Sunday, July 27, 2008

From Scientific Tool to Weapon and Back Again

From the early 1900s through the 1930s, peacetime governments and the scientific community showed relatively little interest in supporting such pioneers as Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth. Unfortunately, it took war in Europe, and a desire to launch bombs onto other nations, to spur serious, practical development of rockets. The research and development took place almost exclusively in Germany.
During the late 1930s, under the militaristic regime of Adolf Hitler, two rocket weapons were created. The first, known as the V-1, was more a pilotless jet aircraft than a rocket. About 25 feet long, it carried a 2,000-pound bomb at 360 miles per hour for a distance of about 150 miles. It was a fairly crude device: When it ran out of fuel, it crashed and exploded. Out of about 8,000 launched, some 2,400 rained down on London from June 13, 1944, to March 29, 1945, with deadly effect. In contrast to the V-1, the V-2 was a genuine rocket, powered not by an air-breathing jet engine, but by a rocket engine burning a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen.

The V-2 had a range of about 220 miles and also delivered 2,000 pounds of high explosives to its target. From September 8, 1944, to March 27, 1945, about 1,300 V-2s were launched against Britain. Scientists of every stripe spent the years from 1939 to 1945 directing their energies toward the defeat of the enemy. Many of the techniques developed during the war (radar technology and rocket engines, to name two) would become crucial to astronomy in the decades after WWII.
During the last days of the war in Europe, as U.S. forces invaded Germany from the west and Soviet forces invaded from the east, both sides scrambled to capture V-2s and, with them, German rocket scientists, such as Wernher von Braun. Both sides saw the potential in being able to deliver bombs over long distances. These rockets and the scientists who made them were at the center of the Cold War and the Space Race—a period of competition in politics and high technology between the two superpowers that dominated the postwar world.

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