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Saturday, October 15, 2011

V-2 Rockets and Bombs

Chapter 9B

V-2 Rockets and Bombs

Even though rockets had been used for military purposes since the 1200s, they had never been particularly effective as weapons. But in the 1930s the needs of the German military began to converge with those of the VFR. The main problem for the rocket enthusiasts was the lack of financial support for their activities. They resorted to all sorts of stratagems to raise money. One member by the name of Valier sold Opel on the idea of trying rockets to propel automobiles. This scheme brought in some funding until Valier was killed testing one of his contraptions. The VFR leader, Rudolf Nebel, talked the city of Magdeburg into supporting rocket research that would lead to an experiment sure to make the city famous. At the time there were in Germany many crank theories supporting the view that the Earth was a hollow sphere and we lived in the inside, with our heads, not our feet, pointing to the center. A rocket with a human observer in it could go up a few miles and decide once and for all what the real shape of the Earth was. Nothing but extended survival for the VFR came of the project.

Into this opportunistic search for funds walked the German army. The treaty of Versailles, after WWI, forbid the German development of long-range, heavy artillery. But there was no mention of rockets anywhere in the treaty. A young member of the VFR, Wernher von Braun was able to interest the army generals in his projects, a task facilitated by the fact that he was an aristocrat and the son of the minister of agriculture. Initially the army support was small, but as the tensions in Europe grew and the task of rearmament went into full swing, young von Braun very adeptly played the German armed services against each other (both the army and the air force saw the rocket as their domain). All the while, the story has been told, von Braun and his cohorts kept on designing the future space ship. According to him, "An unbiased visitor to the planning group at Peenemunde would have heard little, if anything, discussed which related to other matters than reaching out into space . . . ." But when it came to economic support, all the talk was of the terrifying weapon they were developing for the fatherland. Their final product, the V-2 rocket, was indeed terrifying. Many a British nightmare began with the horrible whistle of the rocket as it cut through the London night on its mission of death and destruction.

Even if the VFR used the bombing of London to finance space flight ultimately, a critic may still deny them absolution. Moreover, he may argue that this episode is a clear instance of how the quest for space made for more misery than the world would otherwise have endured. And he may also point out how easy it is for scientists to sell their souls to the devil. Oberth thought that space would bring about a more harmonious future. So did the pioneers of aviation. Once in the air, human beings would realize the unimportance of the geographical and political barriers between them. In a similar vein, some believe now that as humans look back at the globe of the Earth from space, they will be struck by the revelation that we are all children of the Mother Earth and therefore brothers. There lie the beginnings of real peace. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam during the war against the USA sent a message of congratulations to its enemy on the occasion of the first lunar landing by the Americans. Perhaps that revelation of brotherhood will become widespread. But only folly would lead us to expect that it can guarantee peace. Brothers are sometimes the worst of enemies. As for the aviators, not long after being awed by the prospects of peace, they were killing each other and reducing cities to rubble. And in spite of the spectacular adventure of the Apollo flights to the Moon, the war in Vietnam continued for several more years.

Nevertheless, let us not leave the V-2 incident unexamined, for that incident gives so much plausibility to the notion that space technology is bound to bring us to grief. We assume that anything that furthered Hitler's cause was evil, therefore the V-2 was evil. But did the V-2 further Hitler's cause? To believe Dornberger, the German general in charge of the V-2 project, it did. He recalls that Hitler apologized to him for not having grasped the significance of the weapon years earlier--the first time in his life that Hitler had apologized. But the man who kept the books, Albert Speer, the minister of munitions, thought that the V-2 had been a terrible waste of manpower and resources. As he put it: "49,000 tons of explosive were dropped on Berlin alone, by which 20.9% of the dwellings were seriously damaged or totally destroyed. In order to direct the same quantity against London, we would have had to employ 66,000 great rockets." Consider for a moment that Germany fired against England a grand total of 1340 V-2s!

By contrast, one American B-17, a long-range bomber, cost six times as much as one V-2 but carried three times as many explosives and could be used many times over. It has been suggested that Germany would have been better off building airplanes instead. This is doubtful. Radar gave the allies a great advantage in defending against the German air force, and thus more airplanes may not have made the difference. Fighters could, of course, be used to defend Germany against the attacking bombers; but it is not clear that the Germans had the gasoline for those extra airplanes while, as Dornberger claimed, the V-2s used alcohol extracted from potatoes. Dornberger, however, fails to take into account the diversion of coal from the production of gasoline (the Germans made synthetic gasoline) to factories producing not only the alcohol but also the more esoteric fuels used by the rockets. Nor does he take into account that cars and trucks could and did run on alcohol. Indeed at Peenemunde, the base for the V-2, the carburetors of trucks had been modified so they could run on rocket fuel.

Whatever the final disposition of the choice between V-2s and airplanes, there is a more straightforward comparison to determine the effectiveness of the V-2. The natural competitor of von Braun's rocket was the V-1, or buzz bomb, a pilotless plane forerunner of the cruise missile, and not a rocket designed with space in mind. According to calculations made by David Irving and later confirmed by Speer, the V-1 killed twice as many Britons for half the production cost of the V-2. Toward the end of the war the British were able to shoot down most V-1s, but the Germans could have instituted easy modifications that would have preserved the success of the V-1. They did not do so because von Braun had convinced them that his big liquid-fuel rocket was the way to go. As Bainbridge concludes, "By any criteria, the V-2 was not a cost-effective weapon. It could not match the performance of much simpler weapons systems, yet drained money, materials, and talent from its sponsors."

Sometimes it is suggested that the V-2 could have carried an atomic warhead. But the Germans did not have one. And if they had, the V-2 could not have delivered it (the payload of a V-2 was less than a ton; an early atomic bomb weighed four tons). Suggestions that the Germans could have combined several V-2s for that purpose, or that they could have built a rocket capable of hitting targets in the U.S. do not stand up to close scrutiny. The same can be said for the notion that a von Braun design had provided an effective antiaircraft missile. But I will let the interested reader consult Bainbridge's analysis (pp.92-122). For our present purposes the important result, at least in this case, is that space technology does not seem to have made matters worse for mankind. If anything the case goes in the opposite direction. This, of course, may not change our moral evaluation of von Braun and his group. Bad intentions or plain callousness are in themselves worthy of blame.

After the war, the V-2 was used for scientific research at high altitude, a task for which it was very well suited. Its military used was limited, as was that of its direct descendants, the Russian T-1 and the American Redstone. And the reason was simply that a rocket was then too expensive and complicated a means of delivering conventional explosives. Nevertheless, opportunity would again come von Braun's way, now with his group forming part of the American rocket program, and for Korolyov, von Braun's Russian counterpart. At first it was the Army's interest in a rocket that might carry atomic warheads; and then in the 1950s, with the development of compact hydrogen bombs, the space rocket seemed to have become at last an effective instrument of war. Thanks to the descendants of the V-2 that terrorized London, man could now make short work of ending all life on Earth.

It is clear that the cold war led both Americans and Russians to spare no effort in developing technology for war. And there is no question that the quest for space played a part in putting the human race under the threat of nuclear annihilation. But as in the case of the V-2, the matter is not all that simple. First of all, that threat would have been there independent of rockets. Bombers would have been sufficient all along. Second, for all the anxiety that threat caused, some argue that the fear of mutually assured destruction (MAD) actually prevented a third world war. And third, the contribution of space technology is ambiguous.

The first point is fairly obvious. The main role of rockets was to make the time of flight so short -- from a few minutes to half an hour depending on their location -- that in case of a confrontation it would have been very difficult to correct any mistakes. To some critics this is a terrible indictment of space technology. And so is the mere fact that rockets have given us one more way of making the destruction of life possible. But this is all a matter of perspective. Let us consider the two indictments separately. It is true that shortening the time from the decision to attack to the actual explosion did not allow for much flexibility. Nevertheless, the problem of inflexibility still existed with bombers and cruise missiles that could not be called back -- as it was the case with the American weapons -- so without rockets the world would get a reprieve of a couple of hours. Once the decision to attack was made, the result would be the same anyway. In any event, from the point of view of the supporters of MAD, the variety and efficiency that rockets offered simply made us work so much harder to make sure that we did not launch an attack. And that was on the whole for the best.

People who hold this view need only point out that the Soviet Union and the United States had such mutually repulsive political systems that a global war would have been inevitable without MAD. And even though the two superpowers constantly engaged in surrogate wars, and even though many other countries insisted in adding their own ghastly contributions, during the Cold War, the world endured nothing comparable to the devastation of WWII. Indeed, it is easy to imagine that a conventional war between the two superpowers, probably in the 1950s, would have dwarfed the confrontation with Hitler. Thanks to nuclear weapons, there was no world war because to start one was to commit suicide. The anxiety produced by MAD was difficult to bear. But given the alternative -- and I mean a conventional, not a nuclear, WWIII -- there were those who would rather be anxious.

The notion is then that, with stakes so high, the world has had to be very careful. But what makes some critics despair is that an accident or a misunderstanding could have brought about the end of the world. As the means of setting the bomb off multiplied, the probability that it would increased. Besides, the shorter the fuse, the harder it is to evaluate whether reports that it has been lit are genuine. A country may retaliate, thinking itself under attack, in a case in which more time could have turned up a computer malfunction or a strange echo on a radar screen rather than an incoming ballistic missile. But on the other hand, the more its means of retaliation, the less a country will fear that it will not be able to get even. In such a case, a country may be more willing to take the chance that its opponent has not really launched a first strike--and more willing also to recognize an accident for what it is. The fewer its means of retaliation, the more paranoid a country may be, and thus the more likely to attack.

In this matter, as in most political matters, people hold strong opinions without hesitation. But it is seldom easy to see why the argument can cut only one way. Nevertheless, let us grant -- for the sake of discussion, if nothing else -- that MAD was a terrible thing, and that the world would have been better without it. Is the link between space technology and the nuclear threat therefore as firm as many believe?

That matter is not so clear either. During a short time in the 1950's, space rockets became suitable vehicles for the newly invented hydrogen bombs. But once the Russian and American space programs began in earnest, the size and power of the new rockets were generally far in excess of what the military needed. Even at the time when the first ICBMs were being built, the goal could have been accomplished without liquid fuel rockets, that is, without space rockets. Solid fuel rockets, it turns out, can serve the military purpose with greater reliability and safety. In fact, in several instances the space rockets were out of the question. The Navy, for example, had no use for a liquid fuel rocket that could be fired only in near perfect weather. The Navy feared that any rocking of the ship could make the rocket explode prematurely -- on deck.

Of course, a solid fuel rocket does not offer as much control. But then the task did not involve putting anything in orbit, and, in any event, given the devastating power of a hydrogen bomb, extraordinary precision was not at a premium. Much later when increased precision was required, new guidance systems had become available for the solid fuel rockets. Thus the military could have had its ICBMs without space; and to concur with Bainbridge, perfect hindsight makes us see that the military should have gone strictly with solid fuel rockets. The direction the military actually took favored space flight and not the means of destruction. And it took that direction because space enthusiasts like von Braun could always make great propaganda out of the technological success of the V-2 and the myth that surrounded it. Without that myth, military rockets would have been very different. As Bainbridge puts it: “The military advantages of solid fuels include cost, storability, reliability, and simplicity. These advantages must be foregone by space vehicles to achieve greater power and control. By its striking superiority over contemporary solid-fuel rockets, the V-2 pointed the direct way toward space but led military technology on a detour."

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