a visitor, and the U.S. was his home. I don’t think he ever regretted coming to America right after World War II. He became an important part of his community.”

Stuhlinger and the members of von Braun’s transplanted group settled into somewhat ordinary American lives, even founding a church, an orchestra, and a Boy Scout troop. Stuhlinger himself led the construction of the Rocket City Observatory on Monte Sano mountain (later renamed the Von Braun Astronomical Observatory and Planetarium) so that the children of Huntsville could learn more about the stars.

In Huntsville, the Paperclippers soon received new orders to build a long-range ballistic missile. They immediately set about designing the first of a series of superrockets. Working with American corporations, they created the powerful Redstone system within three years. In August 1953, the army’s Ordnance Missile Laboratories launched the first Redstone missile from a pad at Cape Canaveral. It was the first major step beyond upgraded V-2s, and it offered the team a glimpse of what it would be like to create a rocket that could attain von Braun’s tacit goal of achieving spaceflight.

Under direct orders from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the army’s missile program was supposed to work only on weapons systems, leaving rockets capable of launching scientific satellites to civilian contractors to develop alone. Eisenhower feared that the Soviet Union would consider any moves into space by the U.S. military a deliberate provocation, possibly touching off a new conflict in Europe. Meanwhile, though, von Braun and his science staff, headed by Stuhlinger, suggested uses for the Redstone involving the deployment of ”high-altitude research vehicles” that would come close to achieving orbit but without breaking the strict rules given to the Army by the White House.

”The word satellite was prohibited at that time, because the Army was told not to get into the satellite business. So high-altitude research vehicles was the euphemism we used,” recounted Ordway, who had been assigned in 1956 by the Guided Missile Division of manufacturer Republic Aviation to work under contract for the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), under Stuhlinger’s direction.

One example of von Braun’s cat-and-mouse game with the Pentagon was his 1954 acceptance of an invitation from Walt Disney to appear in three episodes of a television miniseries called ”Tomorrowland.” Von Braun served as the host for the show’s look at space exploration and brought Stuhlinger with him to Hollywood to help with the technical details on camera. The experience was a sort of coming-out party for the transplanted Germans, breaking the ice with the American public and greatly dispelling any lingering resentment of the Germans stemming from the horrors of World War II. The United States, after all, now had a new enemy to fear.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union in the 1950s was spearheaded by a frantic race for technological supremacy. Both sides vied for leadership in the development of new jet aircraft, missiles, submarines, nuclear weapons, and other military systems. To press home the point, the U.S. government made the Paperclippers and their families American citizens in 1955.

The scientists next developed the Jupiter series missiles, which improved on the Redstone and took payloads to the edge of space. With the world observing in 1957 the first International Geophysical Year, a period dedicated to the advancement of earth sciences for the benefit of all, the von Braun team now lobbied openly to be allowed to demonstrate its prowess by sending a scientific satellite into space. They were again rebuffed by the White House, however.

The Soviet Union rendered the question moot on 4 October of that year by launching the first artificial satellite into orbit. The news of Sputnik 1 ’s success shook the world. Stuhlinger, who had been on his way to a meeting of the International Astronautical Federation in Barcelona, Spain, would later recall that the Soviets had really done the American space program a favor by launching first, because it had shaken the United States out of its doldrums. The Eisenhower administration was nearly felled by the impact, enduring criticism from American journalists and politicians alike. This immediately ended the hands-off policy that had kept the military away from satellites.

Stuhlinger was one of the few who was not surprised by the news at all. He had already advised the head of ABMA, Maj. Gen. John Medaris, that the Russians had been hinting, through high-level back channels, that they had a satellite ready to go for months. So when he got to Barcelona, he congratulated the representatives of the Soviet space team and then tried to learn all he could about Sputnik .

[For more on Stuhlinger's recollections of the first orbital spaceflight, see IEEE Spectrum 's October 2007 article " Remembering Sputnik: Ernst Stuhlinger." The interview, unfortunately, was to be the last he was able to give.]

A Triumph in Space

The United States’ first response to Sputnik was an operation that was already in the works under the auspices of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. A three-stage Vanguard rocket attempted to put a satellite into space in December 1957, but it exploded on the launchpad at liftoff, as television cameras broadcast the fiasco live to a disappointed nation.

The second response came from von Braun, who, after news of Sputnik’s success, told his superiors that his team could put a satellite in orbit within 90 days. It was no mere boast. By 31 January 1958, the ABMA, in concert with its partners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., had assembled a modified Jupiter-C rocket with a customized third stage (known overall as Juno I ) and a scientific payload in its tiny fourth stage, which was called Explorer I . The science package was developed, under Stuhlinger’s supervision, by James Van Allen of the University of Iowa and included a radiation sensor to detect cosmic rays.

At liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Stuhlinger personally timed the ascent of the rocket’s stages and chose the exact moment to fire Explorer I ’s tiny engine to place it into its optimal flight path. Suddenly, the United States had entered the space age. (During the mission, Explorer ’s sensors would detect the presence of radiation belts—later named for Van Allen—surrounding our planet.)

[See our report in February 2008 "A Rocket Scientist Recalls the First U.S. Spaceflight" for more on the 50th anniversary of Explorer I .]

The Explorer series would go on to last for decades, launching nearly 80 scientific spacecraft, making it the world’s longest-running space exploration program. Shortly after the critically acclaimed success of Explorer I , President Eisenhower created a new government entity to incorporate the varied U.S. civilian efforts in space research: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). An act of Congress funded the new agency in July 1958, and four laboratories were folded into the organization, including the ABMA’s lab in Huntsville. Von Braun, Stuhlinger, and other Paperclippers were then transferred to leadership positions at NASA.

”Not only was he involved in the instrumentation for the first [U.S.] satellites, the Explorers, but people forget that the Army launched a series of Pioneer vehicles, the first attempted interplanetary flight project, and Stuhlinger was involved in that,” said Ordway.

In 1960, Stuhlinger became the first director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the new Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, where he oversaw research projects for efforts that included the historic Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. These programs reached their zenith on 20 July 1969, with the first moon landing, by Apollo 11 , the fruition of von Braun’s long-held dream. Stuhlinger helped to organize many of the research tasks entrusted to the astronauts who walked on the moon. He also worked on scientific experiments for the first space shuttle missions, as well as on the earliest observatories in space and many other projects.

”Plus, he was the one who came up with the concept of a very large telescope in space. The Hubble is a smaller version of the design that he had. His version was about 20 percent larger,” said Frederick C. Durant III, president of the International Astronautical Federation from 1953 to 1956, who was in close contact with Stuhlinger on a regular basis. Durant observed that Stuhlinger was ”very precise” in his thinking and had a quiet manner coupled with an ”enormous capacity for leadership.”

Ordway agrees that Stuhlinger left his biggest mark on NASA’s science programs. ”Stuhlinger was one of the creators of the Hubble Space Telescope and was involved with the Chandra X-ray Telescope,” he said. ”To the von Braun rocket team, he was Mr. Science.”

Despite his scientific and engineering accomplishments, Stuhlinger’s career remains controversial to this day. Journalist Oberg said he found it hard to dismiss the ghosts of the past, when asked about Stuhlinger’s accomplishments. He stressed that we remember Stuhlinger for what he brought to the nascent U.S. space program but also keep in mind how this expertise was attained.

”History must never forget that the V-2 program killed thousands of noncombatants in the target zones, and thousands more in the prisoner labor camps. But by squandering technological resources and propellants in short supply, diverted from more ’efficient’ weapons such as jet interceptors, the same program may well have unintentionally shortened the war in Europe by many months, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of lives. The moral balance remains ambiguous but should not be invisible,” said Oberg.

One of Stuhlinger’s most enduring legacies may be his interest in alternative propulsion systems. From his earliest days at White Sands, he was interested in developing a system that could be used as the foundation of interplanetary travel in the future. Realizing that chemical rockets would never be lightweight and powerful enough to make such missions practical, he turned to the experimental ideas of rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth, who had earlier championed the concept of electric propulsion. Stuhlinger tinkered with a conceptual engine that would use electromagnetically accelerated ions to provide thrust. In 1964, he wrote a book explaining his thoughts on the subject, Ion Propulsion for Space Flight (McGraw-Hill, New York).

”From a professional aspect, his research in electric [or ion] propulsion for spacecraft is certainly a highlight,” his son Hans Christoph Stuhlinger, of Monticello, Ark., said. ”His work several decades ago laid the groundwork for using electric propulsion to send probes into deep space.”

NASA launched the ion-propelled Dawn spacecraft to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter last September. Accelerating at nearly 0.9 kilometers per second with each pulse of its engines, Dawn is now some 250 000 000 km from Earth on its way to its ultimate objective, the planetoid Ceres, seven years from now. Stuhlinger was an avid supporter of the 5 billion�km mission.

Don Thomas, a veteran of four space shuttle missions between 1994 and 1997 agrees. ”Some of his initial work on ion propulsion and nuclear propulsion, was just way, way ahead of its time. He did the initial studies and was a big proponent of that technology. And we’re probably going to use it when we send our crews to Mars in 30 or 40 years from now,” he said.

Stuhlinger retired from NASA in 1975 and accepted a teaching position at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, educating young minds about the science of spaceflight. Later, with Ordway, he cowrote a multivolume book on his famous mentor, Wernher Von Braun: Crusader for Space (Krieger Publishing Co., 1993).

Ordway still has fond memories. ”You had great respect working for him, because you understood that he knew his business very thoroughly. He was just a treasure to work with,” he said.

For most of the last years of his life, Stuhlinger served as an unofficial ambassador of goodwill for NASA, lecturing at universities and attending ceremonies. On the 50th anniversary of his Explorer I triumph, in January of this year, he was too ill to attend the gala proceedings, but he sent word to the attendees that he was proud to have been a part of their efforts. He had lived to see the U.S. space program firmly aimed at sending humans to another planet.

About the Author

KIERON MURPHY is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum.

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