On June 20, 1944, a test launch of the German V-2 missile reached an altitude of 176 kilometers, becoming the first object to cross the Kármán line1 and enter space. It was not intended to be a triumph of science; the milestone was simply a byproduct of Nazi weapons research, not recognized for many years. Nevertheless, when the victorious Allies stormed through Germany and captured the V-2 production facilities, they found themselves in possession of the world’s first space-capable rocket.
Note also that the V-2 carried a one-ton warhead. This payload was large enough to swap out with, say, a heavy instrument package—or a man.
Today’s post is about one of the missed opportunities of early rocketry. Had certain governments made different decisions—and there were indeed plans on the drawing boards—human spaceflight might have happened as early as 1948.
Despite mediocre performance as a weapon, the V-2 experienced a long afterlife following the war’s end. At least eighty test articles flew between 1945 and 1952. Heavily modified and derivative designs served for much longer. With the help of expatriate German engineers, most famously Wernher von Braun, the world’s first ballistic missile fathered an entire successor generation on both sides of the Cold War, including such monumental rockets as the Redstone and the R-7. Some engineers wanted to push the V-2 even further. In 1946, acting completely independently, British researcher Ralph Smith and Soviet scientist Mikhail Tikhonravov submitted proposals for manned suborbital flights.
First, Tikhonravov’s plan. In 1946, the Soviet occupation forces in Germany had partially restarted the wartime V-2 program, using the same infrastructure as before (including forced labor!). The USSR was on track to build a large number of copycat missiles and point them west towards the Americans, British, and French. Mikhail Tikhonravov—then head of the NII-1 design bureau, and later a key figure in the Sputnik and Luna probes—sensed that this glut of rockets presented more than a strictly military opportunity. On 20 June, he forwarded to Stalin a proposal to send two men into space atop a modified V-2. With proper funding it could be done within two years.
This plan was quite sober and conservative, unlike certain others of the early Space Age. The V-2 was to be stretched out, accommodating an additional ton of fuel, which would enable flight to 150 kilometers2 with the payload of a two-man cockpit. The crew capsule would separate around apogee, and navigate atmospheric reentry on its own. It would have been, essentially, a two-man Mercury capsule, but far ahead of its time, with the first launch planned for the summer of 1948. Bureaucratic shuffling ultimately doomed this initiative; a month before Tikhonravov submitted his proposal, Stalin had already decided to relocate the entire program to a new site deep within the Soviet Union, and the reshuffling delayed any plans for a manned flight by several years. Human spaceflight in the USSR would have to wait for Sergei Korolev and the revolutionary Vostok craft.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the British Interplanetary Society3 arrived at an idea very similar to Tikhonravov’s. The United Kingdom, victorious alongside the Americans and Soviets, had received a large cut of the V-2 program as spoils of war, testing several missiles on the Netherlands coast in autumn 1945; BIS member Ralph Smith took note. The V-2, he observed, was almost large enough to carry a person, so with this in mind he set about modifying the design into the world’s first manned spacecraft: “Megaroc.”
Whereas Tikhonravov wanted simply to stretch the V-2 and add a custom capsule, Smith’s vision was substantially more radical. This V-2 was to be enlarged in all dimensions, to a diameter over 2.18 meters, and to save weight the iconic fins would be removed, replaced by spin stabilization. The capsule would have incorporated windows and various scientific instruments, so that the astronaut could make observations on his brief flight; the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the physiological effects of g-forces were particular objects of study. Like the Soviet design, the capsule would have detached and descended by parachute, though the Megaroc study also planned to salvage the booster. Flights were intended to reach the considerable altitude of 304 kilometers, almost three quarters of the way to the International Space Station’s parking orbit. The research program was expected to take three to five years and possibly launch an astronaut by 1951.
What became of Megaroc? Smith submitted an official proposal in December 1946, only for the Ministry of Supply to promptly reject his idea. The British government was even less interested in a manned V-2 than Stalin had been. World War II had bankrupted the UK, and the limited R&D budget prioritized nuclear weapons over scientific stunts. It was, perhaps, a short-sighted decision; had Megaroc been approved and funded, Britain could have established itself solidly as a scientific leader, beating the two superpowers to the prize of manned spaceflight.
It’s hard to predict how the launch of a manned V-2 would have changed history. The British and Soviet proposals were feasible precisely because they were relatively inexpensive—they could already count on a working rocket, so the main challenge was swapping out the warhead for a crew capsule and then returning it safely to Earth. A launch in 1948 would have been a tremendous propaganda coup, but the V-2 was never going to be capable of more than a suborbital hop. Further milestones, such as orbital flights and space probes, would have had to wait for the development of larger rockets, probably in the mid-fifties. Nevertheless, the psychological element cannot be understated. Sputnik in our timeline was a shock that injected new energy into a previously obscure space program; it seems almost certain that the early, successful launch of a man in a V-2 nosecone, by either the UK or the USSR, would have captured the world’s imagination and spurred investment in even greater achievements.
Note: The cover image is a US Army diagram of a V-2, found here.
- The Kármán line is used by most official bodies save for the US Air Force; nevertheless, it is arbitrary, as any definition of space must be. There’s no magic field keeping all of the molecules of Earth’s atmosphere bottled up below 100 kilometers. Instead, the atmosphere just goes up, and up, and up, until it becomes so tenuous it is impossible to distinguish from the interplanetary medium.
- By comparison, Alan Shepard reached 187 kilometers in 1961, and an American-made V-2 test rocket exceeded 200.
- Years before, in 1938, the BIS had drawn up the first serious proposal for a lunar spacecraft. It anticipated problems of rocket staging and landing in a vacuum, though there were also some very strange quirks, such as the entire rocket using solid propellant. This will probably be the subject of a blog post at some point.