Did the Germans launch a crewed rocket into space in 1933?

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On October 29, 1933, the London Sunday Referee published a report from Rugen, an island in the Baltic Sea, just off the coast of Germany. Someone named Otto Fischer had flown inside a 24-foot steel rocket, to an altitude of six miles. Were the Germans really testing out a rocket that could carry people, nearly three decades before Yuri Gagarin?

Reports said that Otto was the brother of the rocket's designer, Bruno Fischer. The flight had been made in total secrecy because of a fatal attempt at a launch the previous year, combined with the fact that the flight had been made under the auspices of the Reichswehr, the German War Ministry. The rocket, the Referee reported, had been constructed in the town of Barmbeck, near Hamburg, and transported to Rügen.

"On Sunday morning, at 6 o'clock," the paper reported, "Otto Fischer shook hands with his brother and the small group of Reichswehr officials present to witness the experiment, and crawled into the rocket through the small steel door.


"Bruno Fischer and the three officials then retired to a small hollow in the ground about two hundred yards away and Fischer closed the switch that sent the rocket on its journey. There was a blinding flash and a deafening explosion, and the slim torpedo-shaped body was gone from the steel framework in which it had rested.

"A few minutes later it came into sight again, floating nose upwards from a large parachute that had automatically been released when it had begun to descend. As it drifted nearer, the steel fins on the outside of the body could be seen moving as its pilot manipulated the rocket so that it would land on the island. A few seconds later it came to rest on the sands a few yards away, and Fischer crawled through the door of the rocket white and shaken, but smiling triumphantly. The journey through space had lasted 10 minutes and 26 seconds."

"It was a tremendous sensation," Fischer reported. "When the rocket left the ground I was conscious of a deafening roar and an unbearable weight seemed to be crushing me against the floor of the rocket. Then I lost consciousness for a moment, due to the tremendous acceleration which drained the blood from my head. When I came to my senses and looked at the altimeter before my face it flickered at 32,000 feet and then began to drop rapidly. I had completed my climb and was descending. . ."


This all sounds pretty plausible, especially given all the matter-of-fact details combined with the fact that the Germans were in fact hotly pursuing rocket propulsion at the time. Added to this was the fact that Bruno Fischer really existed and was busily at work designing rockets. And in fact, the report caused a considerable fuss at the time it appeared. The American Rocket Society, the Cleveland Rocket Society, the Austrian Rocket Society, the British Interplanetary Society, GIRD in the Soviet Union were all besieged for information about the amazing rocket flight.

But there was one expert who knew what was what about German rocketry and that was Willy Ley. According to Ley, the story had gotten twisted beyond recognition. In fact, there was indeed a grain of truth behind the story... although, as is often the case, the truth was even stranger.


Rudolf Nebel, pioneer rocket researcher and chief engineer of the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (the German Rocket Society) had received a loan of DM15,000 ($4,000) from the Bank of Magdeburg to build a man-carrying rocket. The "Magdeburg Project" had originally been offered to the VfR — who gladly turned the project over in its entirety to Nebel. The VfR already had a hard enough time maintaining its credibility — and when it learned what the bank's motives were, it wanted no part in such a crazy scheme.


The purpose of the rocket flight, they'd discovered, was to prove: that we are not living on the outside surface of the earth, but rather on the inside surface of a hollow sphere! This was the Hohlweltlehre, or Hollow Earth Doctrine, of Peter Bender that flourished in the anticultural Nazi movement (just as did the equally insane Welteislehre, or World Ice Theory, of Hörbiger, that had such a profound influence upon rocket car inventor Max Valier and German sci fi author Otto Willi Gail).

Franz Mengering, an engineer working for the city of Magdeburg, had hit upon the idea that the hollow earth theory could be proved, if a rocket launched vertically were to land in the antipodes. That is, traveling in a line straight up it would eventually land in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere southeast of New Zealand, which, according to the theory, was directly above Germany.


To their credit, the city officials didn't accept the hollow Earth argument, but instead suggested making the rocket a man-carrying one, figuring it would be a terrific publicity stunt for the town. Nebel agreed that he could build such a rocket and have it ready to launch by June 11, 1933.


The rocket was to be 25 feet tall and powered by a motor producing 1,300 pounds of thrust. The passenger cabin and fuel tanks were a single, squat unit shaped something like an artillery shell, with the motor and parachute occupying a smaller shell above it. The motor unit was separated from the pilot's compartment by a pair of booms that also held the fuel lines. The motor unit also had a set of small vanes attached for stabilization. The rocket was designed to reach an altitude of about 0.6 mile. At this point, the passenger would bail out, using his own parachute, while the rocket descended on a larger parachute.


A small test rocket, 15 feet tall with a motor of 440 pounds thrust, was to be built and launched first. A test stand was constructed and motors are tested. Under pressure from the impatient city to launch something, a 30-foot launching rack was erected in a cow pasture and a test rocket was fired. Out of a series of attempts the greatest distance the rocket travels is the end of the rack before sliding back down again. Eventually a more or less successful launch was made, the rocket landing 1,000 feet away after a more or less horizontal flight.

After this the city threw up its hands and abandoned the project.


A clue as to what started the entire manned rocket story might be found in the name Nebel had given his test rocket. It was called the "Magdeburg Pilot Rocket". An over-enthusiastic reporter had misunderstood the use of the word "pilot" and had run with it.

But the idea of a manned rocket still fascinated Nebel, who later wrote that "The first manned flight rocket [sic] will introduce a development which has rapid transport over the earth as its final goal. I admit that many people still laugh at such plans. However, these people also laughed and called the plans of the Mad Baron from the Bodence to be Utopia."