Tag Archives: Peenemunde

Baikonur Cosmodrome

There’s something kind of beautiful about this old Soviet rocket design. Notice the arms protruding from the ground? Those arms are what hold the rocket up before launch, using the rocket’s weight to “clamp” it into place. Image from Wikimedia.

I found this 2001 Air & Space article during my research about Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It’s a very good first person account of a visit out to the Baikonur Cosmodrome and some of the run-ups and rituals for launching from there. The writer was there for a launch of the first permanent International Space Station crew (which occurred in November 2000). It’s a neat article, because I love reading about some of the traditions established by the Russians that started with Sputnik-1’s launch. The story is four pages long, so if you have time, give it a read.

Overhead look of some of the launch sites in Baikonur. Image hosted on “Stop Frames of the Planet” blog.

Probably like most space nerds, I’ve known about Baikonur for a long time. It’s a big Russian rocket launch complex. It’s also known by another, perhaps less well-known name: Tyuratam (or Tyura Tam). Either way, the Cosmodrome has a place in space history, as well as missile development history. Like Peenemuende in Germany (some history about that here), it is the site that launched a few space history “firsts.” Probably the most well-known is the launch of Sputnik-1 into space on October 4, 1957 from Baikonur’s “site 1.” Sputnik-1 wasn’t very big, just 23 inches (58 centimeters) in diameter and weighing around 184 pounds (over 83 kilograms).

Almost exactly a month later, Laika the dog was launched in Sputnik-2. Laika, unfortunately, didn’t last long, but the satellite the poor dog was ensconced in was massive when compared to Sputnik-1, weighing in at over 1,120 pounds (about 508 kilograms). Both Sputniks were launched on top of a modified R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)–which was a first as well. The R-7, like the traditions at Baikonur, became well-used. It became a heavily modified rocket design used in space launches even now.

Yuri Gagarin was launched from Baikonur. He was “only” the first man in space. Launched into space on April 12, 1961, we still commemorate that event now with “Yuri’s Night” every year in April. By the way, the organization I work with will be hosting a Yuri’s Night this year (2015). We’re going to have astronauts and others hosting the event, and it will be in our little, but fantastic, museum–the Discovery Center. If you wish to attend, you’ll have to pay, though. If you are close by and wish to attend, just go here.

But back to Baikonur. It is the biggest launch complex in the world. It’s probably also the oldest. The Soviets used to own it, building it in the middle of nowhere (for the most part) so their missile tests wouldn’t inadvertently hurt populated areas. Another consideration for it’s placement in Kazakhstan was to keep Soviet activities away from spying US eyes (although it was photographed by a U-2 within the same year the Soviets started testing ICBMs in 1957). It was a part of the Soviet Union, but now is leased for use by the Russian government from Kazakhstan.

Baikonur is the ONLY place right now that launches humans to the International Space Station. Which makes it the ONLY place that gives humans a physical toehold in space exploration and activities. China might also eventually start placing Taikonauts in their own space station, but until Americans once again have a crew-rated space launch vehicle, the Russians, and Baikonur in particular, are both playing important and historic roles for human space launch.


A Landmark Anniversary for Space?

The first image of Earth from space. Image was atop an A-4 rocket. Image hosted on Wikimedia.  Go here to read more about this rocket and image.

Oct. 3, 1942–72 years ago–an A-4 test rocket was launched from Peenemuende Army Research Center.  The fourth A-4 to be tested, it was the first to successfully fly.  It was also the first rocket to reach the edges of outer space (it flew about 85-90 kilometers above the Earth).

If you’ve never heard of the A-4, there’s another name for it you’re probably more familiar with:  V2.  So yes, the Germans, NAZI Germans in particular, were responsible for achieving a very historic moment–something everyone should have been proud of.  It’s unfortunate that NAZIs were the ones to do this with their V2 for the very obvious reasons that were later exposed through history.

However, such a feat is what led the US government to eventually hire ex-NAZI German scientists after the war, in a secret program called Operation Paperclip.  The US intelligence agencies were convinced the Germans were at least 25 years ahead of the US scientists and engineers.  So they recommended vetting the NAZI scientists, and if they passed certain criteria, they recommended thne hiring the best brains of Germany.

Celebrate, then, the achievement of the first spaceflight conducted by man.  The rather rotten roots of that labor yielded fruit that helped to accelerate the US space and missile programs.  But remember, there were people in the war who were involved–both criminals and victims–who should be thought of as well.  About 27,000 victims died as they assembled and constantly perfected the V2 as a weapon for the Reich.  If you’d like to read more about this particular aspect of NAZI space history, please read my 7 part series, starting with this particular post, here.  Warning–it can get a little depressing.


From German Tunnels to Space, Part 3–Mittelwerk and Dora

Looks pretty, right? But NAZI plans can make something pretty twisted, too. This is from the German Bundesarchiv.

This series started with my experience growing up and appreciating the beauty of Germany, its land and people.  But with that experience came an understanding of Germany’s darker history, a history that country would rather forget.  This is why Mittelwerk is important, especially for space.

There aren’t many people in the world who know about Mittelwerk, dug into the Kohnstein mountains/hills (pictured at the top) located near Nordhausen, Germany.  The reason for its near anonymity is because it was kept secret for a good long while.  We will get into the whys of keeping that secret in another part of this series.  Right now is the time to contrast humanity’s proudest moment—launching a rocket to space—with what should be humanity’s enormous regret and shame.

The Mittelwerk complex was initially mined in the 1930’s.  Later the complex was used to store oil, gasoline, and poison gas.  It was already huge, but by the end of World War II it was bigger.  There were two parallel tunnels (A and B shown on map below) a little over a mile long.  The tunnels were a little over two stories tall, and averaged about 32 feet in width.  46 cross tunnels connected them—each one of those about 600 feet long.  Plenty of room to accomplish plenty of things.

Imagine working in this 12 hours a day, as a slave. Click on the image to get to the interactive map. Image hosted on V2Rocket.com

No surprise then, that someone thought it would be a great idea to use the tunnel complex to build rockets.  The impetus for that idea:  the Royal Air Force bombing of the Peenemuende research facility in 1943.  After that experience, the NAZIs thought it was a fabulous idea to move the building of V2s away from Peenemuende.  They wanted to ensure that V2 rocket research and production weren’t impeded, or worse, destroyed, by enemy air attacks.

So moving to a safer location is reasonable during wartime and Mittelwerk was fairly safe, located deep inside of Germany.  And if they were moving only V2 rocket production and research to Mittelwerk, there would have been no shame.  But they didn’t.  On August 28, 1943, 107 prisoners from Buchenwald were forced to break ground for Mittelwerk—the camp and project was code-named “Dora.”  And remember, in Peenemuende, the NAZIs and scientists working for them used prison laborers in 1943 to build V2s?  These laborers were moved to the Mittelwerk tunnels in the middle of 1943.  Too bad for them, because their work conditions became significantly worse.

The prisoners moved to a different SS concentration camp jurisdiction—one administered by the lovely people at Buchenwald.  These prison laborers had to finish the tunnel complex and make it ready for V2 production.  They had to drill and blast into the rock, widening the tunnels, making them ready for the NAZI rocketship factory.  All of their work was done by hand, with hand tools such as picks and shovels.  They installed temporary rails to move the rock.

Since the tunnel to factory conversion was a high priority project to the NAZIs, no thought was given to building outdoor living facilities for the prisoners, initially.  The prison laborers were forced to sleep in the tunnels they were digging.  For nearly seven months the prison laborers worked in the tunnels, with no access to the world outside.  They ate, slept, worked, and suffered in the tunnels.  If someone took a misstep and fell, he would be beaten, whipped, and kicked.  If a skip full of rocks accidentally tipped, the person responsible would be beaten, whipped, and kicked.  For those that simply died from disease, overwork, or the sheer brutality, a special corpse cart was there to take the dead away.  But the Peenemuende laborers weren’t the only ones suffering.

By the time January 1944 rolled around, an additional 11,200 prisoners were working in the Mittelwerk tunnels.  About 10,000 of them still lived in Mittelwerk’s tunnels.  Not that it should make any difference, but none of the prisoners were Jewish, and all were male.  Working conditions were horrid:  no toilets (barrels were used, and apparently not that many), dust, 12-hour work days, and disease were all conspiring to deliver the weak into Death’s hands.  Of 12,682 prisoner laborers, 669 died in January 1944 alone.

In February and March, the weakest and sickest prisoners were sent to death camps on trains.  There were three trains, and each train contained about 1,000 prisoners.  Combining their deaths with the ones continuously occurring at Mittelwerk raised the number of Mittelwerk-related deaths to 6,000 by April 1944.

Hard to believe it got worse.

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From German Tunnels to Space, Part 2–Peenemuende

Not quite "Frau im Mond" but close enough.

Not quite “Frau im Mond” but close enough.

In the first post to this series, I established my impressions of the German countryside and the Germans themselves:  pretty, green country full of great, hospitable people (some are still friends).  My family lived at the edge of the Ardennes in an area of hills and forests full of bunkers, pillboxes, etc.  All of these structures were evidence of German engineering with the West Wall and subterranean tunnel facilities like tank and rocket factories.  But for space operations in Germany, the modern rocket age began out in the open, along the southern shore of the Baltic Sea:  Peenemuende.

3 October 1942 is the day humanity first reached up into outer space.  It should have been a day of pride for all humanity.  Unfortunately, a NAZI rocket program achieved that historic honor.  The rocket, the fourth one of a series of rockets launched in 1942 from Peenemuende Army Research Center, was the first the program’s scientists considered to be successful overall.  The V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 or Vengeanceweapon 2), as the NAZI’s named it, had flown as high as 85-90 km (53-56 miles), which is considered high enough to be in outer space.

The German scientists and engineers responsible for the V2’s success should sound familiar to anyone with some knowledge of rocketry history:  Wernher von Braun as the facility technical director; Walter Thiel was the facility deputy director; Walter Riedel as design office head; Hermann Steuding for aeroballistics and math; Rudolph Hermann as wind tunnel designer; Ernst Steinhoff for guidance and telemetry equipment; Arthur Rudolph as development and fabrication engineer; Klaus Riedel as test laboratory head; Ludwig Roth in charge of future projects; and Walter Dornberger as military director for operations at Peenemuende.

April 1943, Arthur Rudolph endorsed and requested the use of slave laborers from concentration camps to build the rockets at the Peenemuende V2 Production Plant.  Two months after his request, some 1,400 prisoners started building V2s at Peenemuende under the eyes of the scientists and Heinrich Himmler’s SS.  Oddly enough, the German penchant for organization didn’t extend to the prisoners.  There are few names available of the prisoners who worked and died at Peenemuende.   Those lists seem to be lost.  By the middle of July 1943, V2 rockets were starting to roll off the line.  Wernher von Braun was the one who ran the tests for every single V2 rocket engine produced at Peenemuende to make sure they operated acceptably and without problems for the NAZIs.

17 August 1943.  The British Royal Air Force bombs Peenemuende with three waves of bombers in Operation Hydra.  The prisoners, mostly Polish, paid the heaviest price of the bombing—a little over 500 were killed by Allied bombs.  Ironically, the British aircrews also paid a hefty price:  215 died in Operation Hydra.  A nearby village was also a casualty of not-so-precision-bombing, with nearly 200 of its residents killed.  One of the main targets of the operation, the scientists, came through nearly unscathed—only two were killed:  Walter Thiel and another engineer identified only as Walther.  The V2 production program was delayed for nearly 7 weeks as a result of Operation Hydra.  Peenemuende itself eventually continued conducting V2 test launches until February 1945.

Operation Hydra didn’t finish off the NAZI rocket program and activities, but was aptly named, whether the British knew it or not.  Like the mythical hydra, if you cut off one head, two grow in its place.  The British bombing of Peenemuende encouraged the Germans to find a few hardened, safer locations.  The Germans moved V2 production and testing to two other areas:  Thuringia, Germany, and Blizna, Poland.  Blizna served as a V2 test launch site, where the NAZIs test-launched V2s over populated areas, occasionally destroying buildings unintentionally.  Wernher von Braun reportedly visited the impact areas of these test missile impact areas, looking for possible V2 problems.

Thuringia is where the Mittelwerk came into existence…