On the clear, bright morning of Oct. 3, 1942, a nervous Wernher von Braun stood atop a building at the German Army's Peenemunde research facility. He stared out intently into the distance at the V-2 rocket – then known as the A-4 – that sat on a launch pad near the Baltic Sea.
Tensions mounted as the countdown approached zero. "Fünf…vier…drei…zwei…ein… zündung (ignition!)" Sparks sprayed out from the engine and cables fell away as the rocket roared off the pad. "Gelöscht!" (Cleared!) an announcer shouted over the loudspeakers as a thunderous noise rolled over the viewing area.
The V-2 arched over the ocean as it gained altitude. The rocket's contrails, scattered by the high-altitude winds, created a zig-zag pattern that engineers would later dub "frozen lightning." A tone transmitted from the rocket went from a low hum to a piercing shrill as the speed passed Mach 1 and then Mach 2. The engine cut off as planned at 54 seconds, and the missile soared to nearly 60 miles in altitude before crashing into the ocean as planned nearly five minutes into launch.
Von Braun and his team were ecsatic. He and his team had worked nearly a decade to perfect the development of a rocket. They had now flown the world's first ballistic mission on its inaugural flight.
Standing 46 feet tall and weighing in at 28,000 lbs (12,700 kg), the rocket was powered by a 75% ethanol/water mixture and liquid oxygen (LOX). The single-stage, surface-to-surface rocket was capable of delivering a one-ton payload of explosives against a target hundreds of miles away.
The rocket was known as the A-4 (Aggregat-4) during development by the German Army. The Nazi government renamed it the V-2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 or vengenance weapon) after it became operational. Adolf Hitler wanted to retaliate against the Allies for bombing German cities. He was also wrongly convinced that this new wonder weapon, along with the V-1 buzz bomb, could reverse the course of World War II.
Nearly two years after the first successful test launch, three rockets were fired against Paris and London, and on Sept. 8, 1944, three people in the English suburb of Chiswick were killed. The German Army launched over 3,000 V-2 against London, the Dutch city of Antwerp, and other targets. An estimated 7,250 military personnel and civilians died in the attacks. An additional 12,000 slave laborers were killed building the rocket under horrid conditions in an underground factory in central Germany.
Although it wreaked vengeance on the enemy, the V-2 did not help Hitler to win the war. The rocket was too inaccurate and it was introduced too late in the war to have much of a military impact.
The rocket's real legacy came after the war. The V-2 opened the Space Age and was the progenitor of all modern rockets developed by the United States, Soviet Union and other nations. Its successors would create an arsenal of nuclear missiles and also launch satellites and humans into space.
Von Braun and the core of his team surrendered to the Americans and immigrated to the United States. The team would help to develop the Jupiter and Redstone rockets that launch America's first satellite, Explorer 1, and first American, Alan Shepard, into space. Von Braun's crowning achievement was the Saturn V, which put men on the moon in 1969.