Nazis, ICBMs And The Moon: Space Race

The Space Race was one of the outcomes of the Cold War (1947 – 1991). And two nuclear weapons were recently used by the US. The nuclear stockpile was rapidly increasing on the Earth. And obviously to use these weapons US and Soviets needed precise vehicles to deliver them to their target location, thousands of kilometers away. That’s why the Space Race happened; the rockets used for space missions can also be used to carry nuclear warheads to an enemy country.

Soviets launched the first satellite – Sputnik-1 and also sent the first man in space. They showed the US that they also have rockets capable of reaching US soil. And by conducting these two missions Soviets displayed that they have that precision to deliver the nuclear payload at target.

The next stop was the Moon. The US was already behind in the race, but as we know they won at last. They carried out not one, but six manned moon missions. Now it was clear if they can put men on the moon, then the US can also deliver a nuclear warhead to any country (not only soviets) on Earth. In-fact they can nuke the Moon. Once the US became first to put a man on the Moon, it didn’t matter if soviets can or cannot also do this. It was clear that the US had the biggest rocket man has ever built – Saturn V. And to this day Saturn V is the heaviest rocket in the World. 

Aiming for the Manned Moon Missions served three purposes for both countries:

  • It was an issue of national pride.
  • It was a milestone for the country’s technological advancements.
  • It gave them a chance to upgrade their nuclear missiles, without anyone questioning them.

Sending men in space is not only a complex mission but it also cost ten times more than sending a robot – which will not need any life support system, can work in full efficiency round the clock without sleep and you don’t have to bring it back. Sending men in space is only justified in the case of International Space Station, which is a laboratory where gravity is zero.

From the beginning

In human history, rockets were primarily used in the military. In the 11th century AD, you will find the first mention of rockets in China, probably used in the military. Then there was Tipu Sultan who used rockets against British soldiers.

Fast forward to World War II, German scientists developed the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, V-2. V-2 became the first man-made object to reach space in 1944 in a German experiment. And after the end of WWII, the US and the Soviet Union both took around two thousand German rocket scientists. On the US side was Wernher von Braun, who later played a major role in designing Saturn-V, rocket that took the US to the Moon.

Just after the end of WW2 cold war started, and both superpowers were working on strengthening their arsenal. In later years, the US and Soviets developed two missiles, PGM-11 Redstone (America’s first ballistic missile) and R-7 Semyorka (world’s first Intercontinental Ballistic missile). These two missiles played a major role in taking mankind to space.

The Space Race

The US was first only focused on developing Missiles for its Air force and Navy. And then in 1957, the Soviets launched the first man-made object into space – a satellite – Sputnik 1, atop the Sputnik rocket. Now the Sputnik rocket was just the R-7 Semyorka ICBM, instead of a warhead, a satellite was placed on the top of it. The message was clear from the soviets.

After the launch of Sputnik-1 atop an R-7 missile (which had the capability of reaching the US soil), Americans thought seriously about developing their space program. And as a response to this, US Navy was due to launch a civilian satellite under the Vanguard project (obviously using a missile). After its launch failure, US Army later launched the first American satellite – Explorer 1, using the Juno I rocket. Juno I was derived from Redstone missile and Sergeant missile.

In 1961 Soviets launched the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin, using a Vostok rocket. Which was also derived from R-7 missile. This Vostok family of rockets was later used in many space missions of the Soviet Union. Even today the Soyuz rocket used for launching Astronauts to ISS is also derived from R-7.

For further space missions, Americans developed Juno II rocket from the PGM-19 Jupiter medium-range ballistic missile. The US used upgraded versions of many of their missiles for space missions. Some of the launch vehicles are –

  • Titan – derived from Titan I and Titan II missiles
  • Atlas – derived from SM-65 Atlas ICBM
  • Delta – derived from PMG-17 Thor missile
  • Saturn – developed mainly to launch military satellites

Voyager and Viking missions were sent using the Titan rocket family. And finally, we can trace the origin of Saturn-V back to Redstone missile. In 1950s US Air Force was developing the F-1 rocket engine, but its development was dropped as such a powerful engine had no requirement in Air Force. Until the development of Saturn-V when NASA completed F-1’s development and used it in Saturn-V. F-1 is still the most powerful rocket engine ever made.

Project A119

There was a top-secret plan developed in 1958 by the United States Air Force, to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon. It was officially developed to study planetary astronomy and astrogeology. The plan was to detonate on the Moon surface so that the dust cloud when illuminated by sunlight would be visible from the Earth through naked eyes – A show of force needed to boost American morale. However, the Soviets were also working on a similar project, and Project A119 was a response to that.

              The project was canceled after a year, due to the fear of negative public reaction and a possible return of missile towards Earth if it missed the Moon. Another factor was the possible implications of the nuclear fallout for future lunar research projects and colonization.

Project E

              Soviets in 1958 proposed for a 4-stage project – named E-1, E-2, E-3, E-4. E-1 was planned to reach the Moon, while E-2 and E-3 included sending two probes on the far side of the Moon to take photographs. E-4 was the final mission to detonate the nuclear bomb on the far side of the Moon.

              This was also canceled in its early stages due to the unreliability of launch vehicles.

But, is going to the Moon justified?

Till now we see how the US and Soviet Union used available missile technology for their space missions and there was a huge role played by Nazi scientists in taking both the nations to the Moon and Planets beyond. And of course, the military and space organizations were working together in earlier missions. I see Space Race as the only best thing that came out of the Cold War. Yes, the upgraded missiles that were used as launch vehicles can also be used in the military, but everything has its consequences.

But as I have stated that a manned mission will cost as much as ten times then a robotic mission, and efficiency of an astronaut is very low as compared to a robot. Even though the US sent men to the Moon. It had only one purpose to place the American flag there first. This is also the reason why after Apollo 17 we didn’t return to the Moon, it was not feasible, it still isn’t.

For a government entity conducting manned missions to other Planets and Moon is not worth it. Only commercial organizations can achieve this milestone. Anyways, that’s a story for another time.


Published by Anand Krishna

Amateur astronomer and astrophotographer. Interested in astrophoto processing, astrostatistics, comet hunting, visual and radio astronomy.

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