The word “Nazi” is bandied about far too often these days and the people it is sometimes used to describe must make real Nazis of the Third Reich kind laugh or cringe. One such Nazi passed away recently at the age of 104 after many years of reconciling with his past by working for the U.S. space program.
Georg von Tiesenhausen was born in 1914 in Riga, Latvia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. German on his father’s side, he studied engineering before being conscripted into the Nazi Armed Forces (the Wehrmacht) in 1941 and sent to the Eastern Front. After a short stay there, he was released as part of a Nazi program to recruit and develop more scientists and allowed to continue his education, graduating from the University of Hamburg. From there, von Tiesenhausen went to the Army Research Center (Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde) on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom where he started out as a section officer working on the V-2 rocket under the direction of Werner von Braun.
According to Motherboard, von Tiesenhausen worked on designing test stands for V-2 engines and, at the end of the war, was designing a top-secret fleet of mini-submarines capable of launching V-2 rockets from underwater locations closer to their targets. Von Braun was a member of the SS but he and his scientists claimed they were too busy working to be part of the Nazi party machine. That was their story when the war ended and many of them (over 1600) were brought to the U.S. under Operation Paperclip, a secret program of the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency that placed German scientists, engineers, and technicians many former members and leaders of the Nazi Party – in U.S. government jobs.
Operation Paperclip was kept secret from the American public, which would certainly have objected to giving top jobs to Nazis, despite the fact that the Soviet Union had its own Operation Osoaviakhim and was believed to have forcibly recruited at gunpoint over 2,200 German scientists and their families in just one night. Both the Cold War and the space race had begun.
Under Operation Paperclip, von Tiesenhusen was brought to Huntsville, Alabama, where he was reunited with von Braun to work on the PGM-11 Redstone rocket — the first large American ballistic missile that looked suspiciously like a V-2. Von Tiesenhausen was then transferred to NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center, where he spent the 1960s and 1970s working on Apollo missions and robotic space exploration programs. Ironically, he turned down an opportunity to work on President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative – a.k.a. Star Wars – because he no longer wanted to work on weapons systems.
After retiring from NASA, von Tiesenhausen worked on space educational programs and space camps, eventually becoming an original inductee into the Space Camp Hall of Fame and receiving the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Education from Neil Armstrong. When told of von Tiesenhausen’s death on June 3rd, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said:
“He will be missed. He’s the last of a generation that was always reaching for the stars.”
Well, not always. He started out trying to reach London, Moscow and New York.