Thursday, July 16, 2020

Seventy Years Ago: Bumper 8 to Outer Space, Part One

A new chapter in space flight began on July 24, 1950, with the launch of the first rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida: the Bumper 8. Shown above, Bumper 8 was an ambitious two-stage rocket program that topped a V-2 missile base with a WAC Corporal rocket. The upper stage was able to reach then-record altitudes of almost 400 kilometers, roughly the altitude the International Space Station orbits today.  Launched under the direction of the General Electric Company, Bumper 8 was used primarily for testing rocket systems and for research on the upper atmosphere. Bumper rockets carried small payloads that allowed them to measure attributes including air temperature and cosmic ray impacts.  Note how close those recording the event are standing to the launch pad, while the person who photographed this scene wisely decided to stay further back, possibly behind the original blockhouse, which was also known as the Firing Room. (NASA on the Commons/ Image Number: 66P-0631)

By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

When Bumper 8, the first rocket to roar aloft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, took to the skies on July 24, 1950, its success was due to a combination of American ingenuity and the technology and hardware developed by Germany’s engineers, technicians and scientists during World War II. Only six years before, these same expatriates were working for the Schutzstaffel, producing and launching deadly ballistic missiles to rain down 1,600-pound warheads on London.

I wasn’t able to document how many—if any—of the former German wartime rocketeers attended this first Cape launch. But it’s thought that the top-level team, including its leader, Dr. Wernher von Braun, was busy at that historic moment relocating their operations from the White Sands Missile Proving Grounds in New Mexico to its permanent headquarters at the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

Six German V-2 missiles, topped by U.S. Army WAC-Corporal rockets in a program managed by General Electric, were launched at White Sands. But a longer firing range was needed, and Cape Canaveral was selected due to its location, year-round mild weather conditions and its relationship to the earth’s rotation. (Launching rockets eastward takes advantage of the earth’s maximum centrifugal rotation at the equator). Jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, it was a favorable place from which to launch rockets more safely for both the Cape communities and downrange areas.

In 1564, Spaniards named Cape Canaveral, which in their language means a field of cane. Today, the Air Force operates Cape Canaveral, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is in charge of the nearby Kennedy Space Center, across the Banana River on Merritt Island. The Air Force Eastern Test Range headquarters is located at Patrick Air Force Base at the U.S. Navy’s former Banana River Naval Air Station that operated during World War II.

The first two rockets launched from the Cape were Bumpers 7 and 8, so named because their first stages, modified captured German V-2 missiles, literally “bumped” the second stage WAC-Corporals into their own flight paths. These components were sent by truck from New Mexico to the barren Cape, which was overrun by mosquitoes, poisonous snakes and alligators.

This 1950 image shows a Bumper V-2 on it’s launch stand on Pad 3, with the Firing Room, a frame building in a bunker at lower right. Pad 4 will be built to the lower left and pads 1 and 2 to the upper right. (NASA Alumni League, Florida Chapter)
Despite these obstacles, workers fabricated a primitive launch complex. Over the years there was disagreement in Cape folklore about how extensive this facility was. It was named Launch Complex 3, because its counterparts, 1, 2, and 4 were still being built. One school of thought was that it consisted mainly of a 100-square-foot concrete slab and a converted bathhouse that served as a blockhouse, located only about 300 feet from the launch pad. Experts later determined this control center wouldn’t have withstood an explosive launch mishap. Additionally, under this version, control wires from the blockhouse were run above ground to the slab, and water for fire protection was pumped from a nearby pond.

Conversely, the other school of thought was that Launch Pad 3 was more than a bare concrete slab and a converted bathhouse; instead, it was well-designed and built. It was constructed on an eight-foot-deep hole in the Florida sand and had underground access tunnels and an equipment room. It also had an elaborate water deluge system and a catch basin to trap any spilled liquid rocket fuel. Crews could access these underground areas through hatches built into the launch pad. In 1998, volunteers from the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at the Cape discovered the Launch Pad 3 concrete slab, which had been totally covered by sand over the years. They also found the last surviving hatch, along with the underground equipment chamber, which flooded during the Atlantic Ocean’s high tides.

As for the blockhouse being a converted bathhouse, according to Cape folklore, the Army, instead, had built a small wooden structure that was lined on the outside with a grayish silver material designed to reflect sunlight and help to cool its interior. Blockhouse personnel viewed the two Bumper launches through a mirror-like window. Hundreds of sandbags were stacked in front of the blockhouse for added protection for personnel working inside.

There’s also a discrepancy as to the blockhouse’s distance from the launch pad. As noted earlier, the converted bathhouse was thought to be 300 feet away from it, while a second version had the specially constructed blockhouse at 500 feet.

In the year 2000, some surviving Bumper veterans attended a reunion at Pad 3, reminisced about these two missions and launched a Bumper model rocket. This group also included personnel from the former U.S. Army laboratory at California Institute of Technology that developed the upper-stage WAC-Corporal rocket and other high-altitude vehicles. When the space agency was formed in 1958, JPL became a NASA laboratory that’s still operated by Caltech. 

Editor's Note: In addition to serving as public affairs officer for 17 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Steve Milner was also a public affairs contractor with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Cape Canaveral during the manned Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs.

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