The United States had begun the initiative that would lead to manned exploration of the moon, we reported in 1947. In “Going Up for Keeps,” we told readers that the first part of our quest would rely on a rocket that was a Nazi instrument of terror during World War II.
German scientists and their V-2 missile that rained destruction in the war’s latter stages were a prize snatched by the American troops to whom that team and its leader, Wernher von Braun, surrendered. Von Braun eventually became deputy administrator of NASA and a longtime contributing editor at Popular Science.
As reported by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Halberstam in “The Fifties,” his history of the early post-World War II period, the rush by Soviet and Allied troops to capture the Reich’s missile scientists as the armies approached Germany from different directions represented the real “beginning of the race for outer space.” Von Braun and his team had decided to cast their lot with the Americans, and motored to the Allied front to be captured. With von Braun and his team spirited off to America, the United States gained a clear early advantage over the Russians.
Some 67 V-2s were harvested as well. Sixty-four were used in experimental launches early in the U.S. space program. To gain altitude, a WAC Corporal rocket was bolted to the top of a V-2. In Feb. 1949, this two-stage combo achieved an altitude of 244 miles, becoming the first rocket to reach outer space. Von Braun later expanded the V-2 design, naming the booster Redstone. In 1961, Alan Shepard would ride a Mercury-Redstone rocket to become the first American in space.
“The days of dreaming about a trip to the moon are over,” proclaimed the second part of our package, “How You’ll Fly to the Moon.” The story treated such elements as multistages, fuel, and the composition of the rocket motor. Prof. Fritz Zwicky of Cal Tech summed things up succinctly: “We first throw a little something into the skies. Then a little more, then a shipload of instruments-then ourselves.”