75 years ago, the Earth was photographed from space for the first time by a V-2 rocket

On October 24, 1946, shortly after the end of World War II and more than a decade before Soviet Sputnik 1, launched into orbit around the Earth, opened the space age, a group of scientists and military personnel in the New Mexico desert worked with captured German V-2s. rockets, received the first photographs of Earth from space.

These grainy black and white images were taken from an altitude of 101 km with a 35 mm film camera mounted on rocket number 13 which was fired from the White Sands Missile Range. The built-in DeVry camera, which took pictures at a frequency of one and a half seconds, a few minutes later, together with the rocket, fell back to earth and crashed into the ground at a speed of 150 m / s. The camera was broken, but the film protected by the steel cassette was not damaged.

The rescue team immediately went out into the desert to find the cassette and hand it over to the researchers. Fred Rally, a 19-year-old soldier assigned to this group many years later, said in an interview with the newspaper Air & Space Magazine the reaction of researchers who saw the intact film with the precious first frames: “They were delighted and jumped up and down as children. And when then the photographs were first projected on the screen, the researchers just went crazy.” Rally himself, at the age of 19, did not yet understand the full significance of the experiments he participated in, then it seemed to him like just another ordinary job in the army.

Until 1946, the maximum height from which it was possible to obtain images of the earth’s surface did not exceed 22 km. It was at this height on November 11, 1935 that the Explorer II stratosphere balloon rose with the Americans Albert Stevens and Orville Andersen. Of course, it was still far from space, but even this height was enough to clearly distinguish the curvature of the planet.

The camera on the V-2 made it possible to improve this record by more than five times and clearly show the spherical earth against the blackness of space. Later, experiments continued to photograph the planet from space with even more impressive results.

National Geographic magazine published in 1950 a note by Clyde Holliday, an engineer who set up a camera and then glued the frames together to make earth panorama from space. He wrote that the V-2 photographs show for the first time “what our earth will look like for aliens from other planets flying towards us in a spaceship.”

Of course, the US Army launched the V-2 in the late 1940s, not just for the sake of beautiful pictures. Dozens of German rockets captured at the end of the war, delivered to White Sands in 300 railroad cars, were primarily intended to study German technology. Based on the information received, US rocket scientists tried to improve the design of their own rockets, while scientists were invited to install their instruments in the bow of launch structures to measure the temperature, pressure, magnetic fields and other physical properties of the as yet unexplored upper atmosphere.

Holliday worked at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory with other space pioneers such as James Van Allen and Siegfried Fred Singer, who later actively participated in the planning of the first American satellite missions. Singer died in April 2020, and during the last years of his life he unfortunately became very famous as a denier of global warming.

Photographs taken from the V-2 cameras were also used to analyze the rocket’s behavior, and this was no easy task. Rocket engineers needed to know how a rocket traveled through the upper atmosphere, and scientists wanted to find out from where the cosmic rays that their instruments registered came from. It is unlikely that anyone was interested in what these photographs can tell about geography or meteorology – at least initially. Holliday, however, was already well aware of the future role of photography in the study of the earth. Cy O’Brien, who has worked with PR at the Applied Physics Laboratory since 1950, said that Holliday tried to convey to his colleagues the idea that photographs themselves can be useful to science.

In 1950, scientists still avoided calling space the places where V-2 rockets flew, writing about “the little-studied and inaccessible upper layers of the atmosphere.” Nowadays, despite all the conventions of drawing a line in the atmosphere beyond which outer space extends, it is still quite clear that what is over 100 km is considered “space”.

There is the concept of the Karman Line – the height, which is considered to be the upper limit for states and at the same time the limit that separates the Earth’s atmosphere from outer space. It got its name from the name of the American engineer of Hungarian origin Theodor von Karman. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) makes this difference at 100 km above sea level. In the United States, where distances are preferred to be measured in miles, the space limit is set at an altitude of 50 miles, that is, 80.45 km. At the same time, NASA still sometimes follows the interpretation of the FAI, which refuses to consider flights under 100 km as suborbital. However, a significant amount of air molecules that can slow down and burn satellites remain beyond the Karman line. And the outer part of the Earth’s atmosphere, the exosphere, extends to an altitude of 10,000 km and beyond, but there are mainly only hydrogen atoms, which gradually escape into the surrounding outer space.

Between 1946 and 1950, V-2 flights took more than a thousand images of Earth from space. These photographs, which show the vast southwestern United States, were published in newspapers and carefully studied by meteorologists from the US Weather Bureau. In his National Geographic article, Holliday made several predictions about where all this could lead: “The results of these experiments suggest that there will come a time when cameras mounted on guided missiles will be able to reconnoiter enemy territory during the war and map inaccessible regions of the earth. In peacetime, they will explore storm fronts and emerging clouds across the continent. “

The slightly modernized V-2 rocket made its first voyage into space back in Nazi Germany in 1944, making an experimental vertical launch and reaching an altitude of 188 km. Again, by modern standards, this is more than a full-fledged suborbital spaceflight. The rocket designer, the German designer Wernher von Braun, always dreamed of expeditions to other planets.

To test pilot Erich Warzitz, sent in late 1936 to test the first aircraft’s jet engine, von Braun promised flights to the moon: “Will you work with us and test a jet engine in the air? Then, Warzitz, will you And later we fly to the moon – with you at the helm! But on the way to his dream, Wernher von Braun joined the Nazi party, became SS-Sturmbannführer in 1943, used the labor of concentration camp prisoners and led the development for the Wehrmacht and injured several thousand civilians – mainly in London.

The first launch of the V-2 (from Vergeltungswaffe, another name – A-4, from Aggregat) took place in March 1942, the first launch – in September 1944, and more than 3 thousand missiles were launched in total. As a “weapon of retaliation”, such missiles proved ineffective, and their role was reduced to intimidating the civilian population – on average, 1-2 people died from each very expensive missile, although some missile explosions claimed hundreds of lives.

After the war, the V-2 served as a prototype for the developers of the first ballistic missiles in both the United States and the Soviet Union. But if the Americans got hold of not only von Braun who surrendered to them with his team, detailed drawings and a hundred finished missiles, then the Soviet side and Sergei Korolev only got separate parts without drawings and technical documentation, and one and a half hundred German specialists who agreed to work on the V-2 recovery program. But von Braun Peenemünde’s main training ground turned out to be in the Soviet occupation zone and from now on served the Soviet test launch program, so Korolev successfully launched the first copies of the German Wunderwaffe as early as October 1946 and soon created the first Soviet short-range ballistic missile based. on them.R-1.

“The importance of the A-4 and R-1 missiles can not be underestimated,” wrote academic Boris Chertok, a close associate of Sergei Korolev. “It was a breakthrough in a whole new area of ​​technology.”

Of course, the V-2 could not put satellites into orbit or perform intercontinental flights. Their range was limited to 380 km. The Nazis already had designs for a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile that could travel 5,000 km and hit targets in the United States, as well as a submarine-launched missile system designed to bomb American coastal cities, but they never launched all of this before the end of the war. managed.


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