Three Space Anniversaries: Two Triumphant, One Tragic

Yuri Gagarin

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

This week, the space community marked two triumphant achievements, and dutifully ignored a third space-related anniversary that marked the darkest depths of depravity to which human beings can sink.

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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.

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Where the Space Age Really Began

V-2 launch
V-2 launch

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.

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