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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
The technological line to the V-2
By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff

R-7 (RSC Energia)
R-7: Soviet and US technology was driven on by the Cold War
In the second 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.

The US succeeded in getting an elite group of engineers led by Wernher von Braun, the technical director at the V-2's Peenemuende facility.

Other engineers and V-2 workers went with the Soviets - not all willingly.

The Russians had reactivated the Mittelwerk production plant after the war 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," says Konrad Dannenberg, a propulsion specialist who worked on the V-2, but who put his lot in with the Americans.

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

The Russians rounded up thousands of Germans at gunpoint and put them on a train bound for Moscow. They were housed on an island several km outside Moscow and pumped for their knowledge before finally being sent back home.

By then, the Soviet programme was safe in the hands of Sergei Korolev, the chief designer of Russian rockets.

Missile development

Korolev was a fascinating character, whose life had parallels to that of von Braun.

He too had experimented as an amateur with liquid-fuel rocketry before WW II. But his imprisonment in one of Josef Stalin's dreaded "gulag" labour camps had interrupted his ambitions in rocket-building.

After his release, however, Korolev was placed in charge of masterminding Russia's space and missile programme, although his identity remained a secret from the west for many years.

Kennedy and von Braun (US Army Aviation and Missile Command)
Von Braun saw that Kennedy's vision was implemented
Perhaps because of the priority placed by their leadership on the development of an ICBM, the Soviets were able to establish an early lead on the US in the successful exploitation of V-2 technology.

Korolev quickly produced a Soviet clone of the V-2, named the R-1. It was the first in a series of Russian rockets that successfully exploited and improved upon the technology pioneered with the V-2 producing, in 1957, the world's first ICBM: the R-7.

"After the war, the work carried out by the Americans and Russians was focussed on making the rockets larger and more powerful. But the major advances had been made with the V-2," says Guido de Maessener, author of the book Peenemuende.

The R-7 was a two-stage rocket with a first stage consisting of 4 boosters. A system of radio control carried out in-flight trajectory corrections and provided for an increase in the accuracy of delivery.

German charm

The US monitored the Soviet ICBM tests, but it was the launch of the first artificial satellite into space that brought fears of Soviet technological superiority to the fore.

On 4 October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik I, a satellite the size of a basketball, into space aboard an R-7. Sputnik I weighed 183lbs and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path.

For many Americans, the Soviets' ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads at the US.

America's first attempt to launch a satellite - the US Navy-led Project Vanguard - was an embarrassing failure. But in late 1957, Wernher von Braun's team at Huntsville was given the go ahead for its own satellite proposal.

Von Braun's charisma proved even more of an asset in the US than it had been in Germany, especially as the age of television came into its own. He became a national celebrity at the forefront of selling space travel to the American public.

"Von Braun had a gift of inspiring people," recalls Werner Dahm, 87, an aerodynamics engineer in von Braun's rocket team who still works for Nasa.

"The success of the rocket group was in teamwork and good management."

At 11.55pm on 31 January, 1958, Explorer I - America's first artificial satellite - blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida aboard the rocket Juno I.

The space race was underway, and it was clear in America that space travel had to be offloaded from the military to a new organisation.

Several routes

In 1958, Von Braun and his German rocket engineers became employees of the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).

Throughout the 1950s, the US had lagged behind the achievements of the USSR in space exploration. But at the turn of the decade, America set itself a new, ambitious goal aimed at asserting superiority over the Soviet Union in the space race.

Saturn 5 (Nasa)
Saturn-5: An immense vehicle with the power to take man to the Moon
On 12 April 1961, President John F Kennedy said in his address to congress: "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

The speech sparked a furious debate within Nasa over how best to reach Earth's satellite. Space agency engineers identified three principal ways to travel there: the direct, Earth-orbital and lunar-orbital modes.

The direct mode involved simply placing the astronauts aboard a rocket and launching them to the surface of the Moon. The Earth-orbital mode envisioned launching liquid oxygen propellant and astronauts into space separately.

But some Nasa engineers favoured a method known as the lunar orbital method - first proposed by German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth.

After lengthy deliberation it was decided that the lunar orbital method would be most economical. But a large and powerful rocket was needed to carry the payload. Enter the Saturn 5.

Moon rocket

The Saturns were a series of rockets that incorporated the idea of clustering several rocket engines together to provide powerful thrust.

The Saturn-1Bs successfully carried piloted capsules into space from Apollo 7 onwards. But for Apollo 11, the first mission to land on the Moon, it was necessary to build the largest operational rocket ever.

The Saturn-5 stood 111m high and comprised three stages. The first stage included the five F-1 engines that produced nearly 7.7 million lbs of thrust to lift the heavy rocket fast enough to escape Earth's gravity.

The second stage contained five J-2 engines that produced 1.15 million pounds of thrust that took the vehicle and payload to 185km in altitude.

The third stage contained one J-2 engine producing 230,000lbs of thrust. This propelled the spacecraft to orbital velocity and remained attached to the capsule in Earth orbit.

The engine was then reignited to propel the spacecraft into its lunar trajectory before finally being discarded.

On 20 July 1969, after blasting off aboard a Saturn 5 rocket, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of another Solar System body. The achievement is impossible to overstate.

Technology lineage

But in 1984 an ugly chapter in the story of the V-2 came back to haunt the American space programme. Arthur Rudolph, the programme manager for the Saturn V was forced to leave the US after details emerged of his association with concentration camp labour during the war.

Rudolph had been a manager at the Mittelwerk factory, which used forced labour from Dora concentration camp.

V-2 (BBC)
After Rudolph, the floodgates of scrutiny swung open. Investigators began to pay particular attention to the wartime record of von Braun, who died in 1977 and was regarded as a hero for taking America to the Moon.

The extent of von Braun's involvement with camp labour in the construction of the V-2, has now become a bone of contention for WW II historians.

The history of von Braun and his rocket team is sure to continue being written and re-written for many more years.

But the technology ushered in by the V-2 has had a most profound influence on the world we live in today.

Our enlightened view of the Universe, the everyday enhancements in our lifestyle enabled by satellite communications, as well as the phenomenon of push-button warfare - they all trace a line to Peenemuende.

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


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