80 years ago, men reached the gates of space

Published on October 3, 2022


By Louis Anders.

The place is overgrown with vegetation and the tall pine trees that are typical of the region. A few reinforced concrete walls remain, and we can distinguish the trees as earthen walls that surrounded a demarcated area. In this space, where wild nature irresistibly regains its rights, it is hard to believe that one of the most impressive technological achievements of man took place: on October 3, 1942, engineers sent there for the first time a machine designed with their hands out above the earth’s atmosphere and thus reached the gates of the cosmos.

We are on the peninsula of Usedom, in northeastern Germany, on the Baltic Sea. The region is popular among Germans for its tall forests and beautiful white sandy beaches. Not far away is the island of Rügen, a popular spot for local artists, and further north, 200 kilometers away, the island where the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahé made fundamental observations to understand the solar system. Northeast Germany is also known to have hosted one of the largest research and testing centers in the world, the Peenmünde site. Between 1937 and 1944, Peenemünde was used by the German army and air force to develop the most futuristic machines there: rockets, jets, guided missiles… It concentrated thousands of engineers and technicians, employed by the army or by German industrial companies.

” TO Peenemünde, they gathered all the skillsexplains our guide, Mr. Rheiner, an enthusiast who, together with a friend, is trying to bring the great place to life. At the test center, more than 4,000 people arrived in the morning and left in the evening, especially with the help of a revolutionary electric train, the fastest at that time. “.

The great pioneers, from the Urals to the Atlantic

It was here that the first rocket in history was developed, the A4, which would later be called the V2. First intended for military use in the context of war, then used as the basis for the first ballistic missiles, it was mainly used to envision the future launchers which, in Soviet Russia and the United States, would make it possible to send satellites and people around the world.

The A4 (V2) rocket with its emblem representing The Woman on the Moon, Fritz Lang’s film from 1929, which the engineers had wanted to draw on the machine. © Louis Anders

A technological prodigy, the rocket designed by the German engineers immediately incorporated all the main principles that will enable man to leave his native land and see what the other planets look like: use of lightweight materials resistant to supersonic engines, integration of gyroscopes for autonomous control, the miniaturization of radio transmitters and receivers, the design of liquid oxygen engines and tanks that keep the fuel at a temperature of -180 C°, or the installation of sensors to check the state of living matter, and the invention of launch procedures with countdown.

In a book published in 1954, the former head of the German rocket development program, Walter Dornberger, who after the war envisioned the plans behind the famous American X15 aircraft, recounts the years of technical and administrative difficulties to achieve initial success. It also shows the enthusiasm and creativity of this young generation of engineers, many of whom would be mainstays of the Apollo missions to the Moon in the 1960s.

What remains of the old launch area (an old fire pipe, on the sides some gas evacuation corridors). © Louis Anders

The dream of interplanetary travel

As often in the history of technology, it was governmental and military need that made the emergence of the stratospheric rocket possible. Indeed, it was in order to circumvent the Treaty of Versailles restrictions on long-range artillery that the German army invested in alternative devices from 1932. But the development of the first rocket in history n would never have seen the light of day without the astonishing momentum that prevailed on the subject in Europe and the West.

From the beginning of the century, a Russian inventor, influenced by the stories of Jules Verne, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began to study the means that could allow man to tear himself away from the earth’s gravity. It will not be the hot air balloon that depends on the air, nor the airplane that has just been born and operates on the same principle, but the rocket. His mathematical calculations led him to discover that putting into orbit or an interplanetary flight depended on one essential factor: the speed of the rocket. In order for the craft to leave Earth, it was necessary to equip it with several separable stages and to use only a certain type of special fuels, which he mentioned.

Independently of each other, the Frenchman Robert Esnault-Pelterie or the American Robert Goddard had also studied the issue around 1910, imagining or creating instruments to allow rockets to reach the upper atmosphere. Then came a German from Transylvania, Hermann Oberth, who is considered one of the fathers of astronautics: he took note of these works, added his own analyzes and published in 1923 Rockets for interplanetary space, a book that sparked the passions of many young Germans. Written in balanced terms and always accompanied by figures relating to a practical realization, the work claimed that, in the context of the science and technology of the day, it was possible to build machines that rose above the atmosphere, that such machines could transport people without risk of damage to their health and that they may even become commercially profitable in the long term. But from the printed ink to the realization, there is a world…

Technological prowess

In 1927, Hermann Oberth and other somewhat dreamy scientists founded a “Society for Space Travel” in Germany. This edited a serious review, the rocket, where ideas bubbled up: some wanted to create rockets for mail transport, others supersonic aircraft, still others spacecraft to visit other planets. The first results were not long in appearing, such as a car powered by mini-rockets, a prototype of a jet-cooled engine or even flights of (very small) liquid fuel rockets. But capital was lacking; indeed, most industrialists and academics did not consider it useful to follow up on projects as embryonic as they were futuristic.

It is within this disordered breeding ground of brilliant engineers that part of the German army will recruit its first thinking heads.

Walter Dornberger would later write:

We were tired of imaginary space travel projects. The sixth decimal in the calculation of the curve of the orbit between Earth and Venus left us as indifferent as the problems of heating and ventilation of the Earth-Mars spacecraft. What we wanted was to move forward, to experiment. We needed combustion chamber performance charts. We wanted to know how much the machines consumed per second, what was the most efficient mixture of fuels, how to solve the problems of heating, what shape to give to the injectors, the combustion chamber and the nozzle… “.

And that was only a small part of the completely new problems that the researchers had to solve.

I had great difficulty at first in liberating my young collaborators from their illusions of interplanetary travel and in forcing them to devote themselves to a methodical work of research and improvement. “.

But in 1942, after ten years of development and often failed tests, its team sent the first artificial machine to the gates of the cosmos.

After this feat, the research program whetted the appetite of German industry and the SS organization, both of whom would try to take control of it. It also began to alarm the Allied Powers, who carried out a massive bombardment of Peenemünde in August 1943, killing nearly 800 people. Others will follow, causing a gradual movement of flight tests.

Even today, Peenemünde has preserved traces of the war.

There are still unexploded bombs in the groundsays our guide, pointing to a large patch of forest with no access. Nobody cared; a million euros would be needed to manage everything “.

And in the main lake of the place still lies the nose of an English bomber that was shot down by the anti-aircraft defense.

Artemis, a hundred years after the first sketches

The military career of the V2 rocket was short: the first used as a weapon was launched in September 1944 against the port of Antwerp and the city of London, and the last in March 1945. At the end of the war, the launcher will be used mainly for studying Earth’s upper atmosphere, enabling fundamental advances in the understanding of the gaseous mantle that surrounds our planet. Then the space race between the Soviet and American empires gave birth to satellite communications, space surveillance and, above all, the first interplanetary probes.

After being pursued by the Russians, the first to send a man and multiple crew around the Earth, the Americans caught up with the German engineers of the V2 who had moved to the West after the war. Within the US Space Administration, they will envision the means to go to the Moon. To make such a trip, they designed the Saturn 5, the tallest rocket in history (110 meters!), and they developed oxygen and liquid hydrogen engines for its upper stage, a very difficult technology to master that has not yet been surpassed today . It is she who NASA has chosen to build the Space Launch System (SLS), its giant launch vehicle which will allow a return to the Moon in 2025. The new Artemis missions are the cornerstones of a larger project which provides the construction of a station in orbit around the moon star, lunar exploration and possible trips to Mars. Exactly what the German rocket pioneers dreamed of almost a century ago…

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