SP-4401 - NASA SOUNDING ROCKETS, 1958-1968: A Historical Summary





[5] All rocket histories are replete with the well-worn stories of the Chinese rockets of the 13th century, Sir William Congreve's war rockets of the earl, 1800s, and the whole plethora of more recent weaponry. While most rocker development aimed at attaching bombs or other lethal apparatus to the rocket, a few scientists swam against the current and dreamed of sending instruments into the high regions of the atmosphere.

The scientific urge to explore the atmosphere was a strong one Torricelli carried his barometer up a mountain in the 1640s; in 1749 kites carrying thermometers were flown in Glasgow; by 1893 huge box kites had taken instruments over 3000 m (10 000 ft). Balloons were not neglected by science, either. Unmanned, instrument-carrying balloons had reached 16 150 m (53 000 ft) by 1893. Balloons, in fact, were essential in unraveling the mystery of cosmic radiation during the first decades of this century. It was only logical to convert rocket warheads into instrument capsules, too.

Claude Ruggieri, apparently an Italian living in Paris, rocketed small animals into space as early as 1806. The payloads were recovered by parachute. By 1830, Ruggieri's rockets were able to lift a full-grown ram.4 Little else remotely resembling science was done with rockets until 1906, when Alfred Maul, a German engineer, employed rockets to take cameras to high altitudes. Maul's 1912-model rocket carried a photographic plate 203.2 by 254.0 mm (8 by 10 in.) in size and was stabilized by a gyroscope. All in all, these were a rather precocious run of experiments.

In his classic 1919 paper, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, Robert H. Goddard suggested that rockets might well be used for upper atmosphere research.5 It was not until July 17, 1929, however, that....



Dr. Robert H. Goddard {second from right) and his colleagues holding a liquid-propellant rocket in 1932 at their New Mexico workshop.

Dr. Robert H. Goddard {second from right) and his colleagues holding a liquid-propellant rocket in 1932 at their New Mexico workshop.


....Goddard placed scientific instruments on his rockets. On this flight - the last test at Auburn, Mass., before officials forced Goddard and his noisy contraptions to New Mexico - an aneroid barometer and a thermometer were attached to the rocket to measure ambient conditions. A camera focused on both instruments was tripped when the rocket parachute was released. Although the scientific content of this experiment was not high and certainly not the main purpose of the flight, this was the first instrumented rocket. Unfortunately, it attained an altitude of only 52.1 m (171 ft). 6

Goddard's work began to attract attention, notably that of Charles A. Lindbergh, who recommended that the Guggenheims help finance Goddard's venture. The real military potential of the rocket was foreseen in such prophetic articles as R. MacMechen's "Rockets, the New Monsters of Doom," in 1931.7 But the great scientific utility of this remarkable vehicle was not neglected either; also in 1931, W. J. Humphreys published his article "Mining the Sky for Scientific Knowledge."8 Both MacMechen and Humphreys harangued a deaf audience. Except for Goddard, a few amateurs, the German army, and the Russians, rockets were mere toys.

[7] One notable exception was John A. Fleming, Head of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. On January 27, 1932 Fleming testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that thought was being given to using Goddard's rockets for research during the Second Polar Year beginning August 1, 1932.9 Unfortunately, the depression killed such marginal proposals and, for many scientists, the whole Polar Year program.

If the instruments on Goddard's July 17, 1929, flight are classified merely as engineering devices, the honor of launching the first true sounding rockets belongs to Russia. In 1933, a Russian named Tikhonoravov apparently launched an instrumented, liquid-fueled sounding rocket.10 In 1935, another Russian rocket designed by F. A. Tsander reached an altitude of 11 km (8 mi) carrying instruments for upper atmosphere research.11

As the world moved toward World War II in the early and middle 1930s, two developments occurred that profoundly affected the history of sounding rockets. First, the German military rocket program began in 1930 under the Bureau of Ordnance. Second, rocket work at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), was begun in 1936.

The German work, of course, is important because it culminated in the V-2 (discussed in the next chapter). Actually, work leading to the V-2 was begun long before Hitler came to power. Called the A-4 (for Aggregate 4) by the engineers, the V-2 was only one of a long series of rockets developed during the years between 1930 and 1944 by the German army. It is interesting to note in passing that Walter R. Dornberger, one of the key German rocket men, refers to the A-2 as a "sounding rocket.''12 The A-2 was first launched just before Christmas in 1934 from the island of Birkum in the North Sea. With a motor of 299.4-kg (660-lb) thrust, the A-2 reached an altitude of about 980 m (6500 ft). No information about its scientific instrumentation - if any - is known. Later, the A-4s (V-2s) occasionally carried instruments on test flights, but these were aimed at measuring the performance and environment of the rocket.

GALCIT was created in 1926, but it specialized at first in aeronautics under the leadership of Theodore von Karman. A decade later GALCIT was....




Frank J. Malina (a former JPL Director) and the Wac Corporal at White Sands, circa 1946. The solid-propellant booster is not shown.

Frank J. Malina (a former JPL Director) and the Wac Corporal at White Sands, circa 1946. The solid-propellant booster is not shown.


[9] ....stimulated to look at rockets by Frank Malina. On February 14, 1936, for example, Malina noted:


If we could develop a rocket to go up and come down safely we would be able to get much data useful to the weather men and also for cosmic ray study.13


Malina and others carried out rocket research that ultimately led to the well-known Jet-Assisted Take Off (JATO) units used during World War II. More important to our story, though, Army Ordnance also asked GALCIT to develop missiles for field use in January 1944.14 The Private, Corporal, and Sergeant missiles evolved from this work. It was a scaled-down version of the Corporal missile, called the Wac Corporal, that became this country's first rocket designed specifically for sounding the upper atmosphere. The Wac Corporal work commenced in December 1944, when the Army Signal Corps notified Army Ordnance that it needed a high-altitude sounding rocket "to carry 25 pounds [11.3 kg] of meteorological instruments to 100000 ft [30 480 m] or more."15 The Wac Corporal (named that because it was a "small" Corporal) led directly to the famous Aerobee sounding rocket. In Chapter IV, following the V-2 story, the JPL developments leading to the Aerobees are discussed further.

While the Army's GALCIT worked on solid-propellant JATO units, a parallel series of developments was taking place across country. Reaction Motors, Inc., a company founded by experimenters from the American Rocket Society, began designing and developing liquid-propellant JATO units for the Navy. The Navy work was to lead to the Viking sounding rocket and its descendants. The Navy Viking program actually began before the end of World War II. So even as Germany was building and firing V-2s, two different foundations for future sounding rocket technology were being built in this country.


4. Willy Ley relates that Ruggieri was preparing to launch a human volunteer into space when the police stopped him. Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel, rev. ed. (New York, 1958), p. 85.

5. Goddard repeated his suggestion in 1920 in "The Possibilities of the Rocket in Weather Forecasting," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vl (1920), 493.

6. Esther C. Goddard and G. Edward Pendray, eds., Robert H. Goddard, Rocket Development, Liquid-Fuel Rocket Research, 1929-1942 (Englewood Cliffs, 1961), p. xxv.

7. R. MacMechen, Liberty, Vlll (Sept. 19, 1931),16.

8. W. J. Humphreys, Scientific American, CXLIV (Jan. 1931), 22.

9. Walter Sullivan, Assault on the Unknown (New York, 1960), p. 16.

10. Frederick 1. Ordway, III, and Ronald C. Wakeford, International Missile and Spacecraft Guide (New York, 1960), p. 4.

11. ibid., p. 4. Just what instruments were carried and what results were obtained were never revealed in publications reaching the West.

12. Walter R. Dornberger, "The German V-2," Technology and Culture, IV (Fall 1963), 397.

13. R. Cargill Hall, A Selective Chronology, GALCIT-JPL Developments, 1926-1950, JPL Report (Sept. 8, 1967), p. 4. See also E. M. Emme, The History of Rocket Technology (Detroit, 1964).

14. The stimulating document in this instance was the Nov. 20, 1943, memo by von Karman entitled "Memorandum on the Possibility of Long-Range Rocket Projectiles." Project ORDCIT commenced in January 1944 as a result of a letter to von Karman from Major General G. M. Barnes, Office of Chief of Ordnance, U.S. Army.

15. lbid, 27.