For 8-year old Werner Doehner, everything about the airship that floated over the field at Frankfurt looked humongous. The Zeppelin before him stretched 245 meters (803.8 feet) from nose to tail – longer than some of the ocean liners that sailed the North Atlantic. Even the propeller blades on the airship’s four reversible Daimler-Benz diesel engines and the rubber tires on the control car looked enormous to the young boy.
Six months into a new century in an age already known for astounding technological progress, a strange cigar-shaped vehicle slowly rose from a shed on Lake Constance in southern Germany and began to move forward.
Stretching 128 meters (420 feet) from bow to stern, the LZ-1 (Luftschiff Zeppelin, or “Airship Zeppelin”) consisted of a cylindrical aluminum frame covered in fabric with two gondolas suspended below it. Lift was provided by 17 gas bags made of rubberized cotton that contained 11,298 cubic meters (399,000 cubic feet) of flammable hydrogen. The LZ-1 was propelled forward by a pair of 11 kW (14 hp) Daimler engines.
On Oct. 3, 1942, space history was made in Germany. The first successful ballistic missile launch was achieved by Wernher von Braun and his team at Peenemunde, Germany. An A-4 rocket lifted off from Peenemunde, reaching an altitude of nearly 90 km (56 miles) before re-entering and crashing into the Baltic Sea about 190 km (118 miles) from its secret launch site.
At a raucous celebration that evening, von Braun’s boss, Col. Walter Dornberger, declared, “Do you realize what we accomplished today….This afternoon the spaceship was born!”
It wasn’t exactly a spaceship. The A-4 was a weapon of war. Two years later, V-2s — as the rocket had been renamed — began raining down on London, Antwerp and other Allied cities. By the end of the war, 3,200 missiles had been fired at enemy targets.
More than 5,000 died in the attacks. The casualties among those who assembled the V-2s was even higher. Ten thousand concentration camp laborers died in the underground caverns at the main Mittlewerk assembly facility. Thousands of others perished at other V-2 manufacturing facilities.
After the war, von Braun and a team of engineers were recruited by the United States. Other German engineers went to the Soviet Union and other countries.
The V-2 would form the basis for post-war rockets that launched satellites into orbit and men to the moon. Ballistic missiles have also kept the world on the edge of a nuclear precipice for more than half a century.
If you ever wondered where the Space Age really began, it didn’t start with Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. It began 15 years and one day earlier at a top secret military base on the Baltic Coast by a team working to make Adolf Hitler the master of Europe.