DID HITLER SEND US TO THE MOON?
Do We Owe the Space Race to the V-2 Rocket?
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.
HITLER IS IMPRESSED
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.
HEAVY BOMBING SLOWS DOWN NAZI PLANS
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.
DEATH FALLS FROM THE SKY IN LONDON
"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.
“FLOPNIK” GIVES VON BRAUN AN OPPORTUNITY
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.
GIANT TO CONQUER SPACE
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.
APOLLO 11 ON THE MOON
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.
THE FIRST SPACE ROCKET WAS POWERFUL, STREAMLINED, AND UNPRECEDENTEDLY STABLE. THE "FATHER" OF GENERATIONS OF ROCKETS HAD BEEN BORN.
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.