The Peenemünde effect

In the early 50’s – the long gone 1950’s when everything was possible – I became obsessed with rockets and space travel. My favorite author was Wernher von Braun who, at the time had written several articles – with lots of great pictures – in a, now-defunct, magazine called Colliers. Then I devoured several well illustrated books that came out of those articles, and, eventually, that lead me to a book about the German V-2 project. I totally missed that the V-2 was a Nazi killing machine – a sort of random killing machine at that – and got caught up in wonder of the whole thing.

Much of the testing was done at a place on the Baltic Sea called Peenemünde and one story I remember was about a night launch. It burned an indelible image in my mind. I can still conjure up the launch: the rocket ignition almost impossibly bright on the dark launching pad, the engine coming up to full thrust with the roar drowning out all other noise, the rocket slowly – at first – lifting, levitating really, off the ground; pushing itself into the sky on a tail of flame. Then, engine cut-off as the missile goes ballistic and is lost in the silence and darkness. Only moments later to reappear as it passes above the shadow of the earth and enters sunlight again.

Almost every warm, summer, night, I see a mini-version of this as we sit in the twilight on our deck and see airplanes turning to land at San Francisco airport, thirty miles away.  We are sitting in the gloaming light and, above us, the airplanes turn orange in the sunset. The air is warm and soft, nobody will be killed, there is no roar, only the groan of the plane’s landing flaps opening; but I still think of it as the Peenemünde effect.

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