Ballistic Missiles and Space Rockets
Today’s ballistic missiles, the carriers of terrifying payloads with the potential to end all life on earth, are the direct descendants of Nazi technology. And since space rockets are basically ballistic missiles, they are also the direct descendants of Nazi technology. Indeed, both America’s NASA space program, and that of Russia via its Soviet predecessor, were built on the back of pioneering Nazi rocket technology.
After Germany’s defeat in WW2, and even earlier, during the chaotic weeks preceding the collapse, the victors scrambled to secure Nazi missile technology. The Americans and Soviets in particular raced each other to seize as much Nazi rocket research, facilities, and equipment, as they could. They also competed to capture or coopt all the German rocket scientists and technicians they could get their hands on.
The reason was simple: at war’s end, German rocket technology was the most advanced in the world, standing leagues ahead of that of any other country. Germany’s V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile. It carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate upon impact. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology.
As a technological feat, it was outstanding. Luckily for mankind, as a war winning weapon, it was a bust. The V2 was one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons, inflicting relatively little damage upon Germany’s enemies. Not enough to justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into the missile’s production. The Allies benefitted, and the Nazis did not, from the diversion of resources to the rocket from more effective weapons programs or other uses that could have better served the German war effort.
V2 rockets were first launched against enemy targets in September of 1944. By the time Germany surrendered, nine months later, about 3000 V2s had been fired. Many did not reach their targets, but even if all had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been a total of 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities, spread out over a nine month period. By contrast, during the same period, Britain’s RAF often dropped over 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single nighttime bombing raid. The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids during the daytime. And the Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, returned to again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times.
Also, during its nine months of operational deployment, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by V-2s killed 2754 people. The majority were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. On the other hand, over 20,000 workers – mostly slave laborers – died while manufacturing the V2. That gave the missile the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.
In the hands of the Americans and Soviets after the war, that Nazi technology bore bigger fruit. Both for ill, with the missiles and ICBMs that might contribute to wiping out humanity, and for good, in space rockets that set humanity on the path to exploring the cosmos – a path that might prove the species’ salvation, someday. Of course, the Nazis had not poured all those resources into the V2 rocket program in order to pave the way for humanity’s future exploration of the cosmos. Nor had they intended the program and its scientists to seed the space programs of their American and Soviet enemies after the war. The Nazis had intended the V-2 as a war winning weapons program, so from that perspective it was a spectacular bust for them.