Hutchinson, Kansas – May 28, 2022
Hutchinson, Kansas, seems to be an unlikely place for a world-class museum devoted to space exploration. The state’s main economic driver, by far, is agriculture: Kansas ranks in the top 10 states in the country for revenue from beef cattle, corn, hay, hogs, soybeans, sunflowers, and wheat (40 percent of all the winter wheat grown in the United States comes from Kansas).
However, the Sunflower State’s motto is “ad astra per aspera,” which, as you’ll recall from your Latin learnin’, means “To the stars through difficulties.” The motto is more a recognition that the state succeeded despite struggles with Black slavery, relationships with Native Americans reluctant to give away their homelands, and the U.S. Civil War than a resolution to actually travel to space, but I think it’s inspiring nonetheless.
Nancy and I visited the Cosmosphere in late May 2022.
The Cosmosphere (which is, again, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas) is home to the largest combined collection of U.S. and Russian spaceflight artifacts in the world. Numbering more than 13,000 pieces, the Cosmosphere’s collection is second to only the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum for U.S. artifacts and is second only to Moscow for its number of Russian artifacts.
Given Kansas’s agrarian economy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Cosmosphere started as a planetarium, with a used projector and rented folding chairs, in the Poultry Building on the Kansas State Fairgrounds in 1962. It was one of the first public planetariums in the country. Four years later, the planetarium moved to the campus of Hutchinson Community College. In 1980, the Cosmosphere was expanded to a 35,000-square-foot facility, which included one of the country’s first IMAX® Dome Theaters and a three-level exhibit gallery (my first and only other visit to the Cosmosphere occurred sometime in the mid-1980s, while visiting family in Kansas). The Cosmosphere tripled its size in 1997, becoming an impressive 105,000-square-foot facility with room for educational events and other programs.
The German V-2 Rocket
The Cosmosphere has several large independent exhibits that tell the story of how the space race developed. One of these exhibits focuses on the development of the Vergetlungswaffe 2 (“retaliation weapon 2”), the V-2 rocket, and it’s simply an outstanding experience, with interesting displays of original hardware and plenty of explanatory panels.
It’s safe to say that putting mankind in space, beginning with launching manned rockets into the sky in the early 1960s, progressing to the Apollo missions to the Moon that started in 1969, and continuing with programs like Skylab (1970s), the space shuttles (1980s), and the present-day International Space Station, started with weaponry development during the buildup to World War II. Simply put, many of the other rockets exhibited in the Cosmosphere wouldn’t have been possible without the development of the V-2.
The Nazis sunk incredible financial resources into the development of the V-2, believing it would turn the tide of World War II because of its ability to strike opposing targets from more than 200 miles away. The V-2 was developed by a team led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, a brilliant rocketry scientist whose early work was influenced heavily by the tests performed by Dr. Robert Goddard (early in his career, von Braun corresponded with Goddard regarding the latter’s experiments). Von Braun was very interested in sending mankind to space, and saw the V-2 program as a way to further his research into rocketry. His interest in space exploration almost led to his execution by German officials, who believed von Braun wasn’t sufficiently focused on creating a weapon of destruction and instead wanted to create a way to travel to the stars. Only the doctor’s relationship with a Nazi official who had Hitler’s ear saved his life.
The V-2 was the first long-range guided ballistic missile. Between September 1944 and March 1945, Germany launched more than 3,200 of the rockets at targets in England, Belgium, and other areas in western Europe. The rockets were fired from mobile launch pads, which made it extremely difficult for Allied forces to find and destroy the launch sites. A V-2 firing battery consisted of 152 self-propelled vehicles, 70 trailers, and more than 500 men. Each battery could fire up to nine missiles per day.
A V-2 rocket stood more than 46 feet tall, weighed 27,000 pounds and flew 50 miles into the sky, but the engine was just over five feet long and weighed just over one ton. Incredibly, that engine created 56,600 pounds of thrust while burning 33 gallons of alcohol and liquid oxygen every second.
The rocket carried a one-ton payload of high explosives to the edge of space, 250,000 feet above the earth, more than 200 miles to its target. When it began its return to earth, the V-2 reached speeds of 3,500 miles per hour – faster than the sound that it created, which meant that it exploded on the ground before the thunderous roar of its descent could be heard. Latter-day research has shown that a V-2 explosion created a crater 66 feet wide and 26 feet deep, displacing about 3,000 tons of material. From launch, the V-2 took only 4 minutes to reach its target (for reference, the width of the state of Colorado is a little less than 400 miles, or about twice the distance that a V-2 traveled).
V-2 attacks killed more than 1,700 Belgians in Antwerp, and injured 4,500 more. In London, more than 2,700 civilians were killed by the rockets, with an additional 6,523 injured. As horrid as those numbers are, it’s estimated that development of the V-2 cost the lives of as many as 20,000 people in Germany – most of them Jewish prisoners who died either from overwork or from accidental explosions.
In its time, the V-2 was a defenseless weapon – when everything worked. Fortunately, the rocket involved incredibly complex engineering and everything rarely worked. While the Nazis continually refined the engineering to improve the weapon’s efficiency, the V-2’s development came too late in the war to have the kind of impact the Nazis expected. By war’s end, the development of the V-2 (and its predecessor, the V-1) cost Germany the equivalent of $3 billion – roughly twice the amount of money that the United States poured into the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bomb.
World War II is ripe for “what-if” scenarios, and the V-2 development is a good one. Considering that the V-2 had an insignificant impact on the war’s outcome, compared to the carnage that occurred otherwise, the money and manpower that it cost could have been allocated to the production of more fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles. If the Germans had better control of the skies over western Europe in 1944, the Allied invasion on D-Day may not have been possible and the slow but steady encirclement of Berlin by Allied and Russian forces wouldn’t have happened.
The exhibit at the Cosmosphere does point out, however, that if the invasion at Normandy hadn’t been possible, Berlin – rather than Hiroshima – may have been the first target of the atomic bomb.
In the immediate aftermath of Germany’s capitulation, both U.S. and Russian forces were on the hunt for von Braun and his team of rocketeers. Both sides wanted the expertise and equipment, but von Braun surrendered to the United States and he and his colleagues were brought to this country. The V-2 was examined and led to the development of the Cold War’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and, in the interest of science, the rockets that would carry mankind into space beginning in the 1960s.
I’ve struggled – a lot – with how to write about this particular blog posting; it’s one reason I haven’t posted anything for several months, and I considered leaving all of the V-2 material out of it. However, I think it’s important to not shy away from the fact that humans can be horrible to one another. I’ve read a lot about German’s leading up to and including World War II, trying to understand why humans can be horrible. I’ve also read extensively about Wernher von Braun, trying to understand why he contributed his considerable scientific intellect to the development of a terrible weapon that killed thousands upon thousands of innocent people, either in targeted cities or in forced labor. Von Braun was absolutely furious that the Russians were first into space, first with a dog and then with a man, but he lived to see the results of the Apollo program that sent the first men to walk on the moon – using technology that von Braun helped develop while he worked at NASA. I’ve come to the conclusion (and it’s open for revision) that von Braun really did want to expand the science of rocketry – to send mankind into space – and he was able to do that. I’m a big proponent of many facets of space exploration, but I need to be more cognizant that much of that research has come at horrific costs.
There are a great many other fine exhibits (of which I took a lot of photos that seem to have disappeared into the ether; that’s probably okay because this posting would be even longer than it is) at the Cosmosphere, and it’s well worth a visit when you’re in central Kansas. I think I’ve written about this before, that museums like the Cosmosphere are a great opportunity to stretch one’s mind. Even if museums don’t have all of the answers, and, perhaps particularly if they sometimes don’t, it’s never a bad thing to learn.