Friday, July 24, 2020

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

The Bumper 7 first stage, essentially a captured German V-2 with a new paint job to aid in visual ranging, sits on its Army transporter at Cape Canaveral, a far cry from the custom made crawler that would make its appearance at the Cape only a little over 15 years later for the Saturn Program. Note the insulating blanket around the rocket to keep its cryogenic fuel as cold as possible.  (NASA Alumni League, Florida Chapter)

By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

Bumper 7 was scheduled to be launched on July 19, 1950, but misfired when some of its components had become corroded by the Atlantic Ocean’s salt air. A local newspaper described this launch abort, according to noted aerospace author L.B. “Bob” Taylor, in his 1968 book, Liftoff. I had the pleasure of working with Taylor at the Cape and Kennedy Space Center, and later for him for nearly a decade in Williamsburg, Virginia, for one of the world’s largest chemical companies. He might be better known for his many Ghosts of Virginia books.

In reporting this first launch attempt at the Cape, the newspaper story noted:

An attempt will be made again next week to launch a reluctant rocket which never got off the ground in nine trying hours today. Just about everything that could go wrong with the first experiment in low-angled firing of a guided missile did. When they finally got around to pulling the firing switch on the giant device, it produced only a popping noise hardly worthy of a champagne cork.

About 100 news personnel attended this first launch attempt, which also featured another aerospace-history first: Most of the few families that lived at the Cape in fishing camps and oceanfront houses, left temporarily when the Army directed them to do so prior to launch day. But one holdout, an elderly woman, refused to leave her house and held authorities at bay with a double-barreled shotgun, according to Taylor in his book. The Cape’s fire chief, Norris Gray, knew the woman and pleaded with her to leave. Despite his efforts, she refused and Gray, who knew the shotgun wasn’t loaded, carried her over his shoulders to a safe area. Gray later worked at the Cape for many years while it was becoming the nation’s foremost launch site.

While Bumper 7 was being repaired, the Army team launched Bumper 8 from the same complex at 9:29 a.m. on July 24. Nine days later, Bumper 7 was successfully launched.

Workers fuel a WAC Bumper second stage as Army officers mill about in the background on July 27, 1950. (NASA Alumni League, Florida Chapter)

Personnel serviced the five-story Bumper 8 rocket by climbing a shaky Rube-Goldberg-like gantry configuration, pieced together from house painters’ scaffolding. Disappointed by Bumper 7’s scrub, only about 25 news personnel showed up to watch the Bumper 8 launch.

Launch personnel move the "missile stand," essentially commercial construction scaffolding appropriated for the purpose, into position around Bumper 7 on July 27, 1950, in preparation for its second flight attempt.  (NASA Alumni League, Florida Chapter)
At the zero mark in the countdown, Bumper 8—fueled by alcohol and liquid oxygen—belched huge billowing clouds of exhaust, as it lifted off skyward. Some 56,000 pounds of thrust pushed it to an altitude of ten miles and 15 miles downrange. The rocket then leveled off horizontally while traveling at a speed of 3,000 miles an hour. And after about a minute of flight, the second stage WAC-Corporal ignited and separated from the spent booster in the first known horizontal two-stage rocket firing. The WAC-Corporal traveled 80 miles downrange from the Cape, before it was deliberately destroyed by on-board explosives. U.S. Navy ships in the Atlantic recorded launch telemetry information, augmented by Cape tracking equipment. Air Force planes also monitored data in the launch area.

Bumper 8 at the moment of ignition on July 24, 1950.  The image was probably taken from the blockhouse (which was also known as the firing room), which allowed an indirect view of Pad 3 through a reflex mirror, which caused the reflection on the left-hand side of the image. (NASA Alumni League, Florida Chapter)
A few daring reporters and photographers stood on a dirt mound in front of the 1950 version of a rocket’s control center and documented the flight. Others, including the public, watched the Bumper 8 launch from several miles away offsite. It was understandable that some of the viewing public mistook the Cape Canaveral lighthouse for the rocket.

With the successful launches of Bumpers 7 and 8, the Army, Navy and Air Force tested numerous missile systems there during the next few years. On May 5, 1961, less than 11 years after these first two missions took place, astronaut Alan Shepard, , was launched on a Mercury-Redstone space vehicle on a 15-minute suborbital flight from the Cape, rocketing America into the manned space age. 

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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