History Science & Technology

How the Nazis started the Space Race

Our modern rockets are based of a design that is now over 77 years old that was developed by the Nazis and adapted by Nazis hired by the US and USSR.

Rocketry is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. It has come a long way since we first started using it about eight centuries ago in China for whimsical displays of explosive crackling and the creation many bright and colourful images in the sky with explosions, or used to repel Mongol invasions with so called “arrows of flying fire.” Now it’s used to launch hunks of metal into space to help connect or threaten the world with weapons of mass destruction. The rockets that we use are certainly an engineering feat, however, the origins of modern rockets come from quite an unexpected place: Nazi Germany.

The 1930s was a turbulent time for the world. The economies of many nations lay in shambles after the US got hit with “the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world”. Russia had just come out of multiple conflicts and was then ruled under a totalitarian regime. It began a rapid industrialization campaign with multiple four and five-year plans. Japan continued its aggressive campaign of conquest and in the Pacific and Asia, and the US worked to fix its stagnant nation. In the middle of that was Germany, who had just come out of one of the deadliest wars in human history, had been blamed for starting it and now owed massive debts to the victorious Allied powers. The German economy was hit really hard and had no signs of possible recovery at this point. This has set the perfect conditions for a man with delusions of grandeur to take power in the weakened republic.

Adolf Hitler was this man, and as soon as he took power he began to try to fix Germany’s economy by starting more public works and a remilitarization campaign that would last six years. This would include expanding the army, airforce and navy, expanding Germany’s highway network, the “Autobahn”, and expanding its arms industry. Most notably however, Hitler had also authorized the start of a secret weapons program that is now known as the “Wunderwaffe”, which developed many designs and weapons that we still use today. One of them being the V2 rocket.

“A German V2 rocket at the moment of launch during Allied tests in Germany, 10 October 1945.”

(Imperial War Museum/No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Morris (Sgt))

The V2 rocket wasn’t the first rocket built by the Germans. An entire family of these rockets, labeled as “V” or “Vergeltungswaffe,” was developed. These “Vengeance Weapons” were developed in the early 1930s, while the theories and concepts that helped with the design of the rockets came from the 1920s from a German physicist and mathematician named Hermann Oberth. Oberth  was given funding for his propulsion research and launched his first rocket on May 7, 1931. His book, The Rocket into Planetary Space, which was published in 1923 in Germany, influenced the minds of many far and wide and inspired them to pursue astronautics and astrophysics to help design the first rockets that are capable of reaching space.

In 1932 and 1933, the German government and army, impressed with Hermann’s findings and tests, had begun doing their own tests with liquid propellant rockets, trying out two designs, the “A1” and “A2”, the latter of which was successfully launched twice, producing about 660 lbs of thrust each. This is quite a meagre number by today’s standards of course, considering SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy produces more than 5 million lbs of thrust; however, this successful proof of concept was a breakthrough. Later from 1935 to 1937, the weight and amount of thrust was increased in the “A3” to 3,300 lbs. All of these tests helped produce the most successful design, the “A4,” which is commonly known as the V2 rocket.

Starting with its design and research in 1936, and its implementation in 1944 as a deadly and terrifying weapon of destruction, it was the greatest work and design of Wernher von Braun, German physicist and former student of Hermann Oberth, who had also helped develop the V2 in the German base of Peenemunde-Ost. Being first tested and launched in 1942, and being put into general production in 1944, it was described by Doug Millard, space historian and curator of space technology at London’s Science Museum, in an interview with the BBC, as being a “quantum leap of technological change.”

This rocket was truly devastating, killing over 2,700 in Britain alone. It contained a guidance system, radio, electronics, and enough fuel and thrust to send it more than 80km into the sky. Thousands of these rockets were built, and thousands were lobbed at Western Europe in retaliation of repeated Allied strategic bombing campaigns. Of course, this wasn’t the only disturbing fact about this weapon as tens of thousands of slave labourers died in order to mass produce it. This mass production reduced the cost per rocket from about 100,000 Reichsmarks to about 75,000 RM, inspired a search for more efficient ways to build the rockets, and allowed von Braun and his team to produce more efficient and advanced rocket designs by the end of the war.

With the end of the war and German defeated and broken and the Allies slicing it up into four different zones of occupation, the British, French, American, and Soviet zones, they had captured many different types of equipment Germany was using or planning to use in the war and designs from failed projects to future planned ones. This includes dozens of unused V2 rockets that were ready to fire. This led to the US and UK teaming up and forming secret groups that would go in and acquire scientific documents from occupied Germany, as well as gathering over 1,600 scientists to help with the development of many industries and sectors in the West, in an operation now known as “Operation Paperclip.” The scientists gathered included Wernher von Braun and his team, and Hermann Oberth. The Soviets also had a similar operation.

With the V2 rocket serving as a base template, and the scientists that helped design the rocket, both sides began their work, launching and dissecting the rockets. Then they both started to build their own designs based off of it. There were many designs of course and intercontinental ballistic missiles had begun development. All of this research and development came together and culminated in an event that would revolutionize rocketry and start the Space Race. This would be the launch of the first man-made object into space, the Sputnik-1, which was launched on the Soviet R-7 ICBM, a missile based on the design and math used by the V2.

Of course, as the Space Race kept going, the rockets got bigger and better, and it reached their peak with the Saturn V rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built and flown successfully. This was the rocket that took people to the moon, and its chief architect was none other than Wernher von Braun.

The aspirations of the scientists and research behind the V2 rocket and many other designs after that will live on in history and the motivation behind it can be summed up in a quote from von Braun: “It will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open him the gates of heaven.”


Image by: NASA

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