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How a Nazi Secret Weapon Launched the Space Race

WWII introduced the first missile capable of reaching space, and it ultimately led to a man on the moon.

In the final years of the war, Nazi rocket scientists successfully tested the V-2 rocket, the world’s most sophisticated missile and the first man-made object to cross the Kármán line which is commonly represented as the start of space. When the war ended in 1945, the new world powers were dead set on acquiring the Nazi’s V-2 technology.

Wernher von Braun, was known as the brains behind the rocket. He, along with other Nazi scientists, surrendered to the Americans and were transported to the US under a top secret project known as “Operation Paperclip”. The Germans were put to work, helping American scientists design and build military missiles that would ultimately be used in the beginnings of the space program.

Meanwhile, Soviet scientists were repurposing the remains of Nazi rockets, and they were working much faster than the Americans. By the mid 1950s, the USSR developed an  intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a multi-stage design and multi-engine propulsion system making it capable of reaching orbit. On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union used its new missile to launch the first artificial Earth satellite into space. The metal sphere known as Sputnik sent a wave of paranoia over the United States. Its Cold War enemy now had a vantage point from space, increasing the fear of a nuclear attack.

The Space Race had officially begun. The US quickly tried to match the Soviet’s success by launching the Vanguard satellite. But the rocket only made it about a meter off the ground before its embarrassing explosion, earning the nickname, “flopnik”. In full Sputnik crisis mode, the government shifted its priority to the space race. President Dwight D. Eisenhower accelerated the 1958 launch of Explorer 1 - the first US satellite to reach space and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Within eleven days, NASA launched its first spacecraft and within six months it announced the United States' first man-in-space program: Project Mercury.