We Almost Didn’t Go To Space

In October, 1946, a small group of scientists rode a jeep out into the desert to where a V2 Rocket had come crashing down from the edge of space. On any other day they would have been examining the wreckage, taking notes, all work to develop an American missile that was more accurate and more deadly than the German V2.

v2 wreckage

But today was different. Today what they wanted was a small roll of undeveloped film in an iron box designed to survive a 62 mile fall. In that box was the first picture taken from space.


2 years prior and America was fighting World War 2 on both fronts. Werner Von Braun was helping to oversee the German V2 Program, The Manhattan project was quietly in full swing and already planning the eventual wartime detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Barely 2 months before that roll of film left a decent sized crater in the New Mexico Sand, We detonated the Trinity Device. A proof of concept for a legacy of destruction.

Trinity Detonation

Very few personal records exist from that time. Letters were heavily censored, personal journals were forbidden and destroyed when found. One can only imagine what it was like in the Proving Grounds. The only glimmer of hope at ending the war, a nuclear detonation halfway across the world.

But the idea of going to space was Laughable. A figment of Science Fiction. Space was once looked at the same way we now look at a Colony on the Moon, or Immortality. A distant possibility at best, nothing more than Amazing Stories.

The April 1947 cover of Amazing Stories

The April 1947 cover of Amazing Stories

How did Space go from being a fantasy to an eventuality?

On that day in October in 1946 the film was brought back to a dark room at the White Sands proving ground, a small testing facility in the middle of New Mexico.

Maybe they knew how important this photo was, maybe they were excited to have a break from their wartime duties. Or, was this a calculated move made by scientists who were looking beyond the war. Did they know what was coming?

We didn’t get a picture of the curvature of the earth until 1935, when another small group of scientists, this time in the comparative emptiness of North Dakota, launched Explorer 2 to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. A manned high-altitude helium balloon funded by a collaboration between the National Geographic Society and the US Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force.

Earth 1938 Explorer II Balloon

1938 Explorer II Balloon

The best minds of humanity have known the world was round for over 2000 years, but we didn’t see that it was round until 1935, just 20 years after we first achieved flight. From 20 feet above the ground, to 72 thousand.  The curve in the picture is so shallow that its shown with a straight line next to the horizon, as if to say, “See? Told you so.” This was just the beginning.

v2 camera picture

These scientists in New Mexico, carefully unspooling and developing this precious roll of film from the edge of space, weren’t just having a look above the stratosphere, this was their proof. Sure, a less explosive proof of concept than the Gadget. It happened quietly, only marked by a National Geographic article 2 years later. A footnote of history.

v2 Picture third round

But in the end, These grainy photos changed the world more than Trinity ever did. This was one of the first in a long series of achievements that sent Humanity to Space, the moon, and into the Universe.

They were sitting in the most advanced weapons research facility in the world, at the very leading edge of the science of warfare, and something spectacular happened: We stopped launching weapons and started exploring.


The seeds of our exploration of the universe were planted in 1915. Not with two Bicycle Salesmen, but with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the NACA.

The Original committee established in 1915

The Original committee established in 1915

The NACA was officially started as a Wartime Thinktank, made to apply this new field of engineering to wartime projects. Outfitted with a budget of 5000 dollars for their 12 person team they got to work. In this day, it would be like giving 100,000 dollars to Lockheed Martin and telling them to take us to Mars.

The NACA grew over the years, engineering breakthrough after breakthrough, creating new wing and engine designs for airplanes, and also revolutionizing the equipment for developing and testing them.


One small group of engineers in NACA, upset that the wind tunnel they were using could only reach 100 mph, decided to build one that could handle 570. Our capacity for research couldn’t keep up with how quickly we engineered new breakthroughs.


In 1946, a month before a rocket brought us back photos from the edge of space, they used a rocket to take the Bell X-1 past the sound barrier for the first time.

If you look at the tail of the aircraft you can see what are known as

If you look at the tail of the aircraft you can see what are known as “Shock Diamonds” in the exhaust, a standing wave created at supersonic speeds.

This, perhaps, is what brought NACA to the White Sands testing ground. An intimate knowledge of supersonic vessels and the engineering heavyweights to turn the comparatively simple V2 into a rocket that could take a satellite to space, or a man to orbit.

V2 Launch

Just as these scientists were at the top of their game, poised to launch themselves into the void, something happened.

Well, to be honest, nothing happened.

Nothing happened for almost a decade.

In between 1947 and 1957, the progress stopped and the Race to Space was put on hold.

To be Continued


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