The Rocket Age and the Space Age

V-2 and Sputnik

The V-2 rocket and a model of Sputnik 1.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The first successful launch of Germany’s A-4 ballistic missile and the orbiting of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, took place 15 years and one day apart. The two achievements are related in more ways than their proximity on the calendar.

On Oct. 3, 1942, an A-4 developed by Wernher von Braun and his German Army team reached an altitude of 85 to 90 km (52.8 to 55.9 miles) after launch from Peenemunde on the Baltic Coast.

Whether this counts as the first human-made object to reach space is a matter of debate. The V-2 exceeded the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s 50-mile (80.4-km) definition of space. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) , which keeps records on such achievements, uses 100 km (62.1 mile) as the boundary.

But, both of those definitions came later. The Germans who launched the V-2 that fall day had no doubts about what they had just done.

“Do you realize what we accomplished today? Today the spaceship was born,” von Braun’s Army boss, Walter Dornberger, declared at a celebration that evening.

Well, not exactly. An actual spaceship would come 15 years later. The V-2 was a weapon of war. Dornberger’s hungover engineers got up the next morning and went back to trying to win the Second World War for Adolf Hitler. In this, they would thankfully fail.

The V-2, as it was later renamed for vengeance weapon, occupies a rare place in the history of weaponry: it killed far more of the people who built it than the enemy it was fired against in England, Belgium and France.

Approximately 10,000 prisoners from the Dora concentration camp died while manufacturing the V-2 in a cold, damp underground facility known as Mittelwerk. They worked in horrendous conditions while being beaten, starved and hanged by brutal SS guards.

The 3,200 to 3,600 missiles fired at enemy targets killed an estimated 5,500 people and left 6,500 others seriously wounded. The V-2 spread terror, but it actually shortened the war for the Allies by diverting money and resources from far more effective weapons.

Faced with mass layoffs and the liberation of their prisoner workforce as Hitler’s regime fell in 1945, von Braun made a deal with the Americans to bring a core of more than 100 V-2 engineers to the United States.

They subsequently launched V-2s at White Sands in the New Mexico desert. During the 1950’s, von Braun and his team also developed the short-range Redstone ballistic missile based on their work in Germany.

The Soviets took a number of Peenemunde veterans and V-2 rockets back home with them. They subsequently developed a missile known as the R-1, the first in a series of increasing powerful boosters based on captured German technology.

In the beginning, the rockets could only carry experiments on brief suborbital flights. But by the mid-1950’s, both the United States and Soviet Union were eyeing orbital launches.

Von Braun’s effort to launch the world’s first satellite on a modified Redstone during the International Geophysical Year (1957-8) was turned down when a government panel selected the U.S. Navy’s Vanguard rocket.

It was a fateful decision. The Vanguard ran behind schedule. And on Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik on an R-7 booster that traced its heritage back to the V-2.

The launch shocked the world and set off a panic in the United States where American technological and military superiority had been taken as a granted since the end of World War II.

The first American satellite launch attempt two months later on Dec. 6 failed spectacularly as the Vanguard booster exploded right after liftoff and fell back on its launch pad. News[papers dubbed the failure “flopnik”, “kaputnik”, “oopsnik”, and “stayputnik”.

On Jan. 31, 1958, von Braun got his chance. A modified version of the Redstone rocket called the Jupiter-C lifted off from Cape Canaveral with the Explorer 1 satellite aboard.

Explorer 1 was intended to orbit the Earth every 90 minutes or so. But, that time came and went with no word from the Goldstone Tracking Station in California. After an agonizing wait, Goldstone finally acquired the satellite’s signal. It was in a higher orbit that took it around the Earth every 114.8 minutes.

Von Braun became a national hero in his adopted country. Explorer 1 discovered radiation belts that circled the Earth that would be named after James Van Allen, an University of Iowa professor who designed the instrument that measured them.

In 1961, the United States suffered another shock as the Soviets sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth. The cosmonaut was sent into orbit by a Vostok rocket that traced its origins back to the R-7 booster and, ultimately, the V-2 that von Braun and his team developed.

Prtesident John F. Kennedy challenged the Soviets to land men on the moon. Von Braun and his team would go on to develop the Saturn rockets that the Apollo astronauts would use to achieve that goal.

The launch of Sputnik is rightly celebrated as the true beginning of the Space Age. But, the start of the Rocket Age almost 15 years earlier is all but forgotten today.

It’s uncomfortable to think that von Braun and other engineers who helped send Americans to the moon once worked for Hitler. That they might have succeeded in helping the dictator win the war is the stuff of nightmares and counterfactual history.

And then there was the exploitation of slaves who were worked, starved and beaten to death while building a weapon for a genocidal regime. It’s a stain on humanity that must never be forgotten.

Descendants of the V-2 have launched spacecraft that have transformed global communications and explored other worlds and interstellar space. They have also kept the world on the edge of a nuclear precipice for more than 60 years.

The beginning of the Rocket Age is a difficult thing to celebrate. Its proximity on the calendar to the start of the Space Age makes it easy to overlook.