[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 17:39 GMT 18:39 UK
The technological line to the V-2
By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff

Rocket takes off at Peenemuende   Internet
Post-war rocketry traces a line to Peenemuende
In the first of two features, BBC News Online looks at the legacy of the V-2 rocket - how the Americans and the Soviets raced to exploit the German technology and expertise they had captured at the end of WW II.

In the early 1930s, rockets were considered successful if they travelled several metres from their launch site.

But Germany's thirst for re-armament after World War I spurred an ambitious programme of rocket development that would produce a ballistic missile (the world's first) with a range of 320km (200 miles): the V-2.

"Launching a rocket is much more difficult than, say, taking off in an aeroplane," says Konrad Dannenberg, 92, a propulsion specialist who worked on the V-2, originally designated the A-4.

"With a rocket, especially a space rocket, you need to launch vertically. And in order to do that, your thrust has to be larger than the total weight of your vehicle.

That night the Russians came and said you will be ready to go to Russia in the next three hours
Konrad Dannenberg
"Unfortunately, rockets are at least twice as heavy as aeroplanes because you need to carry an oxidiser on a rocket as well as your fuel. So in my opinion, it was a very major breakthrough."

After the war, Dannenberg was one of about 118 engineers from the V-2 experimental centre at Peenemuende initially selected to travel to the US to work on an American rocket programme.

Dividing up the talent

The Americans, the Soviets, the British and the French, had all raced to first understand and then exploit the V-2's technology following the collapse of Germany.

One way the countries did this was by grabbing as many V-2 parts as they could find, before taking them away to be put back together and fired.

Another way was persuading former engineers from Peenemuende - the experimental centre where the V-2s were built - to come on board their nascent rocket programmes.

In this latter regard, the Americans fared best, bringing Peenemuende's technical director Wernher von Braun and his top engineers to the US in an operation called Project Paperclip.

In America, the Peenemuenders would eventually develop the rockets that carried astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space and the Apollo capsules to the Moon.

It's all too typical of the way the history of this subject is treated that the military side of this is almost forgotten
Michael Neufeld
"The A-4 was, of course, a one-stage system. All the old rocket pioneers had shown theoretically that in order to go into Earth orbit you really need at least two stages," says Dannenberg.

"But the biggest step for a rocket is to take off from the Earth's surface - that's where you need most of your propellant. So in a way, the A-4 was the very first step to get into space because you need a very powerful first stage."

Towards Armageddon

However, the legacy of the V-2 is an ambiguous one, since the rocket also provided the template for the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

"The international missile race that started after World War II was one of the two important things that came out of the V-2," says Michael Neufeld, a historian and author of The Rocket and The Reich, a book about the German rocket programme.

Von Braun (US Army Aviation and Missile Command)
Von Braun and his elite group of engineers wanted to go with the Americans
"But it's all too typical of the way the history of this subject is treated that the military side of this is almost forgotten.

"The V-2 had little to do with space, it was built as a weapon and its most important side effect after WW II was to be one of the two legs of a revolution in warfare: one side being ballistic missiles and the other side being nuclear weapons.

"The combination of the two became the most frightening weapon of the nuclear age."

When von Braun and his rocket team first arrived in America, they were put to work on the re-assembly, checkout and launching of V-2s from hundreds of parts brought back by the US Army.

These were launched from the White Sands test range in New Mexico.

To Moscow at gunpoint

In 1950, they moved from their accommodation at Fort Bliss, Texas, to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

Here, they would develop a rocket that would bridge the gap between the military's missile programme and America's ambitions in space. It was called, simply, the Redstone.

Redstone rocket (US Army Aviation and Missile Command)
The Redstone: A direct descendant of the V-2
The Redstone was a high-accuracy, liquid-propelled, surface-to-surface missile and a direct descendant of the V-2. Like its German predecessor, the 21m-long (69ft) rocket's engine burned alcohol and liquid oxygen and produced about 75,000lbs of thrust.

Its guidance system used a gyroscopically stabilised platform, computers, a programmed flight path taped into the rocket before launch, and activation of the steering mechanism by signals in flight.

It was also one of the first American weapons to combine guided missile technology with the atomic bomb.

German engineers also formed the bedrock of the Soviet missile and space programmes.

Von Braun and the Mercury team (US Army Aviation and Missile Command)
The Redstone work would lead to the first Americans in space
The Russians reactivated the Mittelwerk production plant with the help of low-ranking former staff and set about reconstructing V-2s for testing.

"I understand there was a successful rocket firing in Lehesten [nearby V-2 test site]. They had a big party and everyone was drunk with vodka.

"That night the Russians came and said you will be ready to go to Russia in the next three hours," says Dannenberg.

The Russians rounded up thousands of Germans at gunpoint and put them on a train bound for Moscow.

V-2: Hitler's last weapon of terror
07 Sep 04  |  Science/Nature
The technological line to the V-2
10 Sep 04  |  Science/Nature


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific