Happy Birthday, V-2

Most history texts date the beginning of the space age to Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. I believe it actually dates back even further, to a picture perfect fall day almost exactly 15 years earlier in Nazi Germany.

It was on October 3, 1942,  that Wernher von Braun and his team launched the first successful ballistic missile at Peenemunde on the German Baltic coast. The rocket reached an altitude just short of 90 kilometers (56 miles), becoming the first human-made object to reach the fringes of space.

Von Braun’s success would prove to be a death sentence for more than 15,000 people. About 5,000 of the victims died as a result of V-2’s fired at London, Antwerp and other Allied cities. The first attack occurred on September 8, 1942, when a rocket crashed into the London suburb of Chiswick, killing 3 people.

More than twice as many people died building the V-2s. In order to launch production, the Peenemunde group took advantage of an SS rent-a-slave operation.  The first concentration camp inmates arrived at the Baltic rocket base in the spring of 1943.

After an air raid in August, they were moved to a hellish underground factory outside of Nordhausen in central Germany. About 60,000 slave laborers worked in the factory producing V-2s, V-1s and other wonder weapons in the dark, dank tunnels. A third of them perished. About half those deaths – 10,000 – are directly attributable to the V-2 program.

A mass grave for concentration camp victims at Nordhausen.
A mass grave for concentration camp victims at Nordhausen.

The V-2 was a failure from a strategic standpoint, doing nothing to stave off defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, the technology for the rocket that von Braun and his team launched 67 years ago become the foundation of most of the missiles developed since. These rockets have sent men to the moon and spacecraft to the stars – and left humanity on a nuclear precipice from which it has never retreated.

So, happy birthday, V-2. Although few will stop to mark the event, your haunting legacy lives on.