Rockets society and rocket societies

Why was battle-scarred Germany so open to the opportunities of the rocket when the victorious and more prosperous United States was not? In reality it was just another aspect of the scientific and cultural blossoming that briefly occurred under the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, freed from the repressive conservatism of the old kaiser. The German expressionist films of the time were another, and, not surprisingly, the two eventually came together.

In 1929 the film director Fritz Lang recruited Oberth and Willy Ley to act as consultants for his ambitious new project Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon), which was to be the first serious film about space travel. The film borrowed heavily from Oberth's ideas and popularized an image of the rocket that has persisted to this day. It also proved that while Oberth was a fine theorist, he was no engineer: persuaded by Lang that a rocket launch would be the perfect publicity stunt to open the film, Oberth and his colleagues laboured for months to build Germany's first liquid-fuelled rocket, but they met with little success, and an explosion during testing cost Oberth the sight in one eye.

"the rockets ... can be built so ... powerfully ...

that they could

FRITZ LANG'S VISION

Long's lunar voyage is a tale of jealousy and mistrust among the crew of on expedition visiting the Moon in search of gold discovered by the astronomer Professor Manfeldt.

Nevertheless, later in 1929 Oberth did manage to test-fire a liquid-fuelled rocket engine called Kegeldiise in the laboratory. By this time, he had begun to collaborate with a young and enthusiastic engineer called Wernher von Braun. The two had met through the VfR space and rocketry society (see p.22). Now back on familiar territory as a theoretician and the elder statesman for a new generation of rocketeers, Oberth was finally able to see some of his dreams become reality, as the VfR made a series of successful rocket launches. Throughout the later development of the German missile programme, and the US space programme that followed it, he would remain a peripheral, though influential, figure.

be capable of carrying a man aloft."

Hermann Oberth, 1923

Another manifestation of the German obsession with rockets were the rocket-propelled vehicles of the late 1920s. Developed by manufacturing magnate Fritz von Opel in collaboration with powder-rocket maker Friedrich Wilhelm Sander and Austrian space enthusiast and author Max Valier, the Opel-RAK series of cars, aircraft, and even railway carriages began with the RAK 1 (left) driven by Kurt Volkhart to a top speed of 75kph (47mph) on 15 March 1928. The much-improved RAK 2, powered by 24 separate rockets, reached 230kph (143mph) just two months later. Although they were mainly intended as publicity stunts, Valier in particular seems to have been keen to develop the idea further. Tragically, he was killed by shrapnel when the liquid-fuelled engine he planned to fit on the RAK 7 car exploded in his laboratory.

YOUNG ENTHUSIAST

The young Wernher von Broun (right) carries an HW-series rocket at the VfR's Raketenflugplatz (rocket airfield) outside Berlin.

GIRO 09

Yefremov's early rocket design used liquid oxygen to burn a petroleum gel fuel. This hybrid design achieved far better performance than the GIRD-X. The first launch reached 400m (1,300ft), and later ones reached 1,500m (5,000ft).

LAUNCHING GIRD 09

Nikolai Yefremov contends with a dangerous leak of liquid oxygen during one of GIRD's several attempts to launch its hybrid-fuel rocket in August 1933.

Rocket societies

The 1920s and 1930s saw the formation of a number of rocket societies - clubs where like-minded physicists and engineers collaborated to develop new and more powerful types of rocket.

YOUNG ENTHUSIAST

The young Wernher von Broun (right) carries an HW-series rocket at the VfR's Raketenflugplatz (rocket airfield) outside Berlin.

LAUNCHING GIRD 09

Nikolai Yefremov contends with a dangerous leak of liquid oxygen during one of GIRD's several attempts to launch its hybrid-fuel rocket in August 1933.

Most of the world's early rocket societies started out as groups of keen amateur enthusiasts, such as the American and British Interplanetary Societies (established in 1930 and 1933), and the astronautical section of the French Astronomical Society (established in 1927, and for which the term astronautics was first coined). But two in particular caught the attention of their respective governments.

The VfR

Germany's Verein für Raumschiffahrt or VfR (Society for Space Travel) was founded in 1927 at Breslaw (now Wroclaw in Poland) by Johannes Winkler, an engineer at aircraft manufacturer Junkers. The authors Max Valier and Willy Ley were early members, and numbers soon swelled to 500 people, including influential figures such as Hermann Oberth, Eugen Sanger, Arthur Rudolph, and a young student called Wernher von Braun.

By February 1931, Winkler was able to launch Europe's first liquid-fuelled rocket, the HW-1, from Dressau. He used a powerful combination of liquid methane and liquid oxygen in his rocket, which was able to reach altitudes of 500m (1,600ft). Over the following months, VfR members conducted a series of increasingly ambitious launches from their rocket airfield near Berlin, using a design conceived by

GIRO 09

Yefremov's early rocket design used liquid oxygen to burn a petroleum gel fuel. This hybrid design achieved far better performance than the GIRD-X. The first launch reached 400m (1,300ft), and later ones reached 1,500m (5,000ft).

GERMAN ROCKETEERS

VIR members including Rudolf Nebel (far left), Hermann Oberth (centre), Klaus Riedel (right of centre in light coat), and Wernher von Braun (far right) are seen here with Oberth's Frau im Mond rocket. Riedel is holding a Mirak rocket.

3 The 2nd stage takes the payload into orbit

TECHNOLOGY

PRINCIPLES OF ROCKET STAGING

GERMAN ROCKETEERS

VIR members including Rudolf Nebel (far left), Hermann Oberth (centre), Klaus Riedel (right of centre in light coat), and Wernher von Braun (far right) are seen here with Oberth's Frau im Mond rocket. Riedel is holding a Mirak rocket.

All the early rocket pioneers soon hit upon the idea of multi-stage rockets (which Tsiolkovskii called rocket trains). The major problem faced by any rocket is the sheer weight of fuel that it must carry if it is to generate sufficient thrust at launch to get moving against Earth's gravity. As the rocket picks up speed and starts to burn down the fuel supply, it makes no sense to carry the huge volume and weight of a mostly empty fuel tank along for the ride. Instead, it's simpler to split the rocket into separate elements, each with its own fuel tanks and engines. The initial stage is by far the largest, and may be supplemented by booster rockets to produce even more thrust during launch, but once these have burned out, they can be jettisoned and a smaller upper stage can take over its job, accelerating the suddenly lighter rocket at a much faster rate.

paylood

4 Once in orbit, the 2nd stage falls away

3 The 2nd stage takes the payload into orbit because most of its members were already working for the Soviet state on rocket-related research projects. As GIRD's activities drew increasing attention from the state, the organization was absorbed into the Red Army under Field Marshal Tukachevsky. Here it was merged with the Gas Dynamics Laboratory (GDL) of Leningrad, creating the Jet Propulsion Research Institute (RNII). The RNII was an organization riven with factional infighting: former GIRD members were frequently in conflict with each other and ex-GDL staff. The RNII's director was more concerned with jet propulsion than with rocketry, and Glushko had work on liquid-oxygen rockets cancelled in favour of his own nitric acid systems. When the paranoid Stalin turned on Tukachevsky at the beginning of the Great Purges of 1937-38, the consequences for the former GIRD members would prove terrible.

paylood.

2nd stage.

1st stage

the 1st stage cuts out, detaches, and drops away, the 2nd-stage engine fires

1 A multi-stage rocket launches with a burn from its 1st-stage engines

GIRD MEMBERS

Proud Soviet space enthusiasts surround their GIRD-X liquid-fuelled rocket prior to its launch in November 1933. A young Sergei Korolev is standing to the right of the rocket.

Rudolf Nebel and built by Klaus Riedel. These Mirak rockets were soon able to reach altitudes of more than 1km (lh mile).

In 1932, the VfR invited Captain Walter Dornberger of the German Army to view a demonstration. The test launch ended in failure, but Dornberger was sufficiently impressed to offer the group funding - if they would keep their work secret and concentrate on military applications. The Army was particularly interested in rocket weapons because their development was one of the few areas not strictly regulated under the Treaty of Versailles. The VfR eventually turned down Dornberger's offer, but fierce arguments about whether or not to accept it nearly tore them apart. Within a year, the Nazi Party had seized power, and one of their early measures was to outlaw civilian rocket experiments. Von Braun and several other VfR members were soon lured to work for the Army under Dornberger, while many of the others retreated from practical research back into the realms of theory.

GIRD

In the Soviet Union, the VfR's equivalent was the Group for the Study of Reactive Motion (GIRD), founded from the merger of two earlier rocket clubs in 1931. It had many local branches, but the most important were those in Moscow and Leningrad (MosGIRD and LenGIRD respectively). MosGIRD was largely instigated by Friedrich Tsander, an enthusiastic advocate of spaceflight. Many of its members were to play influential roles in the Soviet space program, most importantly Sergei Korolev and Mikhail Tikhonravov. LenGIRD, meanwhile, included Valentin Glushko among its members.

By August 1933, MosGIRD had launched the GIRD 09, based on a hybrid semi-solid rocket engine (which combined fuel and an oxidizer to produce combustion gases and thrust) designed by Tikhonravov and Nikolai Yefremov. In November of that year, the Soviet Union's first true liquid-fuelled rocket, Tsander's GIRD-X, took flight to a height of 80m (250ft), powered by alcohol and liquid oxygen. Tsander, however, did not live to see it - he had died that March from typhus, with Korolev taking his place as GIRD's nominal leader.

While the VfR was an independent civilian group, GIRD never had the same degree of autonomy of space travel."

TEST STAND

Preparations for a test at Peenemünde reveal the true scale of history's first large rocket.

Walter Dornberger, on the first successful A4 launch, 3 October 1942

BALTIC HIDEAWAY

The peninsula of Peenemünde, on Germany's northeastern coast, was suggested by Wernher von Broun's mother when he mentioned the need for on isolated site.

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