The A-4/V-2 – One Rocket Design, Two Roles In History

Aggregat 4, Peenemunde, 3 October 1942:The first man made object to ever touch space.

Aggregat 4, Peenemunde, 3 October 1942: The first man made object to ever touch space.

For the first time we have invaded space with our rocket. Mark this well, we have used space as a bridge between two points on the earth; we have proven rocket propulsion practicable for space travel. This third day of October, 1942, is the first of a new era of transportation: that of space travel.

– Walter Dornberger*

It has been an unfortunate fact throughout history: science and invention has almost always been corrupted by man for the use of destruction. Such has been the history of the German Aggregat rocket series. Aggregat was the project name chosen by the scientists who worked on and developed the A-4 – the first man made object to touch space. The term referred to a group of machines working together. The more commonly used name for the A-4 rocket is the V-2, from the German, Vergeltungswaffe 2 or Vengeance-Weapon 2. The two names – A-4 and V-2 – sharply contrast the aims of the scientists who developed this technological achievement, and the political class that manipulated it for destructive means.

Today the V-2 is infamous as the rocket that terrorized the British Isles and Europe during the Second World War. It is also known as the ‘grandfather of America’s family of large missiles.’* Beginning in 1945, the U.S. began it’s own rocket development program using V-2 components captured in the European Theater of Operations. With Project Paperclip, the U.S. government back-engineered the V-2 with the aide of captured German scientists and rocket specialists led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun. This earlier work would lead the way to the development of ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) and the threatened nuclear terrors of the Cold War.

Still, there were those who never lost sight of the more farsighted visionary aspects of the A-4/V-2. Beginning in 1946, the V-2 began to be used by the U.S. to launch an array of experiments – the results of which would become vital to the understanding of various properties of the atmosphere and the development of manned space exploration.

One of the most significant  of these experiments occurred on 24 October 1946. A V-2 rocket was launched from White Sands, New Mexico, that reached space by achieving an altitude of 342,900ft (104,600m). A mounted camera, provided by John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, captured the first photograph of Earth taken from space and a continuous motion picture of the Earth’s surface at altitude from 100ft to 65 miles (105km).*

The First Photo From Space

The first photograph of the horizon of Earth taken from space. Photographed at an altitude of 105km, at this point the camera was theoretically 1,200km from the horizon and the picture takes in 10,360km2 (40,000 sq miles) of space.*

Putting all politics aside, this was a great moment for the human species. For the first time people of the Earth saw what the planet looks like from above the atmosphere. The pictures didn’t show the images we’ve grown accustomed to in this age, but they did show the diversity of the Earth’s surface covered with ice, land, and water – and past the curve of the planet’s horizon, the darkness of mysterious space. A video of these profound moments is presented below.

While the history of the A-4/V-2 rocket has been cluttered with terror and horrors, it seems ironic that the same rocket would be used to show us images of the singular planet that we all share in the enigmatic vastness of space. This view vindicates the early vision of the scientists and engineers who celebrated the success of the Aggregat 4. It also condemns the darker forces of humanity that have used it towards their nefarious ends.

V2 Rocket launched from White Sands, New Mexico (USA) in 1946 returned the first photos of Earth from space. (Video courtesy White Sands Missile Range)

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