V-2: The Vehicle that Launched the Space Age

Two of my previous posts tease out the main differences in the landing methods employed by both NASA and the Soviet Space Program as a means of illustrating the contrast between the two programs. What these posts don’t draw attention to is the large number of similarities between the two conflicting powers in their respective approaches to spaceflight.

In the early space age, both the US and the USSR pursued accelerated methods to get a man in space. Both achieved initial flights with capsule-style spacecrafts on top of ballistic missiles. This similar method had a common root: both countries based their launch vehicles, at least in part, on the Nazi V-2 rockets. Both had access to and exploited this technology in the wake of the Second World War. Admittedly the history of the V-2 is slightly on the fringe of the history of spaceflight proper, but a familiarity with the roots of the rocketry that launched the space age adds a dimension to the American and Soviet programs that is otherwise lost. (The above image shows a V-2 rocket during launch.)

The roots of modern rocketry lie with three men in the three countries that have played the biggest part in early space age. In Russia, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (left) gained recognition for studying heavier-than-air flying machines before expanding to studying rockets. In the Unites States, Robert Goddard (right, below) was known for his experiments with different types of fuel, playing with the balance of fuel and oxidizers in liquid propelled rockets. In Germany, Rumanian-born German Hermann Oberth was an authority on rocketry and space travel, specializing in the implications of the liquid fuelled rocket flight.

Oberth’s (left) studies of liquid-fueled rockets were compounded in his doctoral dissertation. Initially poorly received, he chose to finance the work’s publication himself in 1923 as Die Rackete zu den Planetenraumen (Rockets to Interplanetary Space is a rough translation in English). The book became a bestseller, solidifying Oberth’s centrality in the developing field of rocketry. Even non-scientists recognized Oberth’s authority in the subject; famed director Fritz Lang recruited Oberth to serve as the technical consultant on his 1929 film Frau im Mond.

Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen sparked the imaginations of amateur rocket enthusiasts throughout the country. In the late 1920s, rocket societies became common, the most notable of which was the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, or Society for Space Travel) established in 1927. It was through the VfR that Oberth (who became the group’s president in 1929) met and first worked with 18-year-old rocket and spaceflight enthusiast Wernher von Braun. By the end of the 1920s, the VfR had gained public esteem for the developing and testing their rockets, attracting the attention of the German Army that could hardly fail to notice their progress.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, the German Army was in a severely weakened state. As part of the armistice from the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from rebuilding its armed forces, especially its Air Force weaponry. The treaty, however, failed to include rockets – an oversight that would prove serendipitous for Germany and devastating for the European allied powers.

The German Army saw the VfR’s rockets as the key to re-establishing its heavy and long-range bombardment capability while cleverly evading the Treaty of Versaille’s restrictions. The Army and the VfR were in a perfect situation: the Army had money and wanted rockets while the VfR wanted to continue developing their rockets but lacked funds to do so. Cooperation between the two was a natural progression. The mutually advantageous partnership was established in1930. Von Braun, who succeeded Oberth as VfR president that same year, secured a sponsorship deal from the Army for the continued development of liquid-fuelled rockets to be used towards military ends.

With this partnership came a new era of rocket research and development; the previously open rocket society was suddenly forced to work under conditions of strict secrecy lest word of their work reach beyond German borders. Still, the Army sponsorship was sufficiently advantageous that Von Braun sought to secure a position for himself. Captain Walter Dornberger granted von Braun a position with the Army, effectively ensuring his personal security throughout the war and his continued involvement with rocketry. This also marked the beginning of a partnership between Von Braun and Dornberger that would persist after both immigrated to the United States in the 1950s.

The outbreak of the Second World War prompted von Braun and Dornberger to move their rocket team to Peenemünde, a remote site on the northern German island of Usedom. The site quickly developed into a fully functioning mission control base with the Baltic providing a safe launch target for the rockets. (The image is an aerial view of Peenemünde.)

The team at Peenemünde developed two of the most notable weapons of the German arsenal: the V-1 and the V-2 (sometimes referred to as the A-4, its working designation), V for vergeltungswaffe or ‘vengeance weapon’.

The V-1, too small to launch and fly under its own power, was launched either by a catapult or from an aircraft in flight. The V-1 was notorious for the distinct buzzing of its engine. When the engine shut down as the missile began its free fall descent to its target, an ominous silence was left in its place. The V-1’s victims knew it was near, but there was no way to know where it was heading. All they could do was wait for the explosion. If they heard it, they knew they had been spared. The V-2 was a larger and more sophisticated missile. It was sufficiently powerful that it could be launched in Germany and carry out its trajectory under its own power. The V-2 broke the sound barrier during launch and as such reached its victims in silence. (Left: von Braun with a model V-2.)

Nearly 2,500 V-1s and 1,400 V-2s were fired against London towards the end of the war, killing almost 9,000 citizens. More were directed towards other cities, adding to the death toll. (This number, however, is only a fraction of the number of slaves who died in the factories and adjoining camps in which the missiles were built.)

How von Braun felt about his rockets being used as weapons rather than interplanetary launch vehicles is unclear, and speculation on the matter generally results in controversy. Some historians, such as Josef Garliňski, present the opinion that the misuse of his rockets left von Braun distraught; he reportedly remarked after the first successful V-2 launch test what a pity is was that the rocket landed on the wrong planet. His aspirations were for his rockets to land only on other worlds.

Others are quick to overlook any peaceful spacefaring dreams von Braun may have had in light of his opportunistic nature and Nazi affiliation. When he joined the Army and accepted sponsorship, he automatically became a card-carrying Nazi along with all the scientists working at Peenemünde.

Still others suggest that the state of war superseded what peaceful aspirations von Braun and his team had for rocketry. While they may have had spaceflight as a primary objective, their country was being attacked from all side. The fight for the fatherland became central – a fight not necessarily tied up with Nazi ideals.

The defeat of Nazi Germany in 1944 brought Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin together to decide on the post-war government of the fallen nation. The Yalta Conference as the meeting became known determined that Germany would be divided into three occupational zones, one for each of the allied powers, beginning on July 1. Thus began an interim period during which the Allies could move throughout the country without violating the occupational zones determined at Yalta.

Nazi affiliations and questionable motivation aside, the men behind the V-2 were some of the highly sought after products of the war. The Americans and the Soviets both felt the draw of possessing the power of the V-2. During this pre-occupational period culminating in May of 1945, both the Soviets and the Americans were on the hunt for the rocket scientists with von Braun topping the list as the most desirable capture. It was a race for intellectual reparations.

The scientists, anticipating the value of their rockets, went to great lengths to hide the documents and prototypes in mountain caves and deserted mines in secluded areas near the border of Austria. This gave them leverage; they managed to get themselves into a position where they were masters of their own fate. They had what the enemy wanted and could potentially barter for their freedom. The question was from whom.

The scientists were disdainful of the French, frightened of the Soviets, and distrustful that the British could support them. The Americans were the best option. They were the most likely country to support the continuation of the German’s rocket development. The possibility remained, however, that their Nazi affiliations would destroy their chances of working in United States after the war. The Americans could reasonably exploit them for their research then systematically persecute them for war crimes.  Their voluntary surrender was in turn dependent on their survival in the short term – the SS men charged with guarding the group threatened to execute them rather than let the technology fall into the hands of the enemy.

With their rockets and documents secured, Von Braun assumed leadership of the Peenemünde engineers, breaking the group into smaller cohorts. This simplified their hiding from enemies and ensuring the survival of their work; if one group was killed, the knowledge of the V-2 would not die with them.

Von Braun, his brother Magnus, Dornberger, and two dozen colleagues formed one of these smaller groups. They actively sought out the Americans, a preferable course of action to letting themselves be found by the Soviets or the French.  In May, the group had a lucky break. They found the 44th US infantry soldiers less than 4 miles form their hideout in resort in Oberjoch, a small town near the German border with Austria. Magnus von Braun, who spoke the best English and was the most expendable member of the group, succeeded in convincing the soldiers that he was indeed part of a group of scientists who wanted to surrender to the Americans.

Before long, the steps to bring the Germans, their V-2s, and all relevant records into the United States began. Proposals to take the information and leave the scientists in Germany were short lived – equally important as securing the German scientists’ knowledge was keeping them out of the hand of the Soviets. (The image to the right was taken shortly after the German Scientists surrendered to the Americans. Von Braun is in the centre; his broken arm was the result of a car crash one night while he and a handful of other scientists were in hiding. 1944.)

Von Braun drew up a list of the most indispensible 118 German scientists. These men were brought into the United States, along with completed V-2s, technical documents, and prototypes of its successor A-10 rocket all recovered from their hiding places, under Project Paperclip. Project Ppaperclip smoothed over the blemishes in the incoming scientists backgrounds to create a group of anti-Nazi anomalies rescued from a Nazi state. Oberth would later join the ranks of the Germen rocket scientists. The German scientists joined the Army Ballistic Missile Association (ABMA) in Huntsville, Alabama. This group built the launch vehicle that placed the first US satellite, Explorer, in orbit and built the Satrun V rocket that launched Apollo to the moon. (To the right is the core group of scientists working for the ABMA in Huntsville. Oberth is seated in the centre, von Braun in sitting on the table on the right.)

While von Braun and his handpicked team of engineers were taken to the US, there remained a host of other “lesser” rocket scientists that were for and thus up for grabs by the Soviets.

Stalin, contrary to his general paranoia-induced secrecy, allowed Soviet scientists to travel into Germany. In the final months of the war, special Soviet groups followed the combat army groups into the centre of the country with the aim of finding and working with any scientists they could. Among those who entered Germany was Sergei Korolev (right), the man who would become the driving force behind the Soviet Space program, the infamous “Chief Designer”.

Despite their efforts, their spoils were less than the Americans’. By the time they reached known V-2 factories and test sites such as Peenemünde, either the Germans or the Americans had stripped the facility down leaving little behind.

Nevertheless, the Soviets did procure some substantial pieces of the V-2 puzzle. They recovered a V-2 that had landed in Poland, enabling scientists to study a complete, if banged up, rocket. Soviet engineer Alexei Isaev made a lucky discovery in Peenemünde of a document describing a rocket-propelled supersonic bomber. In Nordhausen, another underground factory, numerous pieces of V-2 hardware were recovered, apparently left behind by the departed Germans.

What the Soviets lacked in physical hardware and documentation of the V-2 they made up for in manpower. The slightly more than 100 Germans taken to America represented a fraction of those who had the necessary skills to rebuild the missile. While not all of the scientists the Soviets recruited had directly contributed to construction of the V-2, thousands joined the effort to help the Soviets piece together the V-2.

The Soviets drew their own German cohort away into Russia with promises of housing, wages, and compensation – essentially ensuring the safety and security of them and their families. For many, this was a hard offer to turn down, especially when compared to living in the ravaged post-war Germany. These men, in varying capacities, contributed to the development of the Soviet Space Program.

The V-2 was the first fully operational liquid fuelled rocket. The rocket represented a quantum leap in rocket technology, a method that was the cornerstone of successful launch vehicles in both the US and USSR throughout the Space Race. Both the Americans and the Soviets harnessed the power of the V-2 by putting their captured Germans to work towards their respective space programs. As such, it is not unreasonable to argue that neither the Americans nor the Soviets could have gotten into space at all without the knowledge each gained from the German scientists following the Second World War.

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

1. Emme, Eugene M. ed. The History of Rocket Technology. Wayne State University Press: Michigan. 1964.

2. Garliňski, Jósef. Hitler’s Last Weapons. The underground war against the V1 and V2. Julian Friedman Publishers: London. 1978.

3. Lasby, Clarence G. Project Paperclip. German Scientists and the Cold War. Atheneum: New York. 1971.

4. Piszkiewics, Dennis. The Nazi Rocketeers. Stackpole Books: Pennsylvania. 1995.


7 thoughts on “V-2: The Vehicle that Launched the Space Age

  1. The V-1, too small to launch and fly under its own power, was launched either by a catapult or from an aircraft in flight. The V-1 was notorious for the distinct buzzing of its engine.

    The reason for the distinct buzzing of its engine is that it was a pulse jet design.

    More here on the V-1.

    The technical details are important.

    As an example of why the technical details are important witness the incorrect attribution of the invention/discovery of gunpowder to the Chinese and the attribution of our current number system to the Arabs.

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