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





[11] The V-2 is most famous for the havoc it wrought in England during the closing phases of World War II. This missile, standing some 14 m (46 ft) high and capable of carrying 907 kg (1 ton) of explosives almost 322 km (200 mi), also was to have an impressive scientific history. It is the purpose of this chapter to describe the importance of the V-2 to sounding rocket technology - the peacetime V-2 - rather than recount once more the days at Peenemuende. 16

In retrospect, the V-2 had three important effects on the history of American sounding rockets.


1. Knowledge that the Germans were working on large rockets during the war stimulated the formation of the ORDCIT project, which ultimately led to the Wac Corporal.
2. German V-2 technology (in terms of captured hardware and engineers) was later applied directly to such American sounding rockets as the Viking.
3. The capture of V-2 rocket components and their subsequent assembly into operable rockets gave American scientists an early opportunity to develop rocket research techniques as well as make some fundamental scientific discoveries at high altitudes.


In short, the V-2 was a windfall and a great stimulus for both American and Russian science and rocket technology.

The Germans themselves did not overlook the scientific potential of the V-2, but pure science was naturally of low priority as the Third Reich faltered. According to Rosen,17 plans did exist for a program of scientific firings of the V-2 from an island near Peenemuende. Instruments for these [12] flights had been designed by Professor Regener. The plans were never carried out, although the high-altitude capabilities of the V-2 were demonstrated when a Peenemuende test shot reached 172.2 km (107 mi).

As the war drew to a close, both the Americans and Russians were anxious to lay their hands on V-2 hardware and engineers. In the end, the Americans had captured most of the development engineers, while the Russians whisked away a large contingent of production personnel into Russia. More pertinent to a sounding rocket history, though, is the fact that the American Army was first to capture the underground V-2 factory near Niedersachswerfen. It had already been decided that this part of Germany would be occupied by the Russians; but, by the time the military formalities necessary for the transfer had been arranged, the Americans had packed up and removed 300 boxcars full of V-2 parts and equipment. Eventually most of these parts were assembled into complete rockets and fired from White Sands.

One of the American scientists who went to Europe to interrogate German scientists was Ernst H. Krause, of the Naval Research Laboratory. Krause returned greatly impressed with German missilery but unaware of the captured V-2s. When Milton Rosen, one of his NRL staff, proposed building an American research rocket, Krause was most sympathetic. Consequently, on December 17, 1945, the NRL Rocket-Sonde Research Branch was constituted officially. Research groups to study cosmic rays, the atmosphere, the ionosphere, and spectroscopy were created. And, of course, plans were started to develop a new sounding rocket to carry the scientific instruments.

Scientists and engineers in the NRL Rocket-Sonde Research Branch had scarcely begun their work when, on January 7, 1946, they learned from Lt. Col. J. G. Bain, Army Ordnance Department, of the capture of enough parts to build perhaps 100 V-2s. Plans for a new Navy sounding rocket were set aside in favor of exploiting the unexpected acquisition of V-2s described by Col. Bain. The Army had already drawn up plans for firing the V-2s from White Sands to gain military experience but had not implemented a scientific research program. Col. Bain was delighted to find that NRL had already organized a group to these ends. NRL, which had the scientific knowhow but no rockets, was equally pleased and quickly accepted Col. Bain's invitation to join the V-2 project.18

Nine days after Col. Bain's NRL visit, about 50 interested scientists and engineers from more than a dozen organizations met at NRL to plan the exploitation of the V-2s. On that date, January 16, 1946, a "V-2 Upper [13] Atmosphere Research Panel" was created.19 This panel, with various name changes to reflect the exhaustion of the supply of captured V-2s and the advent of satellites, helped guide sounding rocket research for almost a decade.

Most of the V-2 instrumentation built between 1946 and 1952 came from NRL, the Applied Physics Laboratory, the Army Signal Corps, and the U.S. Air Force. The Army Ordnance Department, which had overall responsibility for the V-2 program, assigned the job of assembling the V-2s and their payloads to General Electric. Actually the General Electric V-2 work was done under the auspices of the Hermes program, a more general missile research and development effort initiated with GE on November 15, 1944. The major scene of action was, of course, the Army's White Sands Proving Ground, which with foresight the Army had established on July 9, 1945.

As Army and GE engineers sorted out the captured German parts, they discovered to their consternation that at best only two complete V-2s could be assembled from the original components. Gyros were in especially short supply and 140 more had to be built by American industry. So it went, down the list of components; despite the 300 boxcars of parts, many repairs were required and industry had to turn to and manufacture a great variety of missing pieces. For example, entirely new scientific "warheads" had to be made because the captured military versions were too heavy and (obviously) had no access doors that would allow experimenters to get at their instruments. The Naval Gun Factory was chosen to fabricate new payload structures.

All problems were eventually overcome and the first American V-2 static firing occurred on March 15, 1946. The first flight came a month later at 2:47 P.M. on April 16.20

From April 16 to the final V-2 flight on June 28, 1951, 67 V-2s were fired from White Sands as part of the Hermes program. Among these were six Project Bumper shots, employing a Wac Corporal atop a V-2.21 Seven .....



A Bumper-Wac on the launch pad at White Sands in the late 1940s. The first stage was a V-2; the second, a Wac Corporal.

A Bumper-Wac on the launch pad at White Sands in the late 1940s. The first stage was a V-2; the second, a Wac Corporal.


[15] ...others were associated with Project Blossom, an upper-air research project that involved the parachute recovery of canisters carrying fruit flies and seeds exposed to cosmic rays during flight. Bumper and Blossom were also part of the Hermes program. The most spectacular Bumper flight occurred on February 24, 1949, when the second-stage Wac Corporal reached the record altitude of about 400 km (250 mi).

Almost half the V-2s launched from White Sands were officially classified as failures. Even though most rockets left the launch pad, many did not go far; some exploded; still others behaved so erratically that the scientific experiments were compromised. In fact, as the V-2 firing program drew to a close, it was generally felt among scientists that the rocket was too unreliable to warrant risking months of work in preparing an experiment. Nevertheless, the V-2s took the first solar ultraviolet spectrograms above the Earth's ozone layer. They captured spectacular photographs of Earth from high altitudes; they brought back air samples and cosmic-ray measurements. Although valuable atmospheric data were obtained, it is more honest to regard the series of flights as scientific test vehicles upon which new instrument and telemetering techniques were perfected. Experimenters learned how to build compact, rugged, reliable equipment, while rocket engineers found how to give the instruments a smooth, clean ride. Advances were also made in instrument pointing and recovery. This was technology rather than science, it is true, but experience with the V-2s provided just what American scientists and engineers needed to build sounding rockets tailored specifically to space research.


16. Two important works dealing with the early days of the V-2 are: Ley, Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel and Walter Dornberger, V-2 (New York, 1954).

17. Milton W. Rosen, The Viking Rocket Story (New York, 1955), p. 19.

18. M. A. Garstens, H. E. Newell, Jr., and J. W. Siry, Upper Atmosphere Research Report No. 1, NRL-2955 (Oct. 1, 1946), pp. 1-3.

19. The membership was confined to people actually working with the V-2s. Membership varied with time. On October 1, 1946, the members were E. H. Krause (Chairman), NRL; G. K. Megerian and C. F. Green, General Electric; J. Brinster, Princeton; W. G. Dow, University of Michigan; M. J. E. Golay, Army Signal Corps; M. D. O'Day, Watson Laboratories; N. Smith, NBS; J. A. Van Allen, Applied Physics Laboratory; and F. L. Whipple, Harvard.

20. A list of White Sands firings can be found in Ley, Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel, p. 458. Additional details can be found in General Electric Report R52A0510, Final Report, Project Hermes, V-2 Missile Program (Sept. 1952).

21. Two other Bumper shots took place at the Long Range Proving Ground (predecessor of Cape Kennedy) in Florida. Additional V-2 military flights were made at various sites, including a shipboard launch (Project Sandy).