By steam engine to the stars? An overview of the V2 rocket’s turbopump
The idea that one of the most significant inventions to emerge from the second world war was ‘steam-driven’ may strike you as more than a little anachronistic; sounding more like the quaint technology of a bygone era rather than one of the 20th century’s engineering highpoints. A technological peak that would open the space-age and later carry humans into orbit and on to the stars. But the crucial technology behind the initial success of the liquid-fuelled rocket engine is indeed steam-powered.
In part 1 of this comprehensive overview, we take a detailed look at the beating heart of the V2 ballistic missile – a device that on formal occasions we should call the steam turbine-powered fuel and liquid oxygen propellant feed pumps – but that everyone interested in rocketry knows simply as – the turbopump.
The following key questions are all answered by our video:
Where is the turbopump (TP) located on the A4/V2 missile? Why do we need an apparatus as complex and risky as the 600hp TP and its complicated steam drive system in the first place? How does the Helmut Walter steam drive system function? How and why can the TP be throttled back from delivering sufficient fuel and oxidiser for 25 tons of rocket thrust (at ground level) to just 8 tons at the end of the burn? What can we discover about the TP by looking at historical impact relics and launch failure debris? The answers may surprise you, as rocket science is sometimes more accessible than you may think – and we promise you won’t need your calculator (or slide rule!) to understand our explanations.
We explore some essential but easy to understand rocket science of the V2 rocket, but much of the material discussed in this video applies to many other large missiles as well
Although this video deals almost exclusively with the A4/V2 missile – figuratively the Model T Ford of the rocket world – much of the content, in terms of general principles, can be applied broadly to other large historical missiles – and quite a few current ones as well. The A4/V2 long-range ballistic missile (short-range by today’s standards!) was a significant technological breakthrough achieved by Germany during WWII, and later formed the post-war foundation for the early exploration of sub-orbital space by the USA and the USSR. The steam turbine-powered twin centrifugal pump propellant feed system was a critical enabling technology.
Even today, we reach orbit relying on the critical technology of the turbopump. The idea that would grow to become the modern rocket turbopump begins life on the design offices in Kummersdorf, Peenemünde and Frankenthal in 1935. Presented by Robert J Dalby
Part 2 of this video, coming shortly, looks at some fine detail of the V2’s turbopump. We explore the martial logic behind the turbine’s ‘over-speed’ safety cutoff switch, rarely discussed gyroscopic phenomena associated with large turbopumps, and a little known but significant source of thrust provided by the V2 steam generation plant (and, in case you are wondering, we are not referring to the small additional push delivered by the steam exhaust).
The V2 turbopump presented in part 1 of the video is on public display at the Peenemünde Historical Technical Museum on Usedom, Germany. You can find out more about visiting the museum on their website: www.museum-peenemuende.de
You can find out more about the turbopump right here on this website:
3D CAD modelling the V2 turbopump – by Ray Matter
Turbopump picture gallery – by V2 Rocket History
Turbopump original drawings – by V2 Rocket History