NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Michelle Kelly
8 December 1997
The following interview of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger was conducted on December
8, 1997, in Huntsville, Alabama.
I'm sitting here in Huntsville, Alabama, speaking with Dr. Stuhlinger.
It is December 8, 1997. I'd like to thank you, Dr. Stuhlinger. We're
very honored that you've agreed to talk to us about your background.
We've done a lot of research about your past and about your work with
the space program. First off, I'd like to ask you when and where were
I was born a long time ago, almost eighty-four years ago, in a small
village in southern Germany. My father was a teacher there. I grew
up in a rural setting. It was a very beautiful, little, small village,
and I was more at home in the stables of the farmers and in the fields
and in the woods than I would have been in a town. It was a beautiful
youth for me. My love for nature and for all things in nature began
probably at that time and has persisted ever since.
Where did your interest in rocketry and the space program develop?
As a relatively normal young boy, I played with rockets when I was
about fourteen or fifteen years old. They didn't amount to much, and
I'm almost embarrassed when I think today of what I did at that time.
I took pipes and filled them with grued [phonetic] powder which I
made myself, and they got up a few yards in the air, but not much
more, and it didn't amount to much.
But then when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old, I happened
to see in a journal, in a picture journal, a photograph of a person
who held a rocket in his hands, and the caption said, "Professor
[Hermann] Oberth believes that man can fly to the moon one of these
days, with rockets." That impressed me very much, and at that
time, it was long ago, I still believed everything that a professor
said. That would not be true today. [Laughter] But at that time it
was. I believed that man can fly to the moon with rockets, and I still
believe it today.
And did you go on to study that, then, in college?
I did study physics, which I loved very much, in Tuebingen. Tuebingen
is a little university town in the south of Germany. I studied physics,
and I had the good fortune of having an excellent teacher and professor.
That was Professor Hans Geiger, the inventor of the Geiger counter.
He was a very impressive person. He inspired us young students to
do more, to learn more in physics, and to really love physics. I did,
I also had a great preference for biology, in particular zoology.
So these two subjects, physics and zoology, besides mathematics, were
my main subjects at the university. I had the idea at that time that
I wanted to combine physics and biology interests and become a kind
of a biophysicist. That was a field which began to develop momentum
at that time. That was in the 1930s.
But then came the war, and everything was different, of course. One
could not pursue one's own plans. It was a time full of anxiety, of
course. It was a very unhappy time for all of us, for those who were
directly involved in the war even more, of course, but also for the
young people who saw that their future would be very much in question.
So all these dreams of biophysics had to be pushed out and could not
On the other hand, there was at that time a new discovery in physics;
that was the splitting of the atomic nucleus in uranium, which sets
off a large amount of energy. It was discovered in the fall of 1938,
and immediately after that, all physics laboratories, I think, in
the world, in other countries, began to study and to work in the field
of the transmutation of uranium and the production of energy by this
My boss – that was Professor Geiger – he also worked in
that field. At the same time he transferred from Tuebingen to Berlin,
to the Institute of Technology in Berlin, and he took me with him
as a young assistant. So I continued my work in Berlin at that time,
and for a couple of years in Berlin I worked with many other colleagues
in the field of transmutation or the production of energy by the uranium-splitting
process. We did that work in a loosely organized program which was
headed by Professor Heisenburg in Berlin, and I worked there, too.
But then came the relentless grip of the military, and I had to put
on a uniform, and I was sent to the Russian front as a PFC [Private
First Class]. So I spent one and a half years on the Russian front
until early in April my unit was sent to Stalingrad. We didn't quite
go into Stalingrad because the Russians had closed the ring around
the city, but we proceeded to that ring of the Russians. We were badly
beaten at that time and had to turn back and then had a long foot
march, about 600 miles, back through the wintery Ukraine, to the German
lines again. It was a very hard time in the way some of us made it,
and I was among the lucky ones also.
After we had reached the German lines again after our retreat, I was
reached by an order from Berlin which said, "You are to report
to Peenemunde." Now, nobody knew were Peenemunde was at that
time of those people to whom I had access, and my sergeant said, "Well,
hitch a ride on one of the trains which go back from here, go to Berlin,
and in Berlin somebody would probably know where Peenemunde is and
what they are doing there."
So I went back – that was in April 1943 – to Berlin, and
from Berlin somebody told me that Peenemunde is an island in the Baltic
Sea, the island of Usedom. So I traveled by train to that little island
and came to the place which we know so well today as Peenemunde. It
was a very active place where the big rocket was developed under [Wernher]
von Braun. We called the rocket "A-4." [Joseph] Goebbels
later called it a V-2, which stands for retaliation [vengeance] weapon,
but the A-4 was our designation, and up to this day, we old-timers,
when we talk about it, we talk about the A-4. So that was the A-4
rocket in Peenemunde, and I learned about its existence, and I was
very much impressed by the enormous task to build a precision rocket.
One should not forget that up to that time there had been no guided
rocket invented. All the rockets were relatively erratic. They were
Fourth of July rockets and some rockets for practical applications
also, but they were unguided, they were crude, and no one knew exactly
where they would end up. That project in Peenemunde set out to build
a rocket that could be guided, could be controlled, and really would
be a precision instrument.
Now, some people claim today that von Braun developed that rocket
only in order to enable [Adolph] Hitler to win the war. Now, historically
this is just not correct. Von Braun began to build rockets when he
was about eighteen or nineteen. Well, as a young boy already he built
rockets, and they also were crude and unguided and all that, but he
began a systematic work on precision rockets when he was nineteen,
When he was about twenty years of age, the Army, which was at that
time the Reichswehr – that was before Hitler came to power –
the Army had also a program of developing rockets for military application.
They realized that von Braun and his few co-workers were working on
precision rockets, and they also realized that those young people,
particularly von Braun himself, were very serious about their work
and that they had made already verified progress. So they offered
a contract to von Braun to work for the Army and help the Army to
build a rocket of defense. Now, von Braun describes that time in great
detail in some of his own memoirs, and he describes how he was wavering
between the decision to go with the Army and accept the support of
the Army and build his rocket with Army support or whether he should
continue as an amateur with a few people and no money. He decided
that it would be absolutely hopeless to make any progress with a precision
rocket on the basis of amateur work of about a half dozen eighteen-,
nineteen-year-old young people.
So he joined the Army, got a contract in 1932. The Army supported
the work. Von Braun made good progress. That impressed the Army, so
the Army built a large center for rocket development in Peenemunde.
It was built in 1936 and 1937. From that time on, von Braun developed
his rocket in Peenemunde with the support of the Army.
Now, at that time Hitler did not want to have anything to do with
rockets. He said, "No, I don't believe that thing will work."
There was an Army general, von Brouwich [phonetic], who said, "Well,
I don't think so. I think there is something to it, to these rockets.
One of these days they will be able to fly in a controlled manner,
and we should continue to support these young people." So Von
Brouwich saw to it that enough money was available to build up the
development activity, to hire more people, and he succeeded in keeping
Peenemunde alive. By the way, all of that is described in some detail
in the book here, so you can read the details in there.
I wouldn't like to go too far into all of it.
I understand. It's already documented.
Stuhlinger: We would run out of time. Now, the end of the story was
that by 1945 the war came to an end, finally. Before that end, von
Braun tried to fan out the people in Peenemunde to other places in
Germany simply because the Allies had started to throw bombs on Peenemunde.
There was a very serious attack in August '43, and other attacks followed.
So the Allies knew exactly what was going on in Peenemunde and wanted
to destroy the situation, which in a situation of war is normal, I
Von Braun was then ordered to take his remaining people in Peenemunde
and his instruments and machines and production machines and laboratories
and move south. He did that. He moved as far as the southern border
to Austria near Garmisch-Parten Kirchen, in that area. Again, it's
a long story. It is described in the book again, and I would like
to make it very short. Hitler died or killed himself in April 30,
1945. After that, there was a kind of chaos in Germany. That was to
be expected. One of the points was that the guards that had watched
over von Braun from the SS – you know what the SS was? It was
special troops. They had guarded von Braun very carefully that he
wouldn't escape from their grip, but after Hitler was dead, they disappeared.
They put on civilian clothes and spread out into the population [unclear].
Von Braun was at that time in a little mountain resort place near
Garmische-Parten Kirchen. He said, "Well, we cannot sit here
forever, and it may be that even the Russians would capture us, but
if we are to be captured, we would like to be captured by the Americans."
So he sent his brother, Magnus [von Braun], to the approaching line
of the Allies. The Allies were already in Garmische, and von Braun
was in the mountains. There were a couple of miles in between. Von
Braun told his brother Magnus, "Go down there and try to make
contact with the Allies and tell them that we are up here waiting
for them." Magnus spoke a little English. Well, he spoke English
quite well, and the reason is a very interesting one.
His parents lived in Berlin. His father, Wernher von Braun's father,
was at that time — he had been Secretary of Agriculture under
the democratic government. He left his political position when Hitler
came and became the head of a banking house in Berlin. So he was a
prominent man and family, still, and they had a nanny for their children.
Do you know what a nanny is?
I sure do.
The nanny happened to be an English girl, and she brought up little
Magnus and taught him English before he learned German, and so he
spoke English. He went to the Allies. Again, that's a very interesting
story. It has been written here in the other books also. After some
time – I'll just skip over some of the details. After some time
the Allies came and met von Braun and interrogated him and found out
that he really was the man behind the Peenemunde work. So they said,
"We want to help you and keep you under guard in captivity, more
or less, but we want you to go to America as soon as possible. You
should take some of your people with you so that you can continue
to build rockets in America."
May I stop and ask you one question?
What was the reason behind the decision to go to America as opposed
to Russia? Was there a big decision there?
Miss Kelly, it was not a big decision. It was a very straightforward
and immediate decision. First of all, I should mention here that for
most people in Germany, particularly for people like me and my colleagues,
the Americans were never real enemies during the war. We never felt
like it, even though they threw bombs on us and all of that. But America
was for Germans, and particularly for young Germans, always a kind
of a dream country where they wanted to go one of these days when
they are older. They wanted to go to America. America had such a glorious
image for us in Germany, and the idea that we are enemies did not
really come up, even though we were at war. We knew the war would
be something transient and not something to stay for a long time.
That was one reason.
The other reason was that we knew that the Russians were quite different.
The Russians had come into Eastern Europe and into Germany, and there
were a lot of cruelties by Russians, and we knew we would not have
an enviable fate if the Russians would have captured us.
That's a very interesting perspective.
It was not a difficult decision. It was very straightforward, absolutely.
Also we had hoped at that time that if and when we can go to America,
we would have a chance to continue our work on rockets, and for us
the rocket was not a military system, but it was meant to go into
orbit and into space. It was von Braun's dream and reason to work
on rockets from the very beginning.
When von Braun was fourteen years old he said – he was a little
grandiose – he said, "I would like to open the gates of
heaven for mankind." [Laughter] Doesn't that sound great? And
that's what were his driving force and his dream all the time.
And he did just that.
The work for the military was for him a short interlude. I should
make another explanatory remark here. For us people in the rocket
project, von Braun himself and he said so many times and others, too,
my colleagues and I personally also, we never thought that our rocket
would be ready for deployment before the war ended. We'd never had
the idea that this would be a war instrument and a weapon, and it
was forced into deployment by the SS, and it was forced to be deployed
as an uncompleted and immature system. It was not an effective weapon.
So it would not be correct to say that von Braun wanted to build a
weapon for Hitler. It was not so. There was war, and in war, you know,
individuals have no opinion. They cannot say, "I want to do that,"
"I don't want to do this." In the war one cannot do that.
War is so different from any other condition or situation in which
a country may be.
So it was more scientific in focus.
Some of this is in here and in our paper I will give you, but it's
a good question, and one could talk for a long time about it. Much
nonsense is being talked about it now by young people who never have
had any feeling or any idea of what it means to be at war.
Another point I would like to mention here after the following. Many
of the young people, the young historians today, they believe that
all the Germans were firmly behind Hitler, and that is just not the
case. It is absolutely not the case. It is true that many people were
jubilated when Hitler came to speak, and one sees that on the pictures
today and old reports. But these are 2,000 people, and Germany is
85 million people. So that was not all the Germans, first. And second,
there is a very important point: a person anywhere, in Germany or
in America or in another country, has a country and he has a political
leader. It's very natural. And it is by no means so that everybody
combines the two and feels the same loyalty to the country as he does
to the leader. See? So many people in Germany were very much in favor
of their country, loved their country and were ready to sacrifice
for it, but they didn't want to do the same for Hitler. Just think
of what we do today. There are many Americans who love American and
are good citizens, but do not like [William] Clinton or [George] Bush
or [Ronald] Reagan or somebody.
That's right. I think that's very well put. I really do. It's a very
And that was the same in Germany. And to say now, today, that all
Germans were behind Hitler and were guilty of all the mess and tragedy
is simply not true. But the individual has no choice when there is
war. One cannot say, "Well, I'll do all for the country, but
I'll do nothing for Hitler." It's not so easy. Anyway, we could
talk very long about that.
Anyway, as a result of the contact between von Braun's group and the
American Allies, as a result of that, there was in the vocation of
von Braun and some of his people by an advanced group of Americans
who came over at an early time into Germany to look for German scientists,
there was this Action ALSOS. You may have heard of it. A-L-S-O-S.
I cannot tell anymore what the acronym stands for, but it was a group
of civilians, scientists mainly, who contacted Germans and found out
what kind of scientists and engineers and technically active people
were there that might be of interest for America.
We met some of them later on, for example, Dick Porter, Richard Porter.
You may have heard of him. He was a GE man, a very capable engineer
for GE and a high-ranking member of the General Electric staff. He
came over and contacted us, and we became good friends, dear friends
later on for years, for many years in this country. So that was immediately
– it was a little guarded, but it was a friendly relationship,
a genuine relationship.
And then there was particularly General [Holger N.] Toftoy. He was
a colonel at that time. You may have heard of General Toftoy. He was
a colonel at that time, and he was given the order from his superior
to come over and also try to put together a group of the Peenemunde
people whom one could take over, and should take over, to America
for rocket work. Toftoy was a very fine person. We became very close
friends later on here in this country. To his end he was always very
good and nice to us Germans. He was – well, what should I say?
We called him our father in America. He was about that kind of a person.
He wanted to bring over 500 people to America, but his people in Washington
said, "There's no way. You get a few, but not 500." Then
finally they settled on 100, and then Toftoy counted them, and when
he counted 127, then Toftoy said, "For heaven's sake, I was always
bad in mathematics. I'm sorry." [Laughter] But 127 came over.
In the first group – there were five shipments. The first group
were von Braun and a few that came over in September '45, shortly
after the end of the war, and the others came later. I was in the
third shipment. I came over in February '46. And the last shipment
came over in summer of '46. Then we came to Texas and lived in Fort
Bliss, in Army barracks, former Army barracks. At that time, we didn't
have much to do. The American Government did not really see to it
that we would have a plan or possibility to really go to work and
build rockets or something. Our commanding officer was Major [James
P.] Hamill. He said at the time, "Well, we'll put you on ice.
We may need you later on." That was the official wording.
We used the time to work for ourselves. Fortunately I learned mathematics
and guidance theory and things like that. I also began a study at
that time which became a relatively major part of my work. It was
electrically propelled spacecraft, electric propulsion systems, high
propulsion systems. I don't know if you have heard of that before.
Anyway, I began starting on that subject at the time, and through
the years, until very recently, I've spent again and again much time
on it. I still believe in it. One of these days I hope to fly to Mars
There you go. What types of projects did you work on in the electrical
propulsion system area while you were at Fort Bliss?
I did only theoretical work. Professor [Hermann] Oberth – is
Professor Oberth known to you?
He spoke in 1923 that one could build rocket engines which work on
the principle of electric fields and electric forces rather than chemical
forces. Von Braun asked me one day in 1947 in Fort Bliss to look into
Oberth's claims and see whether one could make a workable system out
of it. That's how it began for me, and I did look into it and contributed
a number of new ideas. I also wrote a book about ion propulsion. Would
you like to see it? I have it here. I can show it to you.
This is the Professor Oberth that inspired you as a child, too, isn't
Yes. Same person. The main work that we did in Fort Bliss was to launch
the V-2 rockets which had been brought over from the production line
in Germany. There were altogether about 100 V-2 rockets or A-4 rockets
in parts. They were brought over here, first by railroad, then by
ship to New Orleans, and then by truck from New Orleans to White Sands,
and it is unbelievable today for a rocket engineer, these fine parts
which were made in clean rooms in Peenemunde, and precision parts,
they were unloaded and put in the center of the desert in Fort Bliss,
and they were just lying there in the sand storms. [Laughter] So we
had the task of putting these together and making workable rockets
out of them again.
That must have been fantastic.
Many of the rockets were – there were parts of about 100, but
they were not quite complete. Some parts had to be manufactured again
by General Electric to make a rocket complete. Anyway, we launched
about, I think, seventy-two rockets, and in spite of the rough treatment
of these rocket parts, the long time since their manufacturing and
the long trip from Bittlof [phonetic], Germany, to the White Sands
Proving Grounds [New Mexico], in spite of all of that, about 65 or
70 percent of the rockets worked very well.
Wow. Even despite the fact that they traveled all the way from Germany.
Yes, had spent some time lying in the desert sand in the open.
The rockets were used to launch scientific instruments. That was a
very important and very useful application of them. The Army, of course,
wanted to learn how to launch rockets and how they would function
and what one has to do to launch them, how many people would be necessary,
what ground equipment one would need, but there was a group of scientists
who had joined together to have a program of instruments flown to
high altitudes. That became a very important and very rich program,
rich in new results and new knowledge of the upper atmosphere and
of the space beyond the atmosphere. It was a very rich program. It's
very interesting to realize that the military application of rockets,
or that rocket, or our rocket in Germany, lasted from September '44
to March '45, February or March '45. That's about – well, a
few months. The use of the same rocket for scientific purposes in
White Sands covered seven years.
Wow. That's spectacular in contrast.
A number of very interesting things of the higher atmosphere were
discovered with these flights, including, for example, the first X-rays
from the sun were found by [Herbert] Friedman from the V-2 rocket.
A number of people, including [James A.] Van Allen, found out the
distribution of cosmic rays in high altitudes, and the temperature
gradient up in high altitudes and pressure and composition of the
atmosphere and things like that were discovered at that time. It was
a good program.
What did you do with Dr. Van Allen? It was about that time that you
started working with him, right?
Yes, but I should begin a little earlier. When I was studying in Tuebingen,
physics, I was working in cosmic rays. That was my subject for my
thesis. I read the literature, and the literature which I read in
1933 or '34, there was an article by Van Allen. I read it and liked
it and used it in my own work and considered him, even though I didn't
know him, as a colleague. And sure enough, when we launched our rockets
in White Sands, there was Van Allen, and he put a little Geiger counter
on the [unclear]. So we came to talking together, of course.
Because you had worked with Dr. [Hans] Geiger.
I had worked with Dr. Geiger, and Van Allen had worked here in this
country, with—I don't recall with whom he had worked. Anyway,
we were, so to speak, colleagues. On the other hand, not much contact
developed at that time. There was a ruling from some upper organization
that there should be no fraternization, and it was also maybe not
a strict law, but some people felt like, well, those guys, we were
in war and they were our enemies and we cannot fraternize now. So
we were a little bit at a distance, unfortunately.
I met some of the great people at that time, Friedman, for example,
who became head of the Academy of Sciences, and Van Allen, who became
world-famous, and many others. We were together and met each other,
but it was always under a little distance, unfortunately. But that's
Then we came to Huntsville in 1950. The reason why we came to Huntsville
is also described in here. It was the time when the Korean War began,
'49. At that time, the Army hospital in El Paso [Texas], in whose
barracks we were living, wanted the barracks back for hospital purposes
in expectation of war, the casualties and wounded people from the
East they would have to treat. So we had to look for different housing
Our boss in Washington was this General Toftoy. He traveled around
in the country and found eventually this place here in Huntsville.
In Huntsville there was a chemical factory, a chemical war factory.
In real language, it was a poison gas factory, which one doesn't like
to mention it today, but that's what it was. Anyway, the factory was
discontinued when the war ended, and there were many buildings empty.
Also, there was a huge area because when they manufactured poison
gas, they wanted to have the buildings far apart in case some leakage
happens. So we had a lot of area, twenty miles this way and six or
eight miles this way and empty buildings in it, and Toftoy managed
to get this for his people. It's a little bit more involved and more
difficult, but that's also in the book, but that's, for the time,
Anyway, Toftoy and von Braun moved here. Toftoy was in Washington,
but von Braun moved here. At that time his group had grown to about
400 people or 500 people. Besides the original Germans, there were
a number of Americans who had joined us, younger people and middle-aged
people. We had a large mixed group already.
We began, then, here in Huntsville. The first thing we did is we converted
an old Army hospital in a building that would have offices and laboratories
and such things. The building is still standing today. That's where
we moved into some barracks and began to work.
At that time, actually in the fall of '49 already, it was realized
that there may be a war with Korea developing. The armed forces wanted
a rocket as one of the weapons for that war and turned to von Braun
and said, "Please build us a rocket as quickly as you can. Build
it on the basis of your old A-4, because you know how to do that,
modernize it, but build it as soon as you can." von Braun got
this order in the fall of '49, then early in '50 we moved here, and
we began to work very intensely immediately.
In '53, 1953, the rocket was ready. It was launched and worked. It
was the Redstone. The Redstone rocket was built in that way. That's
how we began here in Huntsville. Again, I'll give you a little write-up
about our beginning in Huntsville. And there's a chapter in here also.
Later on, the Army wanted a missile with a longer range. The Redstone
had a range of about 250 miles, and they wanted 1,500 miles. So we
built the Jupiter rocket. You have certainly heard of the Jupiter.
Have you seen the museum here?
I haven't, unfortunately.
No? Well, all these rockets are on display there. In Houston they
have a V-2 at the moment.
That's right. I've seen it.
Have you seen it? Actually, it was our V-2, and it had to be repaired
because it began to rust. So it was rejuvenated, and Houston said,
"Let us have it for three months, then we'll send it back to
you." And they have it now.
I've seen it. It's very impressive.
So the Redstone is here. The Jupiter is here. You should see the museum.
It's worth seeing. We natives are quite proud of the museum, and we
say it's the finest and largest rocket museum not only in the country,
but in the solar system, which is easy to claim. [Laughter]
There you go. Did you anticipate when you were developing the Redstone
rocket that it would be used for purposes of man's, or human, space
Well, again it is in here. The answer is yes, and it's one of the
anecdotes. The Redstone flew in '53 the first time, and even before
that, in about '52, von Braun and I met each other in the hallway
one day, and just in passing, he said to me, "With the Redstone
we can do it."
I was dumb enough. I said, "Do what?"
He said, "Launch a satellite, of course." [Laughter]
I said, "Oh, that's very good, very fine, very interesting."
And then he described to me just – and he said how he would
do it: put three solid stages on top of it, spin them so that they
would be controlled, and then go up high and then get horizontal and
shoot out the third rocket into orbit, and one can do it. He said
it would not be a very elegant way to put a ten-pound or fifteen-pound
satellite into orbit with such a monster like the Redstone, but it's
our only way how we can do it soon. There is no other way. And he
added, as far-sighted as he was, he said, "If you don't do it
somehow like this. Then the Russians will do it before we do it."
Well, but then a very up-and-down history began for the first satellite.
That's again in here. I wouldn't like to go into it. It takes too
long. It's also in the other article I gave you about Sputnik. It's
also described briefly in there and at length in here.
Thank you. Okay.
Well, anyway, the Explorer was launched in '58. It was a very dramatic
story, the whole thing, very, very suspenseful and full of hopes and
frustrations, all of that, and it would be not right if I began to
tell about it now. It would take until midnight also. You can read
much of it in here. That was the Explorer, and then the Jupiter also
sent – that's heavier and stronger – sent up satellites
and then, of course, other people sent up satellites and it became
not only a nationwide, but a worldwide undertaking now. And if you
just imagine that we have right now at any time, I think about 2,000
– I'm not quite sure – satellites in orbit, different
It seems incredible.
Russian, English, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, European, and, of course,
American. It's incredible.
And it makes you realize how big the Earth is, too.
Yes. Oh, yes.
To understand that none of them are running into each other or geosynchronous
You wanted to know about Skylab and the space station?
Yes, and perhaps shuttle. You worked on the Saturn as well.
Shuttle and Saturn.
There are so many things that you've done.
Many of your questions are what is my work in there.
I should make a few general remarks here first.
My personal work in Peenemunde at first was a guidance system. You
know, probably, roughly at least, what a guidance system is and what
it must do.
My particular work was in accelerometers and integrators. An accelerometer
measures the acceleration. It integrates the acceleration once to
get the velocity and twice to get the distance. Can you follow that?
Yes, I can.
And if you do that on a flying rocket, that instrument can tell you
at any moment not only how the acceleration is, but how the velocity
is and what distance it has traveled. That is a so-called inertial
system. Inertial means that it is done on board, without connection
to the ground, which is very important because it cannot be disturbed
by radio means. That was my work in Peenemunde and in Fort Bliss to
some extent also.
Now, in Huntsville, I began to change over to some extent in the following
way. I have to begin at a more general viewpoint. The space flight
is done primarily to explore the space, to explore the world around
our Earth, which means that we engineers who build the rocket have
to have a strong connection with the scientists who know how to explore,
what to look after, and what to do with the results which we gain
from there. This duality is a very important point if one wants to
understand the whole space program: the engineers on one side and
the scientists on the other side, the engineers who build the machines
and the scientists who use them. The end result would be better knowledge
of our Earth, which is very important, of course, to have and to use,
to increase also.
My function, particularly beginning here in Huntsville, was about
the following. Basically I wanted to establish contact between us
engineers and the scientists on the outside. In doing that, my work
would be something like that of a two-way ambassador. That means he
goes out from the engineers and tells the scientists what the engineers
can do, and then he comes back and tells the engineers what the scientists
want. You see? And that is very important in order to establish and
maintain that very necessary interaction between the scientists and
the engineering, which is very important. I would say it's almost
a vital necessity to do that.
If there's no reason and no purpose for the rockets to use, then why
should they be built? And if the scientists don't have a vehicle to
go out in space, they can estimate and speculate forever without knowing
how it really looks like out there. So that was my function.
Now, there are some people that describe that position a little bit
more differently and more realistically, unfortunately sometimes.
They say, well, when a person like that goes to the scientists, they
say, "Oh, well, he's an engineer. He knows nothing." And
when he comes back from the scientists to the engineers and want to
tell them something, they say, "Oh, he's one of those scientists.
They are dumb however you look at them." So it's very difficult
to make a real productive interplay and interaction. There's a lot
of diplomacy one has to utilize here, and knowledge, too, of course.
One should know what one talks about, can talk both languages, more
It seems you were uniquely suited for that with you background in
both engineering and –
Stuhlinger: Well, it helped, of course. It helped. I tried just to
do that. That was my main effort. In addition to that, I did a few
more realistic things. I developed the idea of electric propulsion,
made a number of publications and talks all over. And another one
was to prepare Skylab, and that was a very good example of what I
just said of this double, or two-way, ambassador. There were some
people who said we should do something with our rockets to build up
some interest in the outside world, of the scientists in what we are
doing. And there were some scientists who said, "Well, we would
love to use your rockets if we knew how to do it."
I had to get into action, and I made many visits to the scientists.
I worked on their committees and met them and visited them and telephoned
and so on. Here in this book there is a list of all the scientists,
about fifty-six, for the Skylab, and I had established contact with
all of them and told them what they can expect and how they should
prepare their instruments coming back, and I told my colleagues here
how to build the facilities, the stabilized platform and all kinds
of things so that the scientists can use it. This is a function which
is overlooked by many people who don't really see and don't believe
that it is necessary, but it is necessary. It's a very important function
one has to do. Well, anyway, that was my main function.
One exception was, for example, the Skylab. It began actually –
I would say this, Professor Oberth died in '23. In his book he said
one of the things we can do from orbit, from a satellite, is have
telescopes there and look at the universe with an optical capability
which would be unobtainable from Earth. Are you versed in astronomy
and optics to some extent? There are three or four main factors which
are very different between observing from Earth and observing in orbit.
For example, we had no atmosphere to disturb the vision. The atmosphere
around us does not allow us to have a resolution of images of better
than about half an hour a second. For an amateur photographer it's
good, but for an astronomer it's not enough. They want more.
Second, ultraviolet rays do not come through here, so we cannot observe
on the Earth the UV, the ultraviolet, of emissions of stars. Another
one is that the atmosphere introduces a jitter because of variations
in density of the path of the light through the atmosphere. Therefore,
one cannot expect pictures or images better than a certain capability,
resolution, and wavelength limitation also. Anyway, Oberth pointed
that out in 1923.
So, around '55 or so, some astronomer said, "Well, couldn't we
do something to put a telescope on one of your machines and go up
in orbit?" Then there was a proposal, and it's shown in that
picture I'll show you here. Some optimists said, "Let us launch
one of your Saturn capsules, command service module, and put a telescope
on it." He had two telescopes.
So that was the early design of the satellite.
It was the early design. Now, that was the beginning. When I started
my work here in Huntsville, I had talked to von Braun and to others,
too, and said, "This is something that we should do more of it
and it looks beautiful and very promising, and we can really do something
for science. When the scientists are happy with us, that gives us
a lot of firm ground to extend on with our rocket work."
Then a long process of planning began. Fortunately, there were other
people. Also he said, "Well, that's fine, but we should do more.
That's too modest. We want to do this also and this also and this
also." So a number of committees were formed with these people
here, with these scientists. They had interest in the most different
subjects – astronomy, but also actions of weightlessness and
materials, processes, things of that kind, observing of the atmosphere.
Some microgravity research.
Stuhlinger: Microgravity work and effects on astronauts and living
beings. Anyway, we soon had a long list of things that should be done,
and the system grew lots and lots and lots, and that service module
was no longer sufficient.
And then here came then an idea to me that von Braun had from the
very beginning. Well, I should say the very beginning, that means
from about 1950 on. He said, "We should, of course, build a livable
station in orbit as soon as we can. However," he said, "the
best way to do it without making it too expensive and too difficult
and involved, let us take an empty tank of one of the rockets which
we launch up there and let us make a habitat out of the tank, the
empty tank." That's a natural and simple idea and, typical of
von Braun, it was one that could be made to work. So he said, "Let's
Again, I must be careful not to go into detail. You're running out
of time otherwise. The first idea that von Braun had, and he had to
make it very cheap so that it wouldn't cost too much, he said, "Let
us launch a two-stage Saturn," the big one, not the Saturn V,
but the Saturn 1. The second stage had a hydrogen tank, an oxygen
tank, and it was sitting on the first stage. It was used, needed,
to burn the second engine for the second stage so they can reach orbit.
Then the idea was that when the tank is empty after having reached
orbit, one could go up there with another flight, astronauts in their
garbs, in their suits, could go in and just clean it out and put things
on the walls and all of that.
It was the idea of the so-called "wet workshop." Wet means
because it would be filled with liquid hydrogen when it goes up, and
then after the hydrogen was used up, it would be dried out, and then
one could install it and establish housing units in there and instruments
and all kinds of facilities. That was the wet workshop, and it had
the advantage that one would not have to launch an extra container.
You know, the container would be there with the tank. But one would
only have to go up with the service module later on and take new parts
and put them in those instruments. This was, for those who would have
to build it, a nightmare. The extravehicular activities are possible,
but a person in the suit and with an oxygen bottle on his back is
not too agile in building up the instrument and all that. So the idea
of the wet workshop was a kind of a sales – I wouldn't say a
sales gimmick, but it was to make it easier to sell the idea.
On the other hand, von Braun and his co-workers who worked on that
system, they had always in the back of their mind, "Well, when
we are close to it, we will change it into a dry workshop." A
dry workshop would be the following. It would be, again, a rocket,
by this time now a Saturn V rocket, the big one, the real big one,
and it had the two stages, one, II stage which will burn, and then
it would have a third stage, and the third stage would be the tank
of the second stage again, but without fuel. It would not be used
as fuel. It would be equipped completely on the ground. It would be
a complete workshop from the ground on. One could install it and build
it up on the ground under comfortable conditions. It would be launched
by the Saturn V, so we had enough thrust to put it up there, and then
we would have it right there from the beginning to be occupied and
to work in it. That was the so-called "dry workshop." Now,
the dry workshop was more expensive, of course, than the wet workshop,
and people in Congress, they only look at the cost. They don't look
at the possibility to build or not to build it, and they don't know
the problems the engineers would have had.
However, something important happened. In the meantime, our lunar
project proceeded, and we made good progress. It worked. You know,
we had the men on the moon and coming back, and the Congress was jubilant
about the new image that the American people and country and government
had for the outside world. Our boss in Washington at that time, that
was George [E.] Mueller. You remember his name, I'm sure.
Maybe you know him personally, George Mueller. He used that moment
when the Congress was so happy and so up in the seventh cloud, almost,
and he said, "Gentlemen, we have come to the conclusion that
we should build a dry workshop." It was accepted. [Laughter]
And so we built a dry workshop, and the dry workshop was what we know
today as the Skylab, and it was a beautiful success altogether.
It sure was.
We had a mishap on the launching, as you probably know. There was
And for us inside, that was a very tragic situation because it could
have been prevented so easily and a few things were just not done
right by some people, but it's of no use to say afterwards when something
like that happened, "It's your fault," and so on.
That's right. So how was the problem fixed? Did you work with other
centers in fixing—? It was the meteorite shield, I believe,
that didn't deploy correctly?
Yes. It was the following. Here is the tank itself, the Skylab inside,
and then there was a meteorite shield out here.
Okay. On the outside, around the –
..At that time, before we had done that, von Braun told me one day
we should know more about the meteorites in orbit. How dangerous are
they for our space station? Do we have to expect hits and damage?
How many are there, and how big are they? And he asked me to look
into that with my little group of co-workers. We did, and we found
out that one just doesn't know. There had been a few experiments,
but they were contradicting, and we found out why they were contradicting
and they were no good, so we decided we would just have to make a
new measurement, and we made the new measurement by building a system
which is called Pegasus. We have a Pegasus 2 now that's something
different, but that Pegasus was a winged system with huge wings, space
capsule, and these wings were only sensors for meteorites.
The sensor was the following. It was a thin layer of metal, then an
insulating layer, and another layer of metal. When a meteorite hit
here, it made a little hole here, and that hit was such a hit, produced
a lot of temperature. You know, it's a very fast particle that hit,
so there's a little, like an explosion for a moment, and that explosion
goes through here, and that explosion makes a conducting path because
of the hot ionized gases which are – for a very short moment.
Now, if you have a condenser here connected to this one here, and
this is charged up by a power supply here, kept on charge, but you
have a condenser, and there is this short here, then the condenser
discharges through for a very short moment, half a microsecond or
When you have an instrument in here, you can measure the time and
the amount of current, of discharge, that flows over here, and then
after a very short time, it is over and there is a hole but there's
no further discharge. So the instrument is at rest again. So when
you look at the record of the instrument, it looks like this, and
all of a sudden this here, and that means a meteorite has hit. When
there is a big one, then there's a big discharge, and that looks like
this. When there's a small one, it looks like this here. So from the
size we can estimate how big or how fast, or both, the meteorite was.
And we built that thing.
It was a huge system. You can see pictures of it in some places. I
think it's in here, "like a two-story building," it says.
We flew it on the Saturn, and it worked beautifully. That was many
years ago. I even don't remember when – in the fifties. So,
forty years ago. Even today it's still the best measurement of meteorites
in orbit that we have. It has not been improved, the data which we
got. And we found out that there are not many meteorites.
The problem that our Skylab would be hit by a meteorite was minimal,
a certain percent, maybe one dangerous hit in a thousand years or
something like that. I then said to von Braun, "Let's forget
about this meteorite shield. It is a strange contraption here anyway,
and we don't need it, and we have proven that we don't need it, so
Now, von Braun made a decision which he later on regretted, and it
was a decision which he made because he was at the time it was towards
the end of the sixties already when Skylab was built, and Braun was
already thinking of his time and life in Washington, not so much here.
"Oh, they have built it already, so let's keep it on." It
was kept on, and sure enough, when the air began to stream by during
the ascent of the rocket, it tore open here and tore that housing
off and tore this thing off here and also ripped off one of the solar
cells and the heat protection of the Skylab, and then it was, of course,
a disaster, at least a mild disaster.
Although it was fixed.
It was fixed.
Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It was a dramatic kind of fix. The people who did it have to be admired,
certainly. There was a little hole here in the white for observations,
with an airlock to it. So they here in Huntsville built a kind of
umbrella, and that umbrella reached through here and then unfolded
here so that it would spread out and would protect that Skylab against
heat. That was the problem, the main problem, the heat, because that
meteorite shield was also a heat shield at the same time. So the umbrella
was a shade for the Skylab, and that brought the temperature down
again. [Phone rings. Tape recorder turned off.]
... quoted, and many times wrongly quoted. It's a question of how
do we go to the moon, with Earth orbit rendezvous or lunar rendezvous
or direct? And that is a story which is very clear and well known
to us old-timers, but not to the new-timers, and the new-timers often
say, "Well, that's where von Braun was wrong, but he was told
the right way by the people in Houston, and then he had to agree."
But the truth is quite different and that is worthwhile telling the
Can we get that on tape? Whenever you're ready.
Yes. You know, probably, the story of the different ways of how to
go to the moon.
The one is to go up there into orbit and then have a rendezvous here
and go on from here and go to the moon and go down directly and then
come back like so.
And that's the Earth-orbit rendezvous.
That's the Earth-orbit rendezvous. And then there's this other one,
which is go from here into orbit but then a little later go out to
the moon, go down and up again, and then, from here, back to Earth.
That's the lunar-orbit rendezvous. And then the third one is a direct
mode, what goes from here – here's the moon – direct down
and up again and so on.
Kelly: And that's the direct ascent.
Yes. Direct. Now, von Braun was at first for this Earth-orbit rendezvous,
and he said we will have to have two launchings of two Saturn Vs –
this one, and that's the second one, Saturn V – and then we
can do it this way. Von Braun had three reasons for doing that. First,
he said, if we do it that way, we will develop the orbital rendezvous
method for this project, and that will be a milestone for the space
flight to come, for many, many other applications. For example, when
we have the space station, we need a number of rendezvous operations
in Earth orbit. We have to develop that, how we go there, how we transfer
from one vehicle into the other one, and things like that.
Was this prior to the time that rendezvous was perfected?
Well, there had been rendezvous with the Gemini, you may remember.
So it was perfected, but there was still much to develop, how to transfer
heavy loads and things like that. So, von Braun said let us do it
this way, then we have this development, here, so to speak, as a side
product of our lunar project. It will help us to get into the future,
and we will need it. We'll need it anyway, no matter what comes. When
we go to Mars later on, we'll need an Earth rendezvous.
The second reason, he said we have to go to the moon's surface on
the rear side of the moon. See, that the rear side from the Earth,
we will not have a direct connection by radio, and all of that must
be done by computer, by programmed computer. We have no idea how it
worked. We have no contact. If something mishaps, they cannot talk
to us, we cannot talk to them. We don't know what happens. We only
find out later on that there's no further word from the moon, so something
must have failed. So let's not do that. That was the second major
Third, he said when we do that, we have to use the Saturn V and we
have that already, so we do not have to develop a new vehicle here.
Now, the other way was this one here, and that was the proposal by
this fellow. [Pauses] I'm sure that you know the name. That is a matter
of old age, you know, that names don't come back.
Is it John [C.] Houbolt? I'm not sure how to pronounce his name.
Right. And he said, "Let's do it this way." He said, if
you do it this way, then we do not have to take the return vehicle
down to the surface and up again, as we have to do it here. So we
save this effort and propellant to go down and up again. So let's
do it this way. Also, we can do it relatively easily from here with
one Saturn V. We can do it this way so that it's much easier.
Von Braun said, well, that's all right, but first we do not have this
opportunity of developing something which we need for later uses.
And second, he said, if we do it this way, then we have to make this
maneuver, which is not an easy one, and this, which is not an easy
one, on the rear side of the moon. Again, in this case it would be
relatively simple because we just go up and just land there and then
go up again. But here we have to make maneuvers and actions and all
of it out of sight, and we should avoid that.
The one man who supported this idea very much was [Dr. Robert R.]
Gilruth and [Maxime A.] Faget. They said, "Well, we cannot do
that." At that time it was in the mid-fifties. Then what Gilruth
said was, "Tell those guys in Marshall they should develop a
better rocket. They should develop the Nova, the Nova rocket, which
would be a multiple of Saturn V. And they should do it. They always
talk about their rocket developments. Let's show them what they can
do. Let's do it, and we'll do it this way. That's simple and direct,
and, of course, we need a bigger thing." It would be about five
times as big as the Saturn V. But the Houston people said, "That's
no sweat for those guys in Marshall. They should do it, and then we
can do it this way. Very simple."
Now, this project was lost relatively quickly because it was simply
obvious that one could not build a Nova and still make the lunar landing
in the decade as the President [John F. Kennedy] had promised. So
this had become immaterial and was no longer pursued.
Is that because there was too much development that needed to be done?
Right, and too expensive, and too much time particularly. Just to
develop a system like that and to try to test it out would take a
few years. Here we had the individual parts already. So at that time
there was, for some time, an open situation, so to speak. Nobody was
very firm. Von Braun said, "What we should do is study the two
systems further before we made a decision." It was not so that
von Braun said that was nonsense and we have to do it this way. He
said, "Let's study it further."
Gilruth and Faget, after this had been discontinued, came to this
one here, but Gilruth still said, "Well, I feel very uneasy because
of these activities behind the moon when we rely only on the computer.
We should not do that."
This is lunar orbit rendezvous that they were in favor of.
Yes. But then, at one time there came IBM, and IBM had worked hard
and had developed better computers and more reliable computers, and
they convinced Gilruth that this can be done with the computers they
had. And that was the actual decisive moment and point in the whole
controversy. Many people don't see that and don't know that and don't
mention that. They simply say von Braun was – that his mind
blocked somehow and was stupid and sitting on this one. This was the
ideal situation. But the point that really gave the go-ahead for this
system was the development of the good computers.
Gilruth one time came to von Braun and said, "I have now confidence
in the computers that we can do that, and I'm no longer hesitant to
go into that operation." And in a moment von Braun accepted this
and backed Gilruth up and said, "Yes, let's do it this way."
Now, von Braun still had to convince his own people. That's also described
in here. And I remember that very well. It was a very dramatic time
in Marshall Center. One morning he came to our Friday meeting –
every Friday we had a big get-together of the staff people –
and said, "Gentlemen, I have now come to the conclusion that
we should go LOR."
And his people, some of this people, went up in arms and said, "What?
What? You cannot do that. We have always been fighting for this one,
and you yourself said that this was the best thing because of this
here and because of this here."
And von Braun just listened quietly. And then he said, "Now,
gentlemen, let me tell you. First of all, Gilruth has accepted this
here. So it seems no sweat to do the maneuvers on the rear side of
the moon. Second, when we do it this way, we have a chance to do it
in this decade and to fulfill the promise which we gave to the President.
If we do it this way, we will not be able to do it before the decade
I should mention another point here. Let me see. Well, that was about
the situation. So von Braun said, "Let us do it this way. First
of all, Gilruth has accepted this. It's no longer a problem for this
capability and this new development of orbital maneuvering in orbit,
orbital operations. We just have to drop that for the moment. That
wish and that hope cannot be done at this time." And furthermore,
von Braun said, "Gentlemen, we have now spent a full year just
talking about this, and we have made no progress. The situation is
still the same. The ideas are the same, with the exception of the
IBM, which has made a great progress here. If we do not go ahead and
stop talking now and start doing, we will never do it in this decade."
And then he convinced everybody of his people, and we were firmly
Von Braun went to [James E.] Webb, you know, Mr. Webb, and said, "Mr.
Webb, I'm now for this one here. Let's do it this way. That's the
only way how we can hope to fulfill our promise. Let's do it this
way. Then we have a good chance of beating the Russians and of doing
it and being the first ones to land on the moon." And Webb still
over a year to think it over and talk it over, and some people in
Washington, for example, even – I think it was Dale [D.] Myers,
some of the high-powered people, were still for this one, wanted to
back von Braun, and von Braun said, "No, don't back me. I'm no
longer for this one. I have found out that is the right one."
So von Braun went to Gilruth and said, "Bob, I'm all for it.
Let's do it this way." And so it was that the air was cleared
again and the go-ahead was possible, the green light was there, and
things developed. But then there were people who said, "Well,
von Braun was so stupid he relied upon this one here and he just didn't
want to see the light of the day, but we convinced him," which
was just not right.
Used it for their own purposes. Now, what about the Earth-orbit rendezvous
made it so difficult that it would have taken too long to develop,
until the end of the decade?
Miss Kelly, if we had done it from the beginning and not spent a full
year in talking about it, we could have done it, but not at the time.
When the decision finally had to be made, it was too late then.
It was two Saturns, and they would have to rendezvous up there, and
that was something that must be developed, you know, the guidance
systems and how do they get together close enough so that pieces and
tank fillings and so on can be transferred. It must be developed.
It would have taken time, and it was just too late at that time. So,
that's about it.
It's a very interesting perspective, and I'm glad that –
It's also in here.
Great. It's in the book as well. Who were the IBM computer people
who made the major computer advances?
One of them was a fellow who had then his company here, his own company.
He left that company, but the company's still here. It is –
it's old age. I'm so sorry.
But he was the brain behind that computer work.
Well, if you think of it some other time, let us know.
Yes. Let me write down what I should –
I'd like to ask you about your work in the ALSEP [Apollo Lunar Surface
Experiments Package] on the lunar surface.
I was not too deeply involved in the direct work for the Saturn-Apollo
program, but at the beginning, when we started thinking of lunar missions,
I was involved in several investigations. One of them was, for example,
the question of how the lunar surface looks like, whether it is a
deep layer of loose dust or whether it is solid or whether it's something
in between. That has importance with respect to the vehicle we may
eventually use on the moon, what kind of tires should it have, what
wheels, how should it move forward, should it be built like a car
for Earth or should it be like something else going through deep dust.
What we did in my laboratory was to compare a number of potential
samples of lunar surface and to try out the bearing capability of
several arrangements of dust and rock, things like that. Also we developed
at that time a drill that could drill into rock and find out how the
rocks look like in their center and also what the composition of rocks
at greater depth may be. I was involved in such things, but not in
the development of the Saturn, the big Saturn rocket itself. That
was up to the specialists for rocket engines and rocket vehicles,
And how did you test your experiment package? Were you able to test
it on the lunar surface prior to its use?
Well, we, of course, tested very carefully all the individual sensors
and radio links, control systems. All of the functions had to be subjected
to – including low temperatures. That was done very carefully
and with success. It worked quite well. Even after the astronauts
had left the ALSEP worked, continued to work and to transmit data
Stuhlinger: Not today, no.
But years after the lunar landings.
Some time afterwards.
That's great. It sounded like it worked very well. Now, how were you
able to determine the composition of the lunar surface prior to the
That could not be really determined. One could find out from landings
of spacecraft that had been there before, unmanned systems. One could
find out roughly what the surface could be, so we were quite confident
that it was relatively solid. You may recall that the LM, which was
eventually developed for the Saturn-Apollo, the LM, Lunar Excursion
Module, had four legs, and each leg had a pad off of a metal plate,
and we expected and hoped that these pads would be big enough to keep
it from sinking into the ground, into dust ground. This hope was fully
verified and fulfilled later on. The landing vehicles stood very firmly
on the ground, so there was no problem.
It would be very interesting to ask you about some of the letters
I'm sure you received on some people who had concerns about the lunar
surface. Did you receive any such letters of people who thought it
was just an ocean of dust and that people would be sinking if they
landed on the moon?
There were one famous prediction for that from Thomas Gold. Thomas
Gold is a well-known geologist and astronomer, also, and a person
who has been very active in space programs before, and he thought
that there would be a deep layer of dust on the moon and there would
even be a danger that the astronauts may sink in and never be seen
again because they would drown in the sea of dust. But that was not
And were you able to test that along with the unmanned spacecraft
that landed on the moon?
By the time we sent the Apollo up there, I believe that nobody was
afraid of the astronauts meeting a sea of dust up there.
Did you collaborate or work with or cooperate with any of the other
centers on this project, and, if so, how did you do that?
There was certainly a lot of cooperation between centers directed
from headquarters, from [NASA’s] Washington headquarters. Houston,
of course, was the most important element of the lunar program, together
with the Marshall Center. The Marshall Center and the Houston Center,
their responsibility was divided very clearly into two parts. The
Marshall Center had to build and develop and operate the big Saturn
V rocket that would go up from the Earth into Earth orbit and then
leave the Earth orbit and send the capsule, the landing capsule service
and command module and the lunar lander on its way to the moon, but
as soon as that third stage of the Saturn had fulfilled that task
of pushing it out quickly, it would cease to participate in the program.
The capsule would go on by itself, and from then on it was purely
It's very interesting to recall that the guidance system – of
course, the guidance system was a very complex system for the entire
vehicle – the guidance system for Saturn from the Earth into
orbit and into the first beginning of the lunar transfer, that was
Marshall's responsibility. The guidance system from then on, that
means when the capsule had its high velocity to reach the moon, from
this moment on to the moon and back to Earth, it was the responsibility
of the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] that was the laboratory
of Dr. [Charles Stark "Doc"] Draper, the Draper laboratory,
and that was under Houston's responsibility, our responsibility.
This partition of the guidance problem worked very well. The two guidances
had to be, of course, adapted to each other at the moment of transfer
from the Saturn vehicle to the lunar transfer spacecraft, but even
that connecting point between the two guidances worked very well,
and our guidance systems worked very excellent.
So is it analogous, then, from the launch being, I guess, under the
supervision of Kennedy and then that being transferred to Mission
Control in Houston after the vehicle was launched?
That's very interesting. I'd like to skip forward a little bit and
past Skylab, because I know we already talked about it, and it's well
documented, as you've shown us in your book, but I had watched an
interview of you with Dr. Tarter [phonetic] that was done in 1984,
and at that time you mentioned that you thought that there would be
a few space stations orbiting the Earth –
– and perhaps two or three with even participation from both
U.S. and Russia. Did you ever think at that time that there would
be cooperation among all of those nations, including the U.S., to
develop an international station?
Stuhlinger: I believe at that time only very few people, if at all,
if there had been any at all, would have thought that there would
be a real joint effort between Russia and this country to build one
space station. When it finally was decided that it should be a joint
operation and a joint venture, I believe that everybody in NASA kept
a little bit his breath and said, "Well, we really hope that
it goes well."
There are several reasons why we were hoping that things would turn
out all right. The least reason was doubting the technical capability
of the Russians. We did not doubt them. We were always impressed by
the technical and scientific capability of the Russian colleagues
for their own projects. Remember that they sent an unmanned probe
to the moon many years ago, which picked up samples and brought them
back to Earth. That's an enormous accomplishment, and those of us
who were involved in space programs themselves, they had a lot of
respect for that accomplishment, even though there were no people
involved, but just to do it all by computer and by automated instruments,
that that's really a great accomplishment.
We saw sometimes hardware that the Russians had built. We were always
impressed by their capability as engineers and as technical people.
They did beautiful work. I must admit that some of it was more –
how should I say? More vigorous and more powerful than we would have
done it. We would have done it lighter and not with brute force, as
they did in some cases, but they did it, and they had a lot of very
good successes. Not all of them were successful, of course, but many
of them were, and we had a lot of respect for them.
So when we talked about a potential cooperation between Russia and
America, we had sometimes our doubts, but we did not have doubts because
of the technical capability of the Russians. The difficult things
that come to mind with people involved in space programs are about
the following. One is the fact that engineering practices are different
in the two countries, even the measuring system. The Russians have
metric. We are not metric here in this country, but that would be
probably something that could be overcome.
Another point is that the management structure of a project like this
in Russia and in America is different. How to build them together,
it would be something possible, but it would take extra work and extra
effort and extra time and money, probably.
And a third point which was heavily on our minds when we began to
doubt a successful cooperation was the difference in the government
structures of the two countries. For us it was very hard to see and
to anticipate and predict how well the Russian Government, which was
at that time still in a dictatorship, you remember, how well one could
rely upon that government to live up to the promises and to go through
development of that kind, even if some budget increases have to be
applied once in a while. How would that be done by an independent
government as they had in Russia as compared to our government, where
one could always talk and negotiate? That was another point.
So we were not always out of concern how a cooperation like that would
work. I believe even up to the present moment we are not quite without
concern. There are still indications that there may be rough points.
Another point is the following. If there is a problem, for example,
of how to service a problem or how to do a certain part of a project,
if the Russians are of one opinion and the American of the other opinion,
who will decide? See, if Houston and Marshall disagreed on something,
then there was always headquarters, Mr. Webb, to decide. And both
of us, Houston and we, would believe Mr. Webb, and we felt being under
his command, we were cooperative enough to accept what he said. Now,
between Russia and America, who will be that man? Would he be a Russian
or an American or something else?
These are problems which cannot be left out of consideration entirely.
It's problematic. It would, of course, be wonderful if a big project
like, for example, going to Mars, if that could be done jointly, but
whether it could really be done smoothly is another question. We in
our project, we have seen a number of rough spots in the cooperation
between centers, not only between Houston and Marshall, but between
other centers, and in this country the problems could eventually be
solved because there was an authority in Washington. And the least
point was that Washington controlled the money, you know, they could
be always not giving the next budget installment if you don't cooperate.
Now, between Russia and America, how would that be handled and how
would that be done?
So it is a dream. The cooperation is a dream, a beautiful dream, and
it would be wonderful. Whether it could be made to work, probably
that must be shown. It may be too costly in money and time to try
to do that. I don't know.
Supposedly time will tell. You also mentioned Mars. Can you tell me
a little bit about your thoughts on space travel to Mars?
In that direction I am biased. I'm very much for a manned trip to
Mars. In fact, I wrote my first paper in which I described a mission
to Mars with electric propulsion, by the way, in 1953 or '54, and
I've believed in it ever since. I wrote a number of papers about going
to Mars and how to do it, and I strongly believe in it.
I think we should go to Mars primarily to explore. We should find
out whether we find traces of life there. I believe we will, but that
must be proven. It's a belief; it's not knowledge. I think that nature
is acting in a way that it does not develop life on one planet and
nowhere else. I don't believe that. I believe there are forms of life,
but we have to go there and find them, and I believe that one should
not rely on robots only to find that. There should be people. A human
mind is still so much superior to any robot when it comes to finding
something new and to explore. It will take some time, a number of
years before we can do that. It may happen sooner than we anticipate
now. It may happen later. I don't know.
Do you think that might work in the purview of the American space
program, or do you think it should be a joint effort between nations,
or do you think there are enough resources to –
If I could make that decision, I would simply say let America do it
and let America invite other countries to contribute instruments,
for example. Think of a number of our spacecraft which are in orbit
now. Many of them have instruments built in England or in Germany
or in Russia, even, or in Italy, and they are integrated on our spacecraft.
And that's a good way to do it. That's how I would do a Mars mission.
So you're primarily thinking of the shuttle spacecraft that has the
different telescopes and various instruments on it that are being
Just on a Mars mission, going to Mars. Going to Mars. Now, the shuttle,
of course, has also a number of instruments built by other nations,
by other countries, and that's a method which works. I think it's
a good one.
I'd like to go back and ask you a little bit about the shuttle. I
know you worked primarily with the Hubble Space Telescope. I don't
want to take too much or your time. We could probably talk for weeks
about it. Would you like to stop?
Oh, more than two and a half hours. [Laughter]
Would you mention something about your work on the Hubble Space Telescope?
And we can wrap things up very shortly.
The first mention of telescopes in orbit was made by Oberth, as I
mentioned before. The idea of having telescopes on a spacecraft never
were lost out of sight by those who planned for spacecraft. We mentioned
the Skylab earlier, and we had five solar telescopes on Skylab. There
were some other telescopes on other spacecraft, but then some astronomers
soon came to express the idea that in order to really utilize the
excellent situation in orbit for observing, one would should build
a telescope with a diameter of three meters, and that would give a
resolution that would really allow us to see the fine structure of
all kinds of astronomical objects, particularly galaxies and nebulae
and possibly the early stages of star formation, things like that.
There were a few plans for such a telescope, and some of us here in
Marshall made also plans for that, tried to find out how a three-meter
telescope could be put on a satellite and how it could be launched,
and in that effort I was deeply involved myself.
One of my activities at that time was also a part of that two-way
ambassador situation which I described earlier. I went to a number
of astronomers in the country and tried to interest them in a project
of that kind. There was one astronomer, well known, that was Lyman
Spitzer [Jr.] in Princeton. He was from the beginning of the satellite
era, he was a very staunch supporter of a telescope in space. He not
only opted for it, but he really made a campaign for a big telescope
in orbit. He even went to the effort of proving in his own laboratory
that the guidance system could be built to the accuracy demanded for
such a telescope, and that's unusual for an astronomer who looks through
a telescope to go into his basement and build up machines and gyroscopes
and air bearings and things like that which can prove that a certain
stability and accuracy of control can be obtained of a mechanical
system. And he did. He showed that the angle accuracy, which is just
almost out of our understanding how accurate that thing would be,
I think about a hair's width at a mile distance, something like that
– unbelievable – and he proved that it can be done, and
he was a very strong supporter for the telescope, but not everybody
was among the astronomers.
Some of them were – I met with – I did travel for thirteen
astronomers in the country and talked to them about a big telescope.
Some of them were all for it. For example, I don't know whether you
know these names, Roger Angel [phonetic]. He is in Arizona. He is
the one who makes these spin cast mirrors now. He was on my committee
and an early supporter. And Arthur Code [phonetic] from Wisconsin.
He was one of them. And then Dr. [Charles Robert] O'Dell. Do you know
of him or his name? Bob O'Dell, an astronomer from New York, his observatory.
They were strongly for it.
There were others who were not so strongly for it. For example, there
was Dr. [Jesse] Greenstein. He was the old master of astronomy at
that time, a very highly respected astronomer. I went to him also
and it was a complete failure. He said, "Young man, how much
does that cost, what you have in mind here?"
I said—well, at that time I was optimistic. I said, 180 million
dollars. Do you know how much it cost at the end? About 2 billion
dollars or so with repair work.
"And you see? That's what I mean. For that money we could build
And I said, "Yes, Professor Greenstein, that is certainly correct.
However, all six of them together could not look that deeply into
the universe as ours could do, all together could not look that deep
into the ultraviolet, all together could not have this fine resolution
and see the fine details of astronomy structures."
And he said, "We don't need that. We need more P______to look
at, and that's all we need." And he virtually threw me out of
his office. So I was disappointed, but that was it.
But then Spitzer was very much for it, and at one time that was very,
very well preserved in my memory. We had a meeting here in Huntsville
of all the astronomers, and my wife and I had invited them for the
evening here to our house. We were out here on the lawn, that was
in summertime, and I said to Dr. Spitzer, "Lyman, I think we
should have an astronomer as the head of the whole effort. That would
give it more credibility than if an engineer from the Marshall Center
tried to be the head of it," and wouldn't he like to be that
He said, "No, I wouldn't like to do that, but I have a good proposal
I said, "Who would be him?"
He said, "That young man over there," I stood next by. That
was O'Dell, Bob O'Dell. And then the two of us went to O'Dell and
said, "Bob, would you be interested in taking on the leadership
of that project?"
And he said, "Well, let me think of it." And he thought
of it, and he said yes, and he became the leader and director and
head of the project for the first years, and that was very excellent,
because he was an acknowledged astronomer. Astronomers and scientists
respected him. They didn't respect engineers like us here, but they
respected him, and that gave a big boost to the whole project.
But then it was a little – the estimates, that we were quite
modest in our estimates for the cost. It would have become too expensive.
So the money people in headquarters, they wanted to reduce the three
meters, since that is too heavy and too expensive. Finally we came
down to 2.4 meters, and 2.4 meters was the accepted diameter. That's
what it has now.
Do you follow about what the Hubble is providing, the pictures? It's
really mind-boggling, what you can see. Somebody said one new discovery
per week. Can you imagine? It's a boost in astronomic knowledge which
is unprecedented over the centuries, almost.
Absolutely. You probably gathered more data from the beginning of
the Hubble Space Scope until now than you did from the beginning of
time until the launch.
Right. It's a beautiful instrument and very, very interesting.
Kelly: Absolutely. Well, I don't want to keep you much longer, but
I would like to ask you just one more question, among many others,
and I'd like to ask you what you think your most significant contributions
were to the space program. What was most important to you?
Well, that's hard to tell. Also, you know, a man doesn't want very
much to talk about his own accomplishments. I think, too, one is that
I had the opportunity or the privilege, or the good luck of bringing
scientists and rocket engineers together a number of times, a number
of points in the program. I don't believe that many would acknowledge
that now. You know how people are. "They know this was my idea.
I didn't have to listen to those guys." That's how I'd respond.
I wouldn't pay too much attention to that. And the other one is electric
You did a lot of significant work in that.
That has, unfortunately, not yet led to a good project. There's now
one under way after many years of effort by JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]
they want to go to one of the asteroids with an ion propulsion system.
I hope they will accomplish it and get through with it. The Russians
are more active there. They use electric systems to control their
satellites in orbit. You know, many of their satellites, particularly
high-orbit satellites, stationary satellites, must be controlled carefully
with small thrusts every once in a while to keep them in the right
orbit, and electric systems are very useful for that, and the Russians
do that. The Air Force does it, too, here, it has also done it, but
NASA is somehow reluctant. The reason why they are so reluctant is
probably one reason which is expressed by a common expression used
in NASA; that is, the "NIH factor." You know what this is?
No. What is it?
Stuhlinger: NIH means Not Invented Here. [Laughter] You know what
You know, space people, among other things, are humans, with all their
frailties and weaknesses.
Absolutely, and sometimes students forget that.
Well, I want to thank you very much. We're very honored that you've
been able to talk to us.