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Thanks for the memories  July 26, 2012

Happy birthday, Nazi rocket

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Michelle Starr is the tiger force at the core of all things. She also writes about cool stuff and apps as CNET Australia's Crave editor. But mostly the tiger force thing.

(V-2 lift-off image by UK Government, public domain)

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first successful flight of the German V2 rocket — a ballistic missile that ended up being the first human-made craft to fly into space.

The Vergeltungswaffe 2 (retaliatory weapon) — or V-2 rocket — was developed as part of Germany's effort in World War II. A ballistic missile powered by liquid propellant, it could travel at over 5000 kilometres per hour and had a blast radius of up to 800 metres.

Its first successful test flight was conducted on 3 October 1942, when it flew 85-90 kilometres into the air from Peenemünde, a village on the Baltic coast — though not quite the 100 kilometres required to breach the Kármán line and enter sub-orbital space.

It wouldn't attain that frontier until two years later, in June of 1944, when it reached an altitude of 189 metres — the highest a human-made object had ever flown, at that time.

The V-2, however, wasn't designed for breaching space, but taking human lives, which it did with, perhaps, not quite as much alacrity as the Germans had hoped. 2754 civilians were killed and 6523 injured by around 3225 rockets that were launched over the course of the war; and perhaps another 4500 or so military personnel were killed.

But the rockets, themselves, killed far many more of the concentration camp prisoners who were forced to construct the rockets at Mittelbau-Dora — somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000.

Then there was the rocket's efficiency. The relatively low death rate racked up by V-2 rockets was the fault of misfires, malfunctions and crashes; and the cost of development and production was excessively high — at least US$2 billion. An estimated third of Germany's alcohol fuel consumption went into the V-2; and towards the end of the war, when fuel was scarce, potatoes were being distilled into fuel for the rockets.

As a weapon, they were pretty abysmal.

But their father — one Wernher von Braun, who had been fascinated with space since boyhood, and who had led the team that developed and then produced the V-2 — got snapped up by the US in 1945, as part of top-secret Operation Paperclip, a program by the US government to "recruit" Nazi scientists. Von Braun was assimilated into NASA, where he became the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and chief architect on the Saturn V project.

It was von Braun's research and technology that gave birth to space flight, as we know it today — none of it could have happened without a brutal weapon of a horrific war.

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