EBERHARD F. M. REES
BY ROBERT C. SEAMANS, JR.
EBERHARD EM. REES, a member of Wernher von Braun's team that designed the rockets used for the lunar landing in 1969, died April 2, 1998, one month short of his ninetieth birthday at a hospital in Florida. Eberhard was born in Trossingen, Germany, on April 28, 1908. He received the bachelor of science degree from the Technical University, Stuttgart, in 1931 and the master of science degree from the Technical University, Dresden, in 1934. After graduation he became an engineer at a steel foundry in Leipzig, Germany, where he gained experience as a manager of technology.
During the same period that Eberhard was matriculating and commencing his first job, a team headed by Captain Walter Dornberger and Dr. Wernher von Braun were experimenting with liquid-fueled rockets first at Kummersdorf near Berlin and then on Usedom Island in the Baltic. What had been the small fishing village of Peenemunde at the northern end of the island became a full-scale center for developing a variety of missile systems. Throughout most of World War II, Dornberger split his time between Berlin and Peenemunde, and von Braun was the full-time technical director of the missile center. By 1940, Germany had conquered Poland and was at war with England and France. By then at Peenemunde, a number of missiles were under development including a ballistic missile designated A-4 by the Germans and V-2 by the Allies. Eberhard Rees was in charge of prototype manufacturing.
Throughout the war, life at the center was chaotic. Hitler's support vacillated, the SS Secret Police under Hitler infiltrated the center, the Allies bombed periodically, and the war went from apparent victory to crushing defeat. The V-2 with its advanced technology was successfully developed, manufactured, and deployed, first attacking England and later on the Netherlands.
In early 1945, there were over 4,000 at Peenamunde when the last test V-2 was fired. The center was under orders to head south in the face of the oncoming Soviets from the north, but clandestinely a small group of 110 scientists and engineers carrying key drawings and documents were speeding toward a successful rendezvous with the American army.
During the later part of the decade, this select technical group found itself in El Paso, Texas, at the White Sands Proving Ground assisting the U.S. Army in the assembly and test of the V-2 rockets but not with warheads but with scientific instruments. In the late 1940s, the German team was taken across the border into Mexico so that they could legally enter the United States. Their families were brought over from Germany and they moved to Huntsville, Alabama. There in 1950 Eberhard became deputy chief of the U.S. Army's Guided Missile Development Division. He became a naturalized citizen in November 1954.
Many in the United States were surprised by the Soviet show of technical capability when Sputnik went into orbit in October 1957. In the next few months there ensued a discouraging series of attempts to launch a U.S. satellite until President Eisenhower turned to the army's missile division for the hurried but successful orbiting of the Explorer satellite. Eberhard's team had provided the rocket that placed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Explorer into orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in late 1958, and the army's missile development division was brought into the fold in the fall of 1960 and was renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center.
I had become the associate administrator of NASA in the late summer of 1960 and was asked to address its senior management at a retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia. Somewhat in jest I started by commenting on the informality of the corporation I
had left and the formality of NASA. First names and nicknames had been de rigueur for me, and now at NASA titles and last names were expected. Afterward Eberhard introduced himself, called me Bob, and said that only the day before, Wernher had said that in the future he could be called Wernher. I was incredulous and asked whether he had been working with Wernher for twenty years while calling him “Dr. von Braun”. Eberhard said no, “Herr Dr. von Braun.” Wernher was the visionary, the spokesman, the salesman, Eberhard was the inside man who made certain the work got done and the quality was high.
Six months later in May 1961, John F. Kennedy was president and Yuri Gagarin had just orbited the earth. Alan Shepard was aboard the Mercury capsule waiting to be propelled by a Redstone rocket, one of Eberhard's army missiles adapted for spaceflight. A great deal was riding on the launch, not only the safety of the astronaut but also the prestige of the nation. The success was a great tribute to the competence of Eberhard's team working under extreme pressure.
The great lunar adventure officially started three weeks later, when President Kennedy went before Congress recommending a manned lunar landing before the end of the decade. In six years the Marshall Center would have to develop a launch capability 100 times that of the Redstone. As Eberhard said in a talk given at the World Management Congress in Munich in 1972, “The project management had to be extremely flexible and capable of meeting unforeseen demand. It was also apparent that determination, resoluteness and faith would be vital if the goal were to be achieved.” The result was Saturn V, the most powerful launch vehicle ever built. After two successful unmanned test flights, this vehicle provided the lifting capability for two manned circumlunar flights, six manned lunar landings, and one orbital laboratory.
Initially the emphasis on the Apollo program was to recoup U.S. prestige following the Soviets' successful launching of a satellite and then in rapid succession a variety of spectacular missions, including the orbiting of a cosmonaut and then two-man and rendezvous flights. As information was gathered from the lunar surface, first from unmanned and then from manned
flight, it became obvious that a great deal more could be accomplished if the astronauts could traverse along the lunar surface beyond the landing site. In addition to Eberhard's major role in the development of the Saturn vehicles, he then led the project that designed and constructed the lunar rover. The lunar lander in the final three missions carried a vehicle designed specifically for travel along the lunar surface. It permitted the astronauts to inspect the rims of craters, to implant instruments, and to gather rocks, all at a distance from the landing site. This exploration would not have been possible without the indefatigable and imaginative leadership exercised by Eberhard and his crew.
He was also a major contributor in the redesign of the Apollo capsule following the tragic fire that killed three astronauts. Following an intense review of all the factors that led to the accident, the contractor was directed to make major changes not only in the design but also in the procedures used during manufacturing and testing. Eberhard spent time at the contractor's plant both as an adviser and as an inspector, a difficult role that few but he could have performed. The ultimate performance of Apollo benefited greatly from his extensive experience in rocket technology as well as his thoughtful human qualities.
When Wernher was invited to NASA headquarters to assist in long-range planning, Eberhard became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center. The Apollo lunar landing missions were completed during his tenure and a unique mission was initiated. The first two stages of Saturn were used to place Skylab in space. The laboratory was fashioned from the third state of the Saturn launch vehicle. The fuel tanks and rocket engines were replaced by compartments for sleeping, eating, exercise, and scientific investigation. A great deal was learned from this mission about the physiology of long-duration flight and the relationship of solar flares to high-intensity radiation and its impact on our environment.
After leaving NASA, Eberhard was a consultant on the so-called Space-Lab Project in Bremen, West Germany. Eberhard was an engineer's engineer. He was seldom in the public eye, but in the engineering community he was widely recognized for his broad experiences with liquid-fuel rocket engines, multistage structures,
and reentry heat shields. He knew how to adapt missiles for use in space probes and satellite launchers. He also understood manufacturing, quality control, and testing procedures. And most important, he knew how to achieve national objectives by leading technical teams in these important fields of endeavor.
During his life, Eberhard received many awards. These honors include the U.S. Army's Exceptional Civilian Service Award, the Defense Department's Distinguished Civilian Service Award, NASA's Outstanding Leadership Medal and Distinguished Service Medal, and the Hermann Orberth Award and Holger Toftoy Award from the Alabama Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He received honorary doctor's degrees from Rollins College and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He was a fellow of the AIAA and the American Astronautical Society, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the von Braun Astronomical Society, and an honorary member of the Hermann Oberth Society, Germany.
Eberhard Rees is survived by his wife, Maria Rees, of DeLand, Florida, and his sister, Marianne Haller, of Germany.