Tag Archives: space age

V2 rocket on launch pad in Germany, 1945.

V-2: The Rocket that Launched the Space Age

This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.  

On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.

For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.

The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum

It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.

Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.

The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.

The First Woman in Space

Ulrika Danielsson, Content Coordinator for the Cosmonauts exhibition, reflects on the first woman to travel into space.  

On this day (16 June) in 1963, the spacecraft Vostok-6 thundered off into space, joining Vostok-5 in orbit. Shortly afterwards, the commander of Vostok-6 could be heard excitedly calling out over the radio:

“Ya Chaika, Ya Chaika [I am Seagull]! I see the horizon [...] This is the Earth; how beautiful it is. Everything goes well.”

26-year-old Valentina Tereshkova from the Soviet Union had just made history by becoming the first woman in space.

Tereshkova became an instant celebrity as images of her on board Vostok-6 were transmitted to Earth. In fact, due to the mission being shrouded in secrecy, Tereshkova’s own mother only found out about her daughter going to space when seeing the television broadcast.

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6

Tereshkova on-board Vostok-6, credit: Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation

Returning to Earth after 2 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes in orbit, Tereshkova was feted as a heroine. Her spacecraft, kept for posterity, will be displayed in the exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age which opens at the Science Museum in November 2014.

The mission was not a flawless success but this was hushed up by Soviet leaders who recognised her propaganda value. Joining a small group of flown cosmonauts, Tereshkova soon travelled the world as a cultural ambassador and political spokeswoman.

Within the Soviet Union the cosmonauts were idealised as heroes of a new era that the population should seek to emulate, while abroad they became the public face of the regime. Consequently their schedules were gruelling, and their image and behaviour carefully controlled; private lives ceased to be private.

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Tereshkova, fellow Cosmonauts and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow

Like the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, Tereshkova wanted to fly again but was considered too important as a propaganda tool. Gagarin and Tereshkova’s value partly lay in qualities identified already at their initial selection; both came from modest backgrounds, were diligent students, model workers, politically loyal and personable. They were now celebrated as the communist dream come true.

Tereshkova’s public image differed from Gagarin’s however and was strictly gendered. While Gagarin was portrayed as a military hero in uniform, Tereshkova was shown with immaculate hair and make-up, wearing feminine dresses and high heels. In this way she came to embody the civilian, peaceful aspect of space travel.

In the early 1960s Soviet women were also encouraged to combine good work ethics and political commitment with femininity and a sense of style. Official accounts of Tereshkova consequently tried to reconcile her aptitude for science and technology with being feminine and chic.  To quote R.P. Sylvester, “[...] drab was out and Dior was most definitely in”.

Tereshkova and Gagarin

Tereshkova and Gagarin, credit: RIA Novosti

While Tereshkova’s accomplishment was held by many as living proof of gender equality under Communism, it soon became apparent that there was a lack of real commitment to continued female participation on the Soviet space program. Not until 1982 would another woman make it into orbit.

Over 50 years after her own space flight, Valentina Tereshkova describes it as the most bright and wonderful experience of her life, and maintains that given the opportunity she would fly into space again.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening soon.