Retrotechtacular: Stateside Assembly And Launch Of V-2 Rockets

At the end of World War II, the United States engaged in Operation Paperclip to round up German V-2 rockets and their engineers. The destination for these rockets? White Sands Proving Grounds in the New Mexico desert, where they would be launched 100 miles above the Earth for the purpose of high altitude research.

This 1947 War Department Film Bulletin takes a look inside the activities at White Sands. Here, V-2 rockets are assembled from 98% German-made parts constructed before V-E day. The hull of each rocket is lined with glass wool insulation by men without masks. The alcohol and liquid oxygen tanks are connected together, and skins are fitted around them to keep fuel from leaking out. Once the hull is in place around the fuel tanks, the ends are packed with more glass wool. Now the rocket is ready for its propulsion unit.

In the course of operation, alcohol and liquid oxygen are pumped through a series of eighteen jets to the combustion chamber. The centrifugal fuel pump is powered by steam, which is generated separately by the reaction between hydrogen peroxide and sodium permanganate.

A series of antennas are affixed to the rocket’s fins. Instead of explosives, the warhead is packed with instruments to report on high altitude conditions. Prior to launch, the rocket’s tare weight is roughly five tons. It will be filled with nine tons of fuel once it is erected and unclamped.

At the launch site, a gantry crane is used to add the alcohol, the liquid oxygen, and the steam turbine fuels after the controls are wired up. The launch crew assembles in a blockhouse with a 27-foot-thick roof of reinforced concrete and runs through the protocol. Once the rocket has returned to Earth, they track down the pieces using radar, scouting planes, and jeeps to recover the instruments.

Thanks for the tip, [Thomas].

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

28 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Stateside Assembly And Launch Of V-2 Rockets

  1. From what I recall, White Sands was the second and final stop for them. They arrived at a Texas Army base from there, they explored everything possible. Then they landed at White Sands in New Mexico. That place was already becoming a development center for our rocket program, but we needed bigger ones. And V2 was one such, incidentally its about 97 percent based on Goddard patents.

  2. A little after 9:40 in the video, they make mention of electrical cables attached to the rocket with magnetic plugs to allow separation at lift-off. Would be interesting if this would constitute “prior art” with regards to magsafe connectors.

  3. We just hear about the V2 parts made in Germany, but what about all the ground equipment– transport, launch pads, gantry, etc. shown in the film. Was that imported or built by the US?

    Some interesting things I noticed (besides the above):

    10:44 Last minute adjustments on the data recording devices- with a metal file, as if the cable run opening was not right..

    11:06 Pumping ethanol into the rocket with leaking connections. I guess it evaporates?

    14:05 Precursor to the KSC display– a guy with hand signals triggers another guy to write on a chalkboard for countdown.

    14:35 A guy pushed a button for launch? I would have figured a washing machine type controller to time all the events prior to automatic launch, with a “hold” button. Was a manual count and “fire” button really used?

    15:03 A panel of electronic controls CRT displays of weird Lissajous patterns. This seems right out of lame SiFi movies. Wow, I never knew they were real!

    16:45 Rendezvous – the first time I heard this words was part of the Gemini space program, the capsule connecting with an Agena upper stage rocket as practice for Apollo– a big deal at the time. So it was obviously used in the military in 1947. OK I was too young to understand the psycho-social meaning of the word, but still surprised at it’s historical technical usage today.

    1. Rocketry was at the “stone knives and bearskins” level back then. Amazing what could be done with electromechanical hardware, vacuum tubes, carbon resistors and wrapped wax paper and metal foil capacitors.

      A real marvel of electronics are the signal seeking car radios of the 1950’s. No transistors, no circuit boards. Just some vacuum tubes, lots of resistors and capacitors, mounted onto terminals riveted to Micarta slabs and terminal strips and tube sockets on the metal chassis. Somehow all that operated a small motor to drive the tuner and seek the next strongest radio signal.

      Before the invention of the PCB/PWB all electronics was pretty much hand soldered deadbug style.

    2. The “Meillerwagen” that gets mentioned several times in the video, was used by the Germans to transport these to launch sites and set them up on the launch pads, so at least that much was brought over from Germany. I think they pretty much packed up everything in sight at Peenemunde into crates and shipped them to the U.S.. At this stage, it wasn’t about developing American rocket systems, but just about learning everything from the German systems as quickly as possible, to catch up with the technology.

    3. You are right, most of the support gear is ours. I believe I did spot an authentic german V2 LOX wagon in the mix though. Folks may find this interesting: http://www.v2rocket.com/start/deployment/procedure.html

      Also, for the person who mentioned that the Americans just used a button to launch the V2 there is the next pic. This is very similar to the keys still used by Russia to launch Souyz and also ICBM’s.
      http://www.v2rocket.com/start/others/008-ks2001.jpg

      Lastly, lots of interesting V2 pictures in this photo album:
      https://www.flickr.com/photos/30022078@N00/4381654037/in/album-72157630161989156/

  4. I’ve read a few books on WW2 science / technical espionage, the war accelerated so much technical stuff on all sides it was astounding. The amount of stuff the allies appropriated from the Nazis after the war was also astounding.

    I believe the Germans were the 1st to invent decent tape recorders and it was only by luck that a serviceman rooting through seized gear noticed theirs sounded so much better (they looked the same as any other but had better electronics) before they were due to basically trash a big pile of them. So really, it’s Hitler’s fault home taping killed music.

    There were a lot of scientists working on both sides who were not overly happy their work was being used for war, but recognised that it was the only opportunity they’d have to get so much done & so much progress made. There were also some evil geniuses (on both sides) who couldn’t give a shit, and some heroes with balls the size of planets who managed to sabotage projects, delay progress and smuggle information.

    Quite a few people were rather pissed at Churchill after the war for giving away too much to the US to repay their support, and going way over the top with destroying and covering up some stuff (like Colossus) for the sake of secrecy, which set a lot of stuff back a long way.

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