In 1944, German rocket scientists developed the world’s first guided missiles and used them against Belgium, France and England. After the war ended, the U.S. Army brought those scientists on board and set them to work developing missiles for our side.
Their work would eventually help put America on the moon.
The V-2 – “V” for “vergeltungs-waffe,” or “retaliatory weapon” – was first used on Sept. 6, 1944. Two were intended for targets in Belgium, but neither fired properly. It wasn’t until Sept. 8 that the first V-2 found its mark, striking the southeastern suburbs of Paris, killing six and injuring 36. An attack on London later that day killed three and injured seven.
Over the last seven months of the war, more than 9,000 V-2s were lofted at Germany’s enemies. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in London alone – 160 in a single hit on a shopping center on Nov. 25, 1944.
As the Soviet Army closed in on the German rocket base in Peenemünde, the leader of the V-2 team, Wernher von Braun, decided he’d rather be captured by Americans than by Soviets. He and his team fled to Austria and surrendered to a very surprised private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division.
Von Braun and his team were held and debriefed in a fairly comfortable castle in Kransberg and then recruited under a program that came to be called Operation Paperclip. On June 20, 1945 – 75 years ago Saturday – the U.S. secretary of state approved the transfer of von Braun and his engineering team to the United States.
Dozens of captured V-2 rockets were launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Eventually, the Army put von Braun and his team to work in Huntsville, Alabama, developing ballistic missiles. That work resulted in one of the most reliable U.S. missiles of the day and eventually put the first U.S. satellite in orbit, the first American in space and the first man on the moon.
How von Braun's team's rockets evolved over 25 years
First flew: 1944
Length: 46 feet
Weight: 27,580 lbs.
Able to carry a ton of explosives up to 200 miles. Americans captured dozens of unused missiles and conducted tests with them through 1952.
First flew: 1953
Length: 69 feet
Weight: 61,207 lbs.
America’s first ballistic missile was developed for the U.S. Army in Huntsville, Alabama, by von Braun and his team.
First flew: 1957
Length: 60 feet
Weight: 109,978 lbs.
Designed to carry nuclear weapons, these missiles were briefly deployed to Turkey. They were removed after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
First flew: 1958
Length: 70 feet
Weight: 64,070 lbs.
This variation of the Redstone launched test missions from Cape Canaveral, including the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. Von Braun maintained he could have put a satellite into orbit much earlier.
First flew: 1958
Length: 79 feet
Weight: 64,070 lbs.
Consisted of a Jupiter missile with an additional stage on top. Was used for a number of satellite missions.
First flew: 1960
Length: 83 feet
Weight: 66,000 lbs.
NASA chose von Braun’s missile for its first Mercury missions. It was developed from an upgraded version of the Juno I called the Jupiter-C. Was used for the first two manned U.S. space flights.
THE BIG THREE
First flew: 1961
Length: 180 feet
Weight: 1.1 million lbs.
First stage consisted of a Jupiter fuel tank surrounded by eight Redstone tanks. Originally developed by von Braun’s team to lift military satellites into orbit, the Saturn was selected by NASA as the basis of the series of rockets that would put man on the moon.
First flew: 1966
Length: 223 feet
Weight: 1.3 million lbs.
Created by marrying the Saturn I first stage to a new third stage that would also be used in the Saturn V. Used for Apollo 7 in 1968 and for ferry duty for the Skylab program in 1973 and 1974.
First flew: 1967
Length: 363 feet
Weight: 6.6 million lbs.
The ultimate expression of von Braun’s work is still the most powerful rocket ever flown. Thirteen were flown, including two that boosted crews around the moon, six that landed men on the moon and one that placed Skylab into orbit.