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Primer: The V-2 Rocket and Atmospheric Science January 14, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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For as long as there has been a concerted tradition of inquiry around the natural world, natural philosophers and scientists have dragged instruments up church towers and mountains and floated them aloft in balloons to ascertain how things are different at high altitudes.  This tradition grew rapidly in the early decades of the 20th century as ballooning technology improved, and as physicists, astronomers, chemists, and meteorologists decided that differences in the gaseous composition of the atmosphere, varying temperature gradients, access to different kinds of cosmic rays and radiation from the sun and stars, and (following radio experimentation in the 1920s) the electromagnetic and ionic qualities of the upper atmosphere were all enticing matters for study.

Thus, when the American Robert Godard began experimenting with liquid fuel rockets in the 1920s, scientists were eager to take advantage of the opportunity to use them to loft their instruments higher than previously possible.  But, ultimately, the first opportunities to experiment in this way came with the development of the German Vergeltungswaffe (“Vengeance Weapon”) 2, or, simply, V-2 rocket.  The German physicist Erich Regener, who had a background in atmospheric research, was supposed to have been the first to send instruments up aboard the weapon.

Regener had been director of the Physical Institute of the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart, but was ousted following his opposition to the “deutsche Physik” movement and his refusal to divorce his Jewish wife.  Sponsored by the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, however, he was recruited by Wernher von Braun during the war to design instrumentation for rocket flight research.  Regener agreed to join in, focusing his work on ballistics-relevant science (which also fed into his own interests in ozone), but he was unable to develop rocket-ready instrumentation before Allied forces overran the country.  After the war, Regener returned to Stuttgart.

Meanwhile, captured rocket parts and documentation—and rocket engineers, most notably von Braun—were shipped back to the United States, and a missile testing range was established at the Army’s new White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico.  Army and Navy representatives established a V-2 Rocket Panel, led by the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) physicist Ernst Krause, to formulate a research program of V-2 launches.  This research would provide information for America’s own missile development programs, but also opportunities for scientific research in the upper atmosphere not directly related to missile ballistics.

Research was conducted primarily under the auspices of the NRL under Krause, as well as the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which had famously developed the proximity fuse during the war, and where the physicist James Van Allen now spearheaded the work of a new High-Altitude Research Group assembled specifically for the V-2 Panel.  Clyde Holliday, featured in the 1946 newsreel above, was the member of Van Allen’s team responsible for outfitting rockets with cameras.  In all, three-to-four hundred people were involved in the research program from military research facilities, civilian-run contract labs (APL), and university departments.

Researchers who used rockets had to develop very specialized  skills to design projects and instrumentation around the engineering challenges inherent to the finicky work of early rocketry.  None of the major players in American atmospheric research to that point became directly involved in rocket-based research—those who tried quickly grew frustrated with the technical difficulties, quality of data (such as bad resolution in spectral lines), and the constraints of military bureaucracy.  And only one V-2 Panel scientist, Harvard’s Fred Whipple, had any prior experience in the field.  Thus the community of (generally very young) scientists that developed around this research represented an entirely new genre of research practice at the boundaries of military R&D and investigation of the upper atmosphere.

In 1946, the first launch “season” (about eight months) yielded insubstantial scientific results as researchers struggled to get the rockets to radio back usable telemetry, and to figure out a way to recover physical data (particularly photographic plates for measuring cosmic rays and the solar spectrum) without having it be obliterated upon its reunion with the ground.  However, recovering solar spectrum data from the ultraviolet range (usually blocked by ozone) was an early demonstration of potential, and it, along with Holliday’s pictures, generated favorable high-profile press coverage.

In 1947, Krause left the V-2 Panel, and was replaced by Van Allen, who would head it for the next ten years.  Beginning with the second season of launches, rocket researchers of the upper atmosphere began to carve out a niche for themselves.  Their work had no immediate revelatory consequences and rarely measured up to the analytical standards of cutting-edge mid-20th-century science—their first few years of data were not considered persuasive enough to revise existing atmospheric models—but they could retrieve kinds of data that had substantial potential value and that could not be otherwise retrieved.  Further, their expertise formed the basis of the space science that developed around NASA, once that organization was established following the 1957 launch of Sputnik.

There were over three dozen launches of V-2 rockets from 1946 to 1948 before the NRL-designed “Viking” and APL-designed “Aerobee” experimental rockets joined it in the researchers’ arsenal in 1949.  In anticipation of this expanded range of rockets, the V-2 Panel was accordingly renamed the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel in 1948, and the 67th and last V-2 was launched in 1952.

On the history of rocket-based science through 1954 and the beginning of planning for the International Geophysical Year, see National Air and Space Museum historian David DeVorkin’s Science With a Vengeance: How the Military Created the US Space Sciences After World War II (1992), a clearly written, sophisticated, systematic, and thorough history—a fine example of what I like to call the “meat and potatoes school” of history-writing.



1. Michael Robinson - January 16, 2009

Will, was there any debate among sciences about the best atmospheric platform? I know that balloons can get pretty high up – and are certainly able to stay up longer than suborbital rockets.

I’m thinking here of possible parallels between atmosphere and Arctic. Scientists grew frustrated with explorers who wanted to reach new heights of latitude, the speed of which made it impossible for them to observe anything long enough or precisely enough to make it interesting. That was the major impetus behind the first IPY, a chance to set up semi-permanent stations rather than ad hoc expeditions, with the hopes of getting better data (and moving Arctic exploration out of “adventurism”)

2. Will Thomas - January 16, 2009

Yes, I think there is some parallel concerning the question of achievable rigor. Balloons continued to be used extensively, because the quality of data on the phenomena in question were so much better. This is why the veterans in the field weren’t really willing to put up with the rocket-based science: they were happy with the balloons.

But it wouldn’t be appropriate to associate the rockets purely with adventurism, even though that’s primarily what you get from the “Right Stuff” genre of pop historiography (though “The Right Stuff” is awesome). DeVorkin makes it clear that everyone involved was primarily interested in obtaining data, and, aside from ballistics for R&D, the data you could get from rockets was from much higher altitudes than balloons (roughly 100 miles with the V-2s versus 13 miles), so having a complementary platform was of wide scientific interest. But the quality and quantity compared so badly with what you could get from balloons, that it didn’t really fit into atmospheric scientists’ models. So rockets remained on the fringe of atmospheric science for a decade or so: clear promise but no delivery.

Concerning debate, I would say there wasn’t much. The rocket researchers were well aware of their limitations; they were mostly interested in carving out an alternative research territory rather than replacing balloons.

3. David DeVorkin - August 30, 2009

I agree that there was no visible competition or debate, nor particularly was there interest, save for a few exceptions, like van Allen and Friedman, in migrating from one platform to another (from rockets to balloon-born rockets, but not to balloons only). E. Regener had a strong track record in ballooning and his son Victor continued in the tradition.

Those most interested in the scientific problems and in need of publishable data generally stayed away from rocket sondes for more than a decade, as Will says.

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