Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Worth a thousand words

It's October 24th, so let's celebrate another space history anniversary.

War as a technology driver is an axiom, and no war seemed to drive technology as much as World War II. The atom was split to defeat Japan, radar technology was mastered to intercept German bombers over Britain, and a host of medical treatments, from antibiotics to skin grafts, were developed to save the lives of soldiers, sailors, and civilians.

Rockets, of course, also made a technological resurgence during World War II. Their absence  from the battlefield (apart from their cousins, the mortars) was due to their ineffectiveness in the War of 1812. Except for being excellent terror weapons (so much so, we turned a song about rockets into our national anthem), rockets did little damage to targets on the ground.

Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket scientists changed all that. Following in the developmental footsteps of American scientist Robert Goddard, von Braun's team created a continuously-improved collection of liquid-fueled missiles in the mid-1930s called the Aggregat series. Aggregat-1 was a 4-foot-tall rocket with a gyroscope in the nose, and incorporated Goddard's turbo-pump ideas to move fuel into the engine. The second group of Aggregat rockets were fully operational and flew in test launches to altitudes over a mile high. The A3 series, although never successfully launched, incorporated both a stabilizing gyroscope, plus two additional "steering" gyroscopes that manipulated thrust vanes placed in the path of the rocket exhaust.

Dr. von Braun, at right, explaining rocketry to his customer base.
"Nazi, Shmatzi," says Wernher von Braun.
Then came the A4, or as the Nazis named it, Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengence Weapon 2), or V-2. The V-2 was huge - over 45 feet tall, and capable of carrying a 500-lb. payload 55 miles into the sky, and then hit a target 200 miles away at more than four and a half times the speed of sound. It wasn't very accurate, but the speed and the magnitude of the destruction where it landed was a significant advancement in rocket warfare. By the time World War II ended, three thousand V-2s had killed over seven thousand military and civilians on the ground.

After the war, the United States military snapped up von Braun's rocketeers in Operation Paperclip, shuffling the German rocket scientists off to the desert of White Sands, New Mexico. Here, in what the license plates call the Land of Enchantment, von Braun's scientists were given access to the captured equipment from their V-2 days, and instructed to build follow-on missiles with extended range and payload-carrying abilities.
I thought the V2s were all black-and-white, but many were in yellow jacket color schemes.

Among the captured V-2 equipment were entire, unfired V-2 rockets. The Germans tinkered with the war machines, recalibrating the gyroscopes and aligning the rocket vanes to carry the payloads to higher altitudes.

On October 24th, 1946, the thirteenth post-war V-2 was launched in a near vertical configuration. Inside the nose of the rocket, a 35mm motion picture camera was bolted next to an inspection porthole and aimed perpendicular to the direction of travel. A steel ball bearing in a tube leaned against a lever that sat atop the camera's shutter release. When the engine thrust ceased after 45 seconds, the ball bearing (and everything else in the ship) would experience zero gravity, and would no longer be pressing down on the lever. The shutter clicked at an altitude of 65 miles, and this is the first image created by that action:
High over New Mexico

The camera took another picture every 1.5 seconds for the rest of the trip, as the V-2 coasted up to an altitude of 107.5 miles before falling back to Earth. The ship pranged into the desert floor a few minutes later, destroying the rocket and the camera, but leaving the sturdy frame of the film cassette unscathed.

Before the launch, the most distant photos of Earth were taken from balloons at an altitude of 13 miles. This mission moved that record to an altitude five times the previous height. This photo, showing the curvature of the Earth, and taken from the edge of space, can easily be considered the first photograph of the Space Age.

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