Johnson City man's father shot for the moon and hit it

Nathan Baker • Jul 29, 2019 at 10:05 AM

As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, Johnson City architect Uwe Rothe is reminiscing on his special connection to the historic spaceflight — his dad.

The son of a German rocket propulsion engineer, Rothe came to America with his family in 1953.

After the defeat of the Nazi government in World War II, the U.S. instituted Operation Paperclip, a program to recruit German scientists, engineers and technicians for weapons and vehicles development. Rothe’s father, Kurt Rothe, who led a team at the German Peenemünde Army Research Center working on guided missile and rocket technology, was one of those recruits.

Peenemünde was an important weapons facility for the Nazi war effort. The groundbreaking supersonic V-2 rocket, on which Rothe’s father held patents for propulsion elements, was designed and built there.

Rothe remembers living at the Baltic military facility with his family, especially Operation Hydra, a 1943 British air raid during which planes bombed living, research and production buildings aiming to kill scientists working on the V-weapons and slow the assembly of missiles.

Two chief engineers were killed in the bombing, but most of the casualties from the operation were forced laborers who lived in a camp nearby. One of the bombs landed in Rothe’s older brother’s toy chest, he said, but his family was not harmed.

Rothe called the deaths at Peenemünde and those killed in Great Britain by the German rockets made at the complex part of “the terror of war.”

Sometimes, booming thunderstorms still trigger his anxiety.

Once the war was over, some of the recruited German scientists, sometimes called “Prisoners of Peace” because they were closely watched by U.S. military guards, were taken to Fort Bliss in Texas where they continued their rocketry research and helped American personnel re-assemble and test fire captured V-2s.

By the time Rothe’s family came over in 1953, most of the missile research was being conducted at the Ordinance Rocket Center at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. It was there that the research teams made great breakthroughs in guided missile technology, and, in addition to military weapons applications, began exploring using the rockets as space vehicles for launching satellites and people into orbit.

On Jan. 31, 1958, two months after the Soviet Union successfully placed its second satellite in orbit, the Americans answered with the Explorer 1 satellite launched atop a Jupiter rocket developed by the Redstone team.

The space race was on.

Rothe said life in Huntsville seemed typical, despite the historic implications of the work going on there. Most of the German scientists were granted U.S. citizenship, and their families lived together in close-knit communities.

He played with the other children in the neighborhood whose fathers worked on the special military projects.

He joined the Civil Air Patrol, where he learned about aeronautics and space, and eventually became the organization’s state commander.

With popularity of rockets and space raging on a national level, Huntsville’s kids waged war with “inter-neighborhood ballistic missiles,” Rothe said, home-built projectiles shot from street to street. To keep him out of trouble, Rothe’s parents encouraged him to join the American Rocket Society, a group whose members studied rocketry.

After graduating high school, he was hired at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center through what he admitted was likely nepotism because of his father’s position. At 19, Rothe had top-secret clearance and was making drawings and models of V-2s and Saturn rockets.

Rothe said that first job piqued his interest in design and set him on the path to becoming an architect.

After high school, he entered the pre-engineering program at Auburn University, and again got the chance to collaborate on space vehicles through a co-op program with Chrysler’s Space Division to design a reusable space shuttle.

The U.S. government did not select Chrysler’s designs for consideration, but the computer design experience convinced Rothe to pursue architecture.

Rothe graduated and moved to a job at a small architecture firm in Tennessee in 1968, one year before the Saturn V rocket his father helped design carried men to the moon. He and his wife Judy watched coverage of the lunar landing on television, as did 500 million other people worldwide.

Watching the astronauts bound around in the low-gravity environment, Rothe had a personal understanding of the heavy lifting that got them there.

In April of this year, he was invited back to Huntsville to take part in a panel discussion as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 mission. His contribution was a personal account of “What I Learned from My Dad,” talks from the children of the members of Wernher von Braun’s design team.

Rothe said he was honored to take part in the discussions and the celebration, and he was pleased to be able to share recollections of his father.

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