Rocketry in WW2

12 May 2020

Interview with 

Rebecca Charbonneau, University of Cambridge

ROCKET

a greyscale image of a large rocket

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While the Allied forces were working on weapons, the Nazis were developing their own. They were working on rockets. Weapons that could be fired from a distance and be trusted to stroke their target. These were the Vengence weapons, first the V-1 rocket (which was nicknamed the buzzbomb, because of the sound it made) and later, the V2 rocket. These weapons have an interesting beginning, and left an interesting legacy that would follow the world long after they stopped being used. Adam Murphy spoke to Rebecca Charbonneau from the University of Cambridge about these early rockets...

Rebecca - In the early 20th century there were several hobbyist rocketry groups which were founded all around the world, but most notably in the US, Germany, and Russia. And this happened quite early on. 1898: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian schoolteacher, first proposed the use of rockets to explore space; and he became the first to prove that it was mathematically possible, and suggested the use of liquid propellant, which was quite a novel idea. Up until the 20th century it had been largely solid propellant rockets that had been used in warfare. This idea of using a liquid propellant rocket was tested for the first time in 1926 by Robert Goddard, who is an American physicist who launched the first successful liquid propellant rocket. It only flew about 12.5 metres high for about 2.5 seconds, which is not successful by our standards even for just model rocketry. But nonetheless, this set the stage for the space age, right? And then that can take us back to Hermann Oberth who, in 1930, he and his small group successfully launched their own rocket, what they called a Kegeldüse, which was a small cone jet. And assisting him with the project was an 18 year old man which is Werner von Braun.

Adam - But this was all on the American stage. What were the Germans working on?

Rebecca - In 1937 the Peenemünde rocket group, which included people like Oberth and Von Braun, was assembled at the start of World War II. Their mission was to develop new weapons of war, which included the A4 rocket, which we now know as the V-2 rocket; and that was built and launched under the directorship of Werner von Braun. Now the V-2 rocket was meant to be launched from Germany in order to decimate cities, right, such as London. But the rocket was more a weapon of terror than efficacy; it was scary largely because of its unpredictability. Because the V-2 travelled faster than the speed of sound, it couldn't be heard until it landed. So this was of course terrifying. However, since its deployment towards the end of the war, the technology wasn't effective or powerful enough to make a major difference in the outcome of the war. In fact, historian Michael Neufeld says that many more people, prisoners in the concentration camps tasked with making the rocket, actually died while making the rocket than who died as a result of its use in war; but, you know, nonetheless it was still an impressive piece of technology. But in 1944 the V-2 became the first artificial object to pass what we know as the Kármán Line, which is generally considered to be the boundary into outer space, a hundred kilometres up. So this arguably makes the V-2 a contender for the first human object in space.

Adam - After the war, the Americans took in lots of former Nazi scientists to have them work on American scientific projects. This was called Operation Paperclip. One of those scientists was Werner von Braun.

Rebecca - Von Braun and his group were moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he led the US Army's rocket development team at Redstone Arsenal. And this effort led to the development of the Redstone rocket, which had a dual role in the United States: it was used for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests conducted by the United States, but also it was the rocket that made Alan Shepard, astronaut Alan Shepard, the first US astronaut to reach outer space. He actually became kind of popular in the public eye; he actually had a role in a Walt Disney film: Man in Space, von Braun, there he is! And several other German, former Nazi scientists are in this Disney film; talking, trying to educate people, with little animations in the background, on how rocketry works, how space exploration works. There's even a case actually to be made that he is part of the reason why Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey space station looks like that; because in the 50s von Braun wrote a popular article on artificial gravity and space stations. And so he's fundamental also in our public understanding of space and space exploration.

Adam - That means von Braun, and even to an extent the space race, have some ethical issues at their foundation. And that should really be considered.

Rebecca - So von Braun's story is an interesting one, and it's one that raises more questions than it answers. How do we as historians handle a figure who inarguably achieved great things, but also participated in horrendous ones? Methodologically this can be especially tricky because human beings often try to take control of their own narratives, right? We might ask ourselves, "did von Braun use the Nazi party's power to help further his own goals, trying to ignore their acts of terror? Or did he actively support their mission? Was he an anti-semite, or was he a victim of sorts, who was forced by threat of violence into working for the German state? It would be simple to write off the accomplishments of von Braun by claiming he was a Nazi, or an amoral person with one singular goal he aimed to achieve regardless of the cost; or alternatively we might be tempted to entirely dismiss his involvement in the war as being forced upon him, and instead choose to venerate his role in the space race. But I would argue that neither of those characterisations do us much good. History is most valuable when we get our hands in the muddy reality of human existence, with its uncomfortable juxtapositions, tragedies, and cruelty; and attempt to understand why people made certain decisions.

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