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In Berlin, in the early 1920s, Wernher von Braun, the young son of a baron, enthusiastically experiments with rocket models. By the early 1930s, von Braun is studying at the Space Rocket Society Ground. When German Army captain Walter Dornberger observes von Braun and his assistants working there, he offers to fund the society's further experiments under the auspices of the army. During World War II, von Braun and his group work on developing V-2 rockets for the army at Peenemünde Rocket Center. When von Braun realizes that the quality of steel used in the rockets is not good enough, he joins the Nazi Party to acquire money and better materials for their work. A party official, unable to countenance their early failures, threatens to close Peenemünde in thirty days unless they have a successful landing. During their intense work, von Braun's secretary, Elizabeth Beyer, an undercover spy for the U.S., secretly photographs their plans for the Allies. The next test is a success, and the Nazis plan to mass-produce V-2 rockets to launch over London, hoping the resultant devastation will lead to the war's end. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the Schutzstaffel, or S.S., who is suspicious of the army, asks von Braun to join his personal staff. When von Braun, who prefers to work under Dornberger, refuses, he is arrested and accused of working on a model for a spaceship to reach the moon in addition to working on weapons. After a tape recording of von Braun referring to Adolf Hitler in an insulting manner is heard, the scientist is told he will be executed, but through Dornberger's influence, Hitler becomes convinced that von Braun's intellect puts him in a class of people too important to be executed. As they need von Braun to work on the V-2 rocket, Himmler is ordered to release him. Von Braun's fiancée Maria is upset by the scientist's indifference to the fact that his rockets may kill children in London. When London is bombed, the Allies decide to bomb Peenemünde. After receiving a call, Elizabeth hugs her lover, scientist Anton Reger, a colleague of von Braun's, and leaves the city. Peenemünde is then hit with a bomb, which kills over 700 people. Elizabeth runs back to help, but is stopped by a guard. The next day, Anton finds a secret camera in her lipstick holder and accuses her of pretending passion to get information. She insists she loves him and explains that she became a spy after S.S. officers callously shot her husband, mistaking him for someone else. Although Anton strikes her in anger, he hides the camera to protect her. As Germany nears defeat and the Russians approach, von Braun encourages his colleagues to try to reach the Americans, so that they might be able to complete work on the spaceship. Outraged, Anton calls von Braun a traitor, but the others vote to join von Braun. After surrendering to the Americans, von Braun refuses to consider himself a war criminal, but Maj. William Taggert, a former newspaperman whose wife and baby were killed in a London bombing raid, argues that because von Braun "invented an infernal device to be used to support an iniquitous regime," he should be tried and hanged. Taggert's ranking officer, however, tells von Braun that Gen. Eisenhower has approved the continuation of his research and that he has been cleared, based on Elizabeth's report, to go to the U.S. for a probationary period of one year. Von Braun is warned, though, that he might face rebuke by the American public. Taggert seethes at the perceived immorality of using someone like von Braun, whom they fought to destroy. The scientists, along with Elizabeth, who is assigned to work with them, are sent to White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where soldiers resent them. Taggert, the Special Intelligence Officer assigned to the group, blames von Braun for the death of his wife and child, and though Elizabeth, who has grown fond of Taggert, urges him to calm down, he rails against scientists who do not accept responsibility for the destruction that results from their work. After a year, when von Braun learns that Maria will soon arrive and that he may become a citizen, he comes to appreciate his adopted country. Sometime later, after he and Maria are married, war breaks out in Korea and the scientists are sent to a new installation at Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama to work on weapons. Incensed that von Braun is to work for the military, Taggert resigns to go back to work as a journalist. Although Maria agrees with Taggert that von Braun should refuse to make rockets for war, he declares that he must continue his work. The Redstone rocket is successful, yet after the truce with Korea, Congress refuses to allocate money for space research. In a televised debate with von Braun, Taggert contends that human problems are more important to solve than scientific ones. After the navy wins an important commission over the army to design a satellite, the Russians launch the first satellite into space, and von Braun blames Taggert for holding the army program back. In December 1957, after the Vanguard rocket explodes on liftoff at Cape Canaveral, Taggert goes on television to lambast von Braun's program. As they watch, Maria asks von Braun if he now cares about the potential destruction that can result from his work, and he replies that he does. Worried about the loss of U.S. prestige, the Pentagon gives von Braun ninety days to launch a satellite successfully. Taggert is among the press corps at the launch, and when another journalist accuses him of wanting it to fail and putting his own concerns above those of the country, he is reminded that this is the same accusation he once used against von Braun. After a suspenseful two hours, word arrives from stations around the world that the launch is a success. Later that evening, Taggert admits to von Braun that he has almost grown to like him. He asks what science offers in place of human values, and von Braun says it has a concern for the future and that the urge to explore is what makes man human. Taggert now wishes him good luck in exploring the universe.