Guernica Magazine

V-2 and Saturn V: A Tale of Two Rockets

What does it mean that the same men who built a deadly rocket for the Nazis helped get America to the moon? The post V-2 and Saturn V: A Tale of Two Rockets appeared first on Guernica.
Bumper V-2 launch, July 1950. Photo: NASA.

“The rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven.”

Wernher von Braun

The world’s first functional long-range ballistic rocket, the V-2, weighed almost 28,000 pounds and could rumble fifty miles up into the crisp unexplored atmosphere. It was so technologically advanced that Nazi Germany became the first country to put an object made by human hands into space. During one particular test in the summer of 1944, launching from an island on the Baltic Coast called Greifswalder Oie, their rocket soared past the “Kármán Line”—which, in marking the boundary between our world and the black void beyond, puts the beginning of space at 100 kilometers above sea level, or roughly sixty-two miles straight up—by almost fifty miles. But the Nazis weren’t interested in setting altitude records. They only cared about height, so that the V-2 could arc over the top of a deadly parabola and then scream its way back down toward earth, where it would punch holes into cities hundreds of miles away. The V-2 was never designed to stay up in the heavens. It was designed to fall.

This Nazi rocket was essentially just an enormous projectile that didn’t require a cannon. A button was pushed, fuel ignited in blinding fury, and off it went into the clouds. The V stood for Vergeltungswaffe, or “vengeance weapon.” For its victims, it blew open the door to the next world. The V-2 was the brainchild of a young man named Wernher von Braun. Quick with a smile, he made parties sparkle with laughter and was known as something of a ladies’ man. Though only in his twenties, von Braun knew how to organize, how to charm, and—most importantly—how to turn blueprints into realities. He was the center of gravity for the V-2 program at Peenemünde: all major decisions orbited around him, and he made sure his rockets hit their intended targets. Von Braun joined the Nazi party in 1937, and three years later, Heinrich Himmler personally invited him to join the SS. Although von Braun accepted this commission, he would spend the rest of his life bending attention away from his involvement with

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