WASHINGTON – The V-2 rocket has left a dual legacy as an iconic spacefaring vehicle and the first in a slew of fearsome weapons first developed by the Nazis.

On June 13, 1942, Germany performed the first test launch of the A4 rocket – later dubbed the V-2. The rocket crashed into the Baltic Sea, just more than 1 kilometer away from the launch site near the rocket program’s first base of operations in Peenemünde, Germany. The A4 finally launched successfully on an attempt in October of that year.

“It’s the first real rocket,” said Howard McCurdy, chair of American University’s School of Public Affairs here.

But before it became what McCurdy called the “archetypal prototype” for U.S. launch vehicles, the V-2 was the first operational ballistic missile.

“Technologies tend to be developed as weapons first,” Michael Neufeld, a curator at the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum here, said in a June 2 phone interview.

He said the V-2’s development grew out of three converging factors: German amateur rocket groups interested in sending rockets into space, the German Army Ordnance division’s desire to develop missile technology and the vast sums of money the Third Reich put into weapons research in the 1930s.

Col. Karl Becker instructed Capt. Walter Dornberger, both from Army Ordnance, “to develop in military facilities a liquid-fuel rocket, the range of which should surpass that of any existing gun and the production would be carried out by industry,” according to “The Rocket Team,” written by Frederick Ordway and Mitchell Sharpe in 1979. Without resources from academia or industry to develop the rocket technology, Dornberger hired amateur rocket club members like the Society for Space Travel’s Wernher von Braun, Ordway and Sharpe wrote.

Basing their rocket on designs by Hermann Oberth, the Hungarian-born rocket pioneer, Germany advanced the technological development of large-scale rockets by a decade, Neufeld said.

Production of the V-2 rocket began in the summer of 1936. In December 1942, the Nazis ordered mass production of the V-2, often using slave labor from concentration camps, Ordway and Sharpe wrote.

Despite the progress, Neufeld called the Third Reich’s decision to turn the rocket into a mass-produced weapon an “incredible mistake.” The technology was premature and lacked adequate guidance systems, resulting in its largely ineffectual use on urban areas like London, he said. Neufeld said assertions that the V-2 came too late to be effective in World War II are “way overblown” and “entrenched mythologies.”

In September 1945, as World War II was ending, von Braun and his team of rocket scientists and engineers were smuggled into the United States during a clandestine military operation. The group went to work for the U.S. Army in Alabama, using the V-2 configuration in designing U.S. ballistic and spacefaring rockets.

In addition to forming the basis for U.S. rocket lineage, “the V-2 provided the image of the rocket,” McCurdy said in a June 2 interview. With its pointed top and wing-like vanes, it became symbolic of how the public believed a spacecraft should look, he said.

The first U.S. rockets to successfully launch satellites into orbit and send humans into suborbital space had that distinct V-2 look, McCurdy said. However, U.S. rockets lost their pointed tops and wing-link vanes with the decision to use a ballistic trajectory to loft manned spacecraft into orbit, he said.

The conception of a rocket or spacecraft often determines how the technology works, McCurdy said.

But NASA did not abandon the iconic V-2 image entirely. NASA’s winged space shuttle helped bring it back, McCurdy said. It also is present in Hollywood movies like “Destination Moon,” “2001” and “Star Wars,” he said.

While NASA will retire the space shuttle in 2010 in favor of a ballistic design for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket, commercial spacecraft designers, like Scaled Composites and its SpaceShipTwo design, are bringing the V-2 look back, McCurdy said.

“That image keeps cropping up,” he said.

Comments: cparks@space.com


June 9

1998: Oslo, Norway-based Telenor Satellite Services’ Thor 3 telecommunications satellite launches on a Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

June 10

1978: A U.S. Air Force intelligence satellite, codenamed Chalet 1, launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a Titan rocket. The satellite was renamed “Vortex” after The New York Times printed the codename.


A Zenit-3SL rocket lofts the Thuraya-2 mobile communications satellite, built by Abu Dhabi-based Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications Co., from the Odyssey platform in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.

June 12

1967: The Soviet Union launches the Venera 4 lander to Venus on a modified SS-6 rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

1975: NASA’s Nimbus 6 experimental meteorological satellite launches on a Delta rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

1990: The Indian Space Research Organisation’s Insat 1D launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a Delta rocket. Insat 1 was the last in a series of multiuse communications and meteorological satellites.

June 14

1975: The Soviet Union launches the Venera 10 spacecraft, composed of an orbiter and a lander, to Venus on a Proton rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

1967: NASA launches the Mariner 5 spacecraft on an Atlas-Agena rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a flyby mission to Venus.

June 15

2006: Russia launches the civilian remote imaging satellite, Resurs DK-1, on a Soyuz launch vehicle from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Clinton Parks is the web producer for SpaceNews.com and copy editor for SpaceNews. He is responsible for copy editing and curation for the SpaceNews.com website, and page design, copy editing in the weekly newspaper. He also contributes to specialty...