High Strangeness: The Birth of Spaceflight

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Birth of Spaceflight

I'm not the one-dimensional UFO buff I appear to be. My interest in otherworldly experiences encompasses astronomy, science fiction and the history of spaceflight, among other things. Which is relevant because in a few weeks I have the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the rocketship!

My wife Mxxxxx, younger daughter Cxxxx and I are traveling to Germany next month to spend a week with older daughter Dxxxxx, who is working as an pair to a delightful German family in the city of Karlsruhe. Before meeting them I already know I love my daughter's employers, Txxx and Sxxx, because they are both die-hard Trekkies, and at Dxxxxx's request we gave them one of my Star Trek: Deep Space Nine scripts for Christmas. How's that for positive foreign relations?

For the first few days, we'll be staying in Berlin, seeing all the city sights. Then, mid-week, we'll be traveling by train or autobahn across the country to Karlsruhe, which is just at the northern tip of the Black Forest and only a few kilometers from France. En route, I hope to make a stop at Nordhausen, site of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Normally, a historical memorial at a WWII concentration camp would not be high on my list of vacation stops, but Mittelbau-Dora is where the Germans instituted mass-production of the V2, or "Vengeance Weapon 2," the first true operational rocketship that was used to rain down destruction on London and Antwerp in the waning days of the war.

The V2, earth's first true rocketship
Actual design and development of the V2 was done further north at Peenemunde, on the Baltic Sea coast, but after an Allied bombing raid nearly destroyed that installation, the work was literally moved underground, to a secret system of mountain caves outside Nordhausen in central Germany.

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the rest of the story. The V2 did not turn the tide of the conflict as the Germans had hoped, and many of the brilliant engineers who developed the V2, among them Dr. Werner von Braun, ended being spirited off to Hunstville Alabama after the war, where they created the United States' own guided missile and rocketry program. That's a story worthy of its own write-up.

What does it say about the human race that our first real concentrated attempt to break the bonds of earth's gravity and launch a guided man-made craft into the outer atmosphere came in the form of a weapons-development program that relied to a significant degree on slave labor and resulted in massive death and destruction, not only to the civilians in the cities that were targeted but also to the thousands of enslaved prisoners-of-war who died at Mittelbau-Dora? Perhaps it was inevitable that earth's first real rocketship was born as a weapon of vengeance.

In the end, I'd like to think that it says even more about the human race that we have been able to use that same war-time technology to put men on the moon and to send probes out into space to take photos like this:
Saturn, one of our celestial neighbors, taken from NASA's Voyager 2
I also think it's interesting that only a few short years after the V2's heyday, in the summer 1947 in fact, the modern era of UFOs began with the back-to-back Kenneth Arnold "flying saucer" sighting in Washington State and the Roswell UFO crash in New Mexico. Makes you wonder...

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