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Military Origins of the Space Race

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The V-2 Missile
The Corporal Missile
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The V-2 was the largest and most complex missile in the German arsenal. It could send 1,000 kilograms (1 ton) of explosives more than 240 kilometers (150 miles) down range in five minutes.

The single rocket engine used a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen to provide thrust for about a minute. After engine shut-off, the missile traveled to its target on a ballistic trajectory--that is, falling under the influence of gravity.

V-2 line art
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The V-2 was guided during powered flight either by radio signals from the ground or by onboard gyroscopes and a device to measure the rocket's acceleration. It had control vanes in the rocket exhaust and air vanes on the fins.


The V-2 was designed and tested at remote Peenemünde, but after Allied bombing raids there, production was moved to widely separated sites. The main production center, Mittelwerk, was located underground in the Harz Mountains in central Germany.

Building V-2s in quantity became a vast enterprise in 1944. Near the war's end, almost 700 V-2s were being produced monthly in caverns near Nordhausen.

Peenemünde, after Allied bombing raids
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Concentration camp prisoners built V-2s under unbearably harsh working conditions. Thousands perished in the process.
building V-2s
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The V-2 missile achieved Hitler's goal as a terror weapon. From September 1944 until March 1945, about 2,900 V-2 missiles were fired against England, Belgium, and France from mobile launchers in Germany and its occupied territories. Shown here is a typical launch site in late 1944. The V-2s were camouflaged to reduce their visibility to Allied bombers.
V-2 launch
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More than 1,100 V-2s hit southern England alone, causing an estimated 2,700 deaths and 6,500 injuries. Even more missiles were launched against the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. As this chart shows, strikes were concentrated against population centers. Because the Germans could not pinpoint targets with precision, anyone within the surrounding area could be hit. V-2s killed a total of 7,000 people in Europe.

Adapted from The Blitz Then and Now (Volume 3)

chart showing strikes that were concentrated against population centers
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This is a scene in Antwerp, Belgium, just after a V-2 strike. The V-2 demonstrated a new ability in warfare to send bombs quickly to a target. Traveling four times faster than sound and falling silently along their trajectory after engine shut-down, the missiles struck without warning.

U.S. Army photograph, courtesy of Fred Ordway

Antwerp street scene
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