Do We Owe the Space Race to the V-2 Rocket?

Science Illustrated - - CONTENTS -

NASA’s rock­ets, in­clud­ing the Saturn V, were all based on mil­i­tary tech that killed thou­sands. Meet the orig­i­nal WMD

As a black and white rocket lifts off from Earth on 3 Oc­to­ber 1942, the world changes for good. The post­war con­quest of space could not have hap­pened with­out the Nazi knowhow of the V-2's en­gine tech­nol­ogy and aero­dy­nam­ics.

On the roof of the rocket assem­bly shop in Peen­emünde on the Baltic Sea in Ger­many, Wern­her von Braun is wait­ing anx­iously. The sun is shin­ing, and it is about 1600h on the first Satur­day of Oc­to­ber 1942, and through his binoc­u­lars, von Braun, the head of the Nazi rocket pro­gramme, is star­ing in­tently at the launch plat­form, where a 14-m-tall rocket is point­ing at the sky, ready for lift-off.

The black and white V-2 rocket is the sym­bol of von Braun’s am­bi­tious dream of con­quer­ing space, but some 10 years in the pro­fes­sion have taught him that no rocket is a good rocket, un­til it has been suc­cess­fully launched. In the case of the V-2, there is ex­tra rea­son to be cau­tious: pre­vi­ous at­tempts at launch­ing the ground-break­ing, liq­uid-pow­ered rocket have re­sulted in huge ex­plo­sions and to­tal fail­ure shortly af­ter lift-off.

Ner­vously, von Braun lis­tens to the count­down, and then it hap­pens: a huge flame is dis­charged from the rocket's tail, as it lifts off, slowly at first, but soon gain­ing im­pres­sive speed.

As a deaf­en­ing roar sweeps the base, the V-2 rocket starts to tilt four sec­onds af­ter lift-off, con­tin­u­ing on a curv­ing course over the Baltic Sea. Af­ter 25 sec­onds, the rocket breaks the sound bar­rier, dis­ap­pear­ing as a small, glow­ing dot on the hori­zon.

The cry of “Brennschluss!” (stop the fuel sup­ply), comes over the speak­ers about one minute af­ter lift-off, and the next sec­ond, the en­gine is de­ac­ti­vated. Peo­ple cheer. Von Braun and his col­leagues are thrilled, but it is still un­known whether the mis­sion is a to­tal suc­cess.

Ac­cord­ing to plan, the V-2 will con­tinue to an al­ti­tude of about 85 km, to the thresh­old of space, af­ter which it is sup­posed to de­scend again at a speed of some 5,000 km/h – or 4.5 times the speed of sound.

Five un­bear­ably long min­utes af­ter launch, von Braun gets his news: the sig­nal from the rocket is abruptly ter­mi­nated, in­di­cat­ing that af­ter trav­el­ling 190 km, it has landed in the Baltic Sea as planned. An achieve­ment open­ing wide per­spec­tives, it turns out.


For the first time ever, a man­made ob­ject has stepped to the thresh­old space, and the ob­ject is in­no­va­tive through and through. So far, rock­ets have used solid fuel, which is heavy and not very ef­fi­cient, but the V-2 uses liq­uid oxy­gen and al­co­hol, pro­duc­ing an un­prece­dented com­bus­tion tem­per­a­ture and hence fuel ef­fi­ciency, al­low­ing the rocket to pro­duce more force per kg of fuel. The re­sults are sen­sa­tional: The rocket is the first to travel faster than the speed of sound, and its reach is no less than 320 km – longer than even the best of ar­tillery.

The suc­cess­ful test is a tri­umph for the chief de­vel­oper. Since he was young, 31-year-old Wern­her von Braun has ex­per­i­mented with rock­ets, hop­ing to pave the way for man to one day con­quer space, trav­el­ling to the Moon or even to Mars.

How­ever, von Braun’s rocket is not meant to be an ad­ven­tur­ous space pioneer. The Nazis solely see the rev­o­lu­tion­ary rocket as a mir­a­cle weapon, to ter­rorise the Bri­tish and make the Third Re­ich win the war. The V of the

ADOLF HITLER GER­MAN CHAN­CEL­LOR 1933-1945 Pro­fes­sor, I would like to con­grat­u­late you on your suc­cess.

V- 2 stands for “Vergel­tungswaffe”, “weapon of ret­ri­bu­tion”, to sat­isfy Hitler's thirst for re­venge against the Al­lies' in­creas­ing bomb­ing raids on Ger­man cities.

Just one month af­ter the suc­cess­ful test launch, the Führer, who was oth­er­wise rather scep­ti­cal of von Braun’s in­ven­tion, ap­proves a plan for V-2 mass pro­duc­tion. He makes the ex­pen­sive project his top pri­or­ity, hop­ing that the rocket can make the Nazis win the lengthy world war. And as a spe­cial ap­pre­ci­a­tion of von Braun’s con­tri­bu­tion, Hitler in­sists on meet­ing the chief de­vel­oper in per­son.

“Pro­fes­sor, I would like to con­grat­u­late you on your suc­cess,” says Hitler, shak­ing hands with the tall, blond man with the pen­e­trat­ing, blue gaze.


But even praise from Hitler can­not make von Braun per­form mir­a­cles with his arms pro­gramme.

The rocket is still in the ex­per­i­men­tal stage, suf­fer­ing from a wealth of "teething trou­bles" and an epi­demic of er­rors. Par­tic­u­larly the en­gine finds it dif­fi­cult to con­trol the force of the liq­uid fuel, and dur­ing su­per­sonic flight, aero­dy­nam­ics cause prob­lems. In Oc­to­ber, fol­low­ing the suc­cess­ful test launch, the rocket fails five times in a row, ei­ther ex­plod­ing on the launch pad or wreck­ing in the air.

“It takes us six months to build a rocket, but only half a sec­ond to de­stroy it,” von Braun says with char­ac­ter­is­tic blunt­ness, dur­ing the frus­trat­ing pro­ce­dure.

Fi­nally, in April 1943, he and his staff man­age to launch a rocket with the re­quired range of 270 km. But it veers 38 km to the right of its in­tended course. And the tech­nol­ogy is not the only thing that the Ger­man sci­en­tists are strug­gling with...

The Al­lies have dis­cov­ered the alarm­ing arms pro­duc­tion in Peen­emünde, and the night be­fore 18 Au­gust 1943, heav­ily loaded Royal Air Force planes com­plete a heavy bomb­ing raid aimed at the base.

The in­ten­tion is to kill the brain be­hind the new­ly­de­vel­oped weapons sys­tem, but the Bri­tish do not man­age to take out von Braun. Two en­gi­neers and 735 slave

labour­ers are killed, and the bomb­ing changes how the Nazis will con­tinue their rocket pro­gram i n Ger­many. Re­al­is­ing that the base in Peen­emünde is much too vul­ner­a­ble, Nazi lead­ers de­cide to move the rocket pro­duc­tion to a se­cret, un­der­ground site near the town of Nord­hausen, the Harz, with von Braun's ap­proval. The tun­nels, which are the re­sult of many years of min­ing, are con­verted into a large-scale assem­bly plant, Mit­tel­w­erk, which will pro­duce 900 brand new mis­siles a month. Watched by bru­tal SS guards, slave labour­ers from the Dora-Mit­tel­bau con­cen­tra­tion camp work hard in the cold, damp un­der­ground world of the mine to fin­ish the assem­bly plant. Around the clock, the tun­nels echo with the sound of pneu­matic ham­mers and the screams of pris­on­ers, who are beaten be­cause they are un­able to re­main on their feet. The place is ru­moured to be Hell on Earth, and around 100 dead bod­ies are sent to the cre­ma­to­rium ev­ery day due to sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions and ex­haus­tion. With this hor­ri­fy­ing back­ground, the Ger­mans start to roll the first V-2 mis­siles out of the mine around 1 Jan­uary 1944.

At the same time, von Braun and his col­leagues have cor­rected the worst er­rors and omis­sions of the rocket. The en­gine has been im­proved, a brand new con­trol sys­tem has been in­stalled, and even the aero­dy­nam­ics func­tion at su­per­sonic speeds. The weapon is ready to be used in the war.


"Showers" of V-2 rock­ets car­ry­ing ex­plo­sive charges of about 1000kg each start to rain down over Eng­land in Septem­ber 1944. The rock­ets are launched from mo­bile launch pads, strik­ing only five min­utes af­ter lift-off.

The mother of all at­tacks strikes Lon­don on Satur­day 25 Novem­ber 1944, when a blind­ing flash lights up the Wool­worths depart­ment store with­out prior warn­ing. One split sec­ond later, a deaf­en­ing ex­plo­sion blows out all the win­dows, mak­ing walls and ceil­ings vi­brate. Cus­tomers and staff never man­age to es­cape, be­fore the en­tire build­ing col­lapses in a cloud of rub­ble.

A to­tal of 168 adults and chil­dren are killed and 123 peo­ple are wounded in the at­tack, which lit­er­ally hits like a dev­as­tat­ing bolt from the blue. None of the vic­tims re­alise what is hap­pen­ing. The rocket trav­els faster than the speed of sound and is not heard, be­fore it strikes.

As the chief de­vel­oper, von Braun of course knows that the V-2 was de­vel­oped to be a mil­i­tary su­per weapon, but that was not what he wanted.

“The rocket func­tioned per­fectly, ex­cept it landed on the wrong planet,” he says to a col­league af­ter the first V-2 at­tack on Lon­don.

All in all, the Nazis man­age to launch about 3,500 V-2 rock­ets to­wards Al­lied tar­gets, but the new weapon is not nearly suf­fi­cient to turn the tide of the war. When the war ends in May 1945, it is clear that the pro­duc­tion of the V-2 rocket has cost more lives than it has claimed. Some 12,000 slave labour­ers have died in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process, whereas about 9,000 peo­ple have lost their lives in the mis­sile strikes. V-2 IN AMER­I­CAN HANDS By the end of the war, Wern­her von Braun sur­ren­ders to the US, which is des­per­ate to get its hands on the world’s lead­ing rocket en­gi­neer and his staff of ex­cel­lent spe­cial­ists.

The US hopes that the Ger­mans can guar­an­tee the coun­try a de­ci­sive vi­tal arms lead in the post­war era, but that is not what von Braun wants. He is dream­ing of de­vel­op­ing rock­ets, which can reach the Moon and con­quer space.

Un­der the code name of Op­er­a­tion Paper­clip, von Braun and his team of 100+ rocket re­searchers se­cretly ar­rive to the White Sands mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity in New Mex­ico in Septem­ber 1945. Lots of ar­chive ma­te­rial con­cern­ing the V-2 has been sent ahead, and in Oc­to­ber, hun­dreds of freight cars with V-2 com­po­nents, which have been car­ried across the At­lantic, ar­rive to the port of New Orleans. The ma­te­rial takes up the space of all rail­way freight de­pots up to 350 km from the city.

How­ever, it is soon clear that the US is not in­ter­ested in us­ing the Ger­man rocket parts and sci­en­tists for build­ing space rock­ets. A new Com­mu­nist en­emy is lurk­ing in Rus­sia, and just like in Nazi Ger­many, von Braun and his col­leagues are told to build dev­as­tat­ing mil­i­tary mis­siles.

How­ever, the stub­born Ger­man does not give in. He per­sis­tently tries to i nflu­ence his new em­ploy­ers, in­tro­duc­ing one in­cred­i­ble space project af­ter the other. In 1954, he pro­poses Project Or­biter, which is about mak­ing the world’s first satel­lite or­bit Earth. He has al­ready de­vel­oped a de­sign based on the V-2 rocket, which will be able to han­dle the task. The Red­stone rocket, which is more pow­er­ful and ac­cu­rate than the V-2, also has a nose cone, which can be dis­en­gaged dur­ing flight to carry the satel­lite into its or­bit. How­ever, von Braun's idea is not adopted.

Not un­til the Ger­man rocket in­ven­tor gets un­ex­pected help, he has the chance to pur­sue his space dreams.


On 4 Oc­to­ber 1957, the Soviet Union, the arch-en­emy, sud­denly and to­tally un­ex­pect­edly, en­ters the space age with the launch of Sput­nik, the world’s first satel­lite.

Von Braun is also in­di­rectly the man be­hind the tech­no­log­i­cal tri­umph, as by the end of the war, Rus­sia ob­tains a hand­ful of V-2 rock­ets, which are ready to be launched, as well as de­tailed draw­ings, and the Soviet rocket pro­gramme is based on the "booty".

But to both von Braun and the rest of the US, the Sput­nik launch comes as a kick in the guts. If Rus­sia's rocket tech is so ad­vanced that the coun­try is able to launch a satel­lite, it will prob­a­bly also soon have the tech­nol­ogy to strike the US with nu­clear weapons. Feel­ing pow­er­less and de­feated, US politi­cians panic, and af­ter years of re­fus­ing to lis­ten, in­stantly pivot to de­mands of im­me­di­ate ac­tion. The Soviet Union’s lead must be turned into US dom­i­nance with­out de­lay.

The first hasty at­tempt at launch­ing a satel­lite into space is the launch of the US Navy's Van­guard rocket in De­cem­ber 1957. Mil­lions of Amer­i­can TV view­ers watch the rocket lift a few cm off the launch pad, be­fore it ex­plodes into thou­sands of pieces. The pub­lic opin­ion is mer­ci­less. The un­suc­cess­ful launch is named “Flopnik”, “Ka­put­nik”, etc., and the in­sis­tence on con­quer­ing space

be­fore the Rus­sians in­ten­si­fies. Af­ter a pos­i­tively her­culean ef­fort, von Brown fi­nally gets his op­por­tu­nity.

On 31 Jan­uary 1958, he is ready to fire his 21-m-tall Jupiter launch ve­hi­cle along with the first US satel­lite, Ex­plorer 1. A rocket called Red­stone makes up Jupiter's first stage, and as the ex­haust flame from the slen­der, cylin­dri­cal ve­hi­cle lights up Cape Canaveral at 10.48 PM, ev­ery­body holds their breath in ner­vous an­tic­i­pa­tion.

Amer­ica's in­ter­na­tional pres­tige is at stake, but von Braun’s rocket is per­fect, and when the Ex­plorer 1 has been placed into or­bit around Earth af­ter a few min­utes, Wern­her von Braun – or Mis­ter Space Man, as he is called by the press – be­comes a hero. Not only in Amer­ica, but through­out the en­tire Western World.


The Amer­i­can space ad­min­is­tra­tion NASA is es­tab­lished in July 1958 as a di­rect re­sponse to the Sput­nik shock. Von Braun, who has be­come a highly re­puted man, is en­trusted with de­vel­op­ing the world’s big­gest rocket: Saturn. The rocket is meant to be the ve­hi­cle, which will en­sure US space supremacy and make up the back­bone of a pro­jected, manned space pro­gramme, which be­comes even more am­bi­tious in 1961.

Speak­ing to US Congress on 25 May 1961, US Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy makes a com­mit­ment that the US will soon visit Earth’s clos­est neigh­bour:

“I be­lieve this na­tion should com­mit it­self to achiev­ing the goal, be­fore this decade is out, of land­ing a man on the Moon.”

At NASA’s Mar­shall Space Flight Cen­ter in Huntsville, Alabama, Wern­her von Braun and his staff are speech­less, as they hear the pres­i­dent speak.

Fi­nally, the dream of his life can be re­alised. With al­most un­lim­ited re­sources and a pow­er­ful in­dus­try to back him up, von Braun is given the op­por­tu­nity to de­sign the rocket for the Apollo moon land­ing pro­gramme.

The pre­req­ui­site for the US be­ing able to lift hu­mans out of Earth’s grav­ity and bring them the 400,000 km to the Moon is a huge, pow­er­ful rocket booster that can launch 3000 tonnes of nec­es­sary equip­ment at an es­cape ve­loc­ity of 11.2 km/s or 40,000 km/h. That is what is re­quired to es­cape Earth’s field of grav­ity. And this is where Saturn en­ters into the pic­ture. The key to con­quer­ing the long dis­tance be­tween Earth and the Moon is a multi-stage rocket, whose stages are dis­en­gaged as the fuel in them is used. Von Braun al­ready has ex­pe­ri­ence with this type of rocket. In 1949, he suc­cess­fully tested the world’s first staged rocket, the RTV-G-4 Bumper, whose first stage was, once again, the V-2.

The V-2 had one sin­gle en­gine, whereas the Saturn is based on a de­sign that in­cludes sev­eral en­gines. The first stage has five en­gines, which con­sume no less than 13 t of fuel per sec­ond, ac­cel­er­at­ing the rocket to a speed of 8,500 km/h. The sec­ond stage also has five en­gines, which are pow­ered by liq­uid hy­dro­gen and oxy­gen and take only six min­utes to in­crease the speed to about 25,000 km/h, af­ter which the third stage, with only one en­gine, takes over with two ig­ni­tions. The first ig­ni­tion in­creases the speed to 28,000 km/h, i.e. the ve­loc­ity re­quired to en­ter into an or­bit around Earth. The sec­ond ig­ni­tion sends the craft on to the Moon at the re­quired speed of 40,000 km/h.


On Wed­nes­day 16 July 1969, the oc­cu­pants of the Kennedy Space Cen­tre in Florida are trem­bling with ex­cite­ment. The 111-m-tall Saturn V rocket with the Apollo 11 space­craft is ready for launch, and as the three as­tro­nauts aboard check their in­stru­ments one last time, mil­lions of peo­ple through­out the world are glued to their TV screens to watch the his­toric event. Kennedy’s and not least Wern­her von Braun’s vi­sion of land­ing a man on the Moon is put to the test.

From the space cen­tre, von Braun watches calmly as the launch pro­gresses. He has put on his ear­phones to hear the count­down, and shortly be­fore lift-off, he bows his head and says his prayers.

And then it hap­pens. At 9.32 AM, the Saturn V lifts from the ground in a cloud of white-hot gas and flames. A deaf­en­ing thun­der, like a thou­sand thun­der­storms, sweeps the launch area, mak­ing the ground trem­ble. The next mo­ment, von Braun’s rocket, the Apollo 11 com­mand mo­d­ule, the LEM lan­der, and three as­troauts at the top dis­ap­pear in a black and orange blaze, arch­ing their way through the air over the At­lantic.

Four days later, on Sun­day 20 July, Apollo 11 reaches its des­ti­na­tion, and the Lu­nar Ex­cur­sion Mo­d­ule Ea­gle lands softly in the Sea of Tran­quil­ity. A few hours later, a very emo­tional von Braun watches astronaut Neil Arm­strong de­scend the nine small steps down the lad­der from the LEM, to place his left foot on the Lu­nar sur­face.

For 57-year-old von Braun, a child­hood dream has sud­denly come true. In 1942, his ground-break­ing V-2 rocket trav­elled an im­pres­sive 85 km into the air, knock­ing on the door to space, and now, 27 years later, the V-2 rocket’s mon­strous suc­ces­sor has man­aged to send hu­mans to another world.

And best of all, the mis­sion was not one of war, and the Saturn V car­ried no war­head. In­stead, as an in­scrip­ton on the Moon still says:

"They came in peace, for all mankind".

WERN­HER VON BRAUN ROCKET DE­VEL­OPER Man's ul­ti­mate fate is no longer limited to this world.



Wern­her von Braun be­came a Nazi in 1937, prof­it­ing from the Ger­man army's re­sources in his rocket pro­gramme. WERN­HER V O N B R AU N

A sin­gle rocket car­ry­ing about 1,000 kg of ex­plo­sives razed en­tire hous­ing blocks in Lon­don in a split sec­ond.

Wern­her von Braun has left his mark on many rock­ets. The jewel in his crown is the Saturn V moon rocket.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.