In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20, 1969, I asked my son Stephen Sundin, a mechanical engineer and a lifelong space and history buff, if he would be willing to write an article about the connection between the space race and World War II. He did, and I think you’ll enjoy it!
The Moon Landings—The World War II Connection, by Stephen Sundin
In the afternoon of July 20, 1969, the Space Race was coming to a head. The world’s two superpowers were in a race to retrieve samples from the surface of the moon. The USSR had effectively conceded the race to land men on the Moon to the United States following the repeated failures of the Soviet lunar rocket, the N1, earlier in the year, but there was still an opportunity to best the Americans.
The Luna 15 sample return mission, the Soviet’s last chance at getting moon rocks before the US, was orbiting the Moon, having arrived three days prior. As the Soviets were making their final preparations, the Americans were doing the same. The Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were in their Lunar Excursion Module, the Eagle, preparing to leave the ship Columbia and its pilot, Michael Collins. This final confrontation and competition between the two countries was born out of the technologies and animosities that emerged from the conflagration of World War II.
The earliest development efforts on a liquid fuel rocket started with an American scientist, Robert Goddard. As early as 1917, Goddard reached out to the US military to discuss using rocketry-based weapons. One of his earliest proposals was a shoulder-fired weapon that would eventually become the bazooka. Following his first demonstration launch in 1926, he was contacted periodically by German engineers interested in his work. These questions ceased in 1939 with the outbreak of war.
Once the US entered the war, Goddard was approached by the US Army, which was familiar with his work due to his acquaintance with General James Doolittle, and he was tasked with developing Rocket Assisted Take-Off technology. However, following Germany’s surrender in May of 1945, he learned how influential his work on liquid fuel rockets had been on the war, when he saw an unlaunched German V-2 rocket brought to America, which would later be joined by its mastermind, Wernher von Braun.
Wernher von Braun and the V-2 Rocket
Wernher von Braun is often quoted saying “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet” upon learning the first V-2 had successfully hit London. And he was largely an idealist, having been interested in space travel since his youth, having been taught by Germany’s own rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth.
Building off Goddard’s ideas, Oberth and von Braun built a better rocket. And much like Goddard, von Braun’s country sought to use his capabilities for war, and the patriotic man complied. However, von Braun’s idealism does not excuse him from the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Von Braun was a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS), albeit for political reasons rather than ideology. The V-2s were largely built using slave labor provided from nearby concentration camps and it is estimated that 12,000 prisoners died making the rockets, more than the 9,000 Allied casualties from the rockets.
Postwar Rocket Development
The V-2 was the starting point for both Soviet and American rocket design. Both nations actively scoured the smoldering remains of the Third Reich, searching for technological secrets, particularly related to rocketry.
Von Braun and his team chose to go to the Americans, using his SS credentials to safely journey to Austria before surrendering. With the hundreds of remaining V-2s, both the Russians and the Allies were able to reverse engineer the design, using it to kickstart their own ballistic missile programs and then immediately pointing the results at their former partners.
This technology was then used for political and scientific purposes, and the countries started putting men in space, with von Braun, now a US citizen, leading the American efforts with his rocket designs, culminating in the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo 11 to the Moon.
Navigation and Computation
No matter how developed the rocketry was, all efforts to reach the moon would be in vain without better navigation and computation methods. The V-2 was notoriously inaccurate, even with new methods of mechanical piloting and radio guidance. During the Battle of Remagen, V-2 missiles missed a targeted bridge by up to 40 miles.
However, another WWII development would allow men to traverse Deep Space: the British bombes developed by Alan Turing. As part of the British Ultra program to crack the German Enigma machine, Turing designed electromechanical machines called “bombes” to decode German military messages, which were used to great effect.
Following the war, Turing continued developing similar machines, including the first true design of a stored-program computer. Computers were rapidly developed following the end of the war, to the point that these machines could be used to perform the staggering number of computations needed to fly to the Moon.
WWII Technology and the Moon Landings
Countless other technological developments from WWII led to that momentous day in 1969. Artificial rubber, developed due to Japanese control of rubber plantations in South Asia, led to advanced materials used to build the rockets and spacesuits.
Pressurized aircraft, such as the B-29, were designed to allow bombers to reach higher altitudes, but also led to the ability to build vessels that would survive in the vast emptiness of Outer Space.
Radar, built to detect enemy aircraft across vast distances, could now be used to track a vessel heading to the moon. All of these were crucial to the efforts to land on the Moon.
One Giant Leap…
Ultimately, the Luna 15 mission was a failure. The Eagle successfully touched down in the evening of July 20. As the astronauts completed their mission and were preparing to return home, the Luna 15 lander crashed into a side of a lunar mountain.
But despite all the vitriol between the former allies, for a single solitary moment on July 20, 1969, the entire world watched in amazement. Temporarily oblivious to the perils of the Cold War and to the memories of the horrors of WWII, only 24 years in the past, they gazed at a grainy black-and-white image sent from the surface of the Moon. Humanity watched in wonder as the human race left its first footprint on another world, landing in a ship inscribed with the words “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Recollections of Childhood by Wernher von Braun
Stephen Sundin is a lifelong space enthusiast and history buff, receiving his first telescope from his parents at age ten. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in Mechanical Engineering; his time there included working on a NASA-funded space science mission. Stephen lives near Irvine, California and works as a satellite engineer for a startup aerospace company. He spends his time playing with his cat, Nova, and complaining about being unable to see stars at night in Southern California.