First Flights of a Different Kind

Space-shots from Florida’s Cape Canaveral began 50 years ago on July 23rd with the flight of Bumper 8.

Bumper 8 was a hybrid launch vehicle comprised of a V-2 first stage and a WAC Corporal second stage. This combination allowed early rocketeers to attain either great height or great speed.

The V-2s were captured at the end of World War II from the Germans and the rockets (plus many of the German scientists and engineers) were brought to White Sands, NM for testing. Initially the V-2s were launched by themselves, but a later batch was modified to carry a second rocket as a second stage atop the nose cone.

The second rocket in the Bumper vehicles was the WAC Corporal; a smaller rocket developed to test components for the Army’s Corporal missile, and to become the sounding rocket its designers had longed for while working on military projects.

Early Army missiles were being given names drawn from military rank, such as the Private and Corporal. The WAC Corporal was deemed the ‘little sister’ to the Corporal, so WAC for Women’s Army Corps was added to the name.

Altitude flights for the Bumper posed no range safety problems, as they came down within the confines of the White Sands Proving Ground. But for the last Bumper flights, high speed was the goal, and for this a long-range safety zone was required. White Sands could not be used, as such flights would overfly Mexico. So, what had been the Banana River Naval Station became Patrick Air Force Base and the Eastern Test Range.

With launch facilities consisting of a newly poured concrete pad and an impromptu gantry of scaffolding, Bumper 7 was readied for launch. However, it was quickly discovered that Bumper 7 did not want to leave. While troubleshooting began on that vehicle, Bumper 8 was readied for flight.

On the morning of July 23, 1950 at 9:28AM as reporters and observers viewed from yards — not miles — from the launch platform, Bumper 8 vaulted into the Atlantic sky. Even though we were years away from orbital flight, after starts, stops and sidetracks, the Space Age had truly begun. This day, Bumper 8s upper stage malfunctioned, but days later, on July 29th, a freshly encouraged Bumper 7 left the pad and the second stage propelled it to 3270 miles and hour — a new speed record.

Author’s note:
Today, when viewing major space launches in the United States, one has a choice of two locations, Vandenburg AFB in California and the Cape Canaveral Spaceport in Florida. Vandenburg is used for polar launches, and primarily military and scientific satellites use polar orbits. Cape Canaveral is used for equatorial launches, which can be used for continual orbits around the earth or geostationary orbits to hang a satellite over one spot on the planet.