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







[17] The V-2 was a remarkable weapon - it was a decade ahead of Allied rocket technology. It was also the "workhorse" of the early American rocket research program. But in the late 1940s, as the captured German components began to deteriorate and the V-2s in consequence became less reliable, scientists turned their interest toward the Aerobee, the Viking, and several other small rockets that had been developed especially for high-altitude sounding.

The first true sounding rocket - built for no other purpose than upper air research - was the GALCIT-JPL Wac Corporal, mentioned earlier in Chapter II. Begun as a meteorological rocket to meet Army Signal Corps requirements, the Wac Corporal was about 5 m (16 ft) long, had an Aerojet liquid-propellant motor, weighed about 320 kg (700 lb) at launch, and could carry about 11 kg (25 lb) of payload to 64 km (40 mi). This performance could hardly match the 900-kg (1-ton) V-2 payloads, but the Wac Corporal was cheap to make and easy to use.

Wac Corporal studies commenced in December 1944 at the ORDCIT project.22 Rather than test the results of their studies out on a full-scale Wac Corporal, JPL engineers first built a one-fifth-scale model called the Baby Wac. Live tests of the Baby Wac were carried out at the GALCIT Goldstone Range, July 3 to 5, 1945. The choices of three fins and the rocket "booster" were confirmed. 23

[18] The first Wac Corporal was launched from White Sands on September 26, 1945, well before the first V-2s were fired in the United States. Thus, the Wac Corporal is often designated as the first true sounding rocket, despite the fact that other rockets had previously carried scientific instruments and despite the fact that it was the direct progeny of the military Corporal missile. Radar tracking showed that the first Wac Corporal reached an altitude of 70 km (43.5 mi), about twice the distance originally planned. This increase was ascribed to design improvements and the substitution of the more powerful Tiny Tim solid-propellant booster for that originally selected.

Although the Wac Corporal payloads were rather small, the rocket could be produced quickly and in quantity. There is no doubt that it would have been used extensively in the middle and late 1940s had not the windfall V-2s become available. As it turned out, the major contribution of the Wac Corporal to sounding rocket technology was its role in the evolution of the famous Aerobee series.




From an agency standpoint, the Aerobee is a hybrid resulting from Navy development funds and Army technology (the Wac Corporal). In 1946, the scientific drawbacks of the V-2 were generally well known, as was the fact that the extant Wac Corporal was too small for much of the anticipated space research. The Aerobee program had its genesis when Merle A. Tuve and Henry H. Porter, of the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) of the Johns Hopkins University, suggested to James A. Van Allen that he survey the rockets available for scientific research within the United States.24 An important event during Van Allen's survey was the visit to APL by Rolf Sabersky of Aerojet Engineering Corp., the manufacturers (along with Douglas Aircraft Co.) of the Wac Corporal, in early January 1946.

Van Allen's conclusions were submitted to Tuve (then Director of APL) on January 15 in a memo entitled "Liquid Powered Sounding Rockets for High Atmospheric Studies." Essentially, Van Allen's conclusions were that no fully satisfactory sounding rockets existed and that APL should act as an agent for the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in the development and procurement of new scientific sounding rockets. Also on January 15, APL directed a letter to Aerojet requesting a detailed proposal for the delivery of 20 sounding [19] rockets capable of carrying 68 kg (150 lb) to 60 960 m (200 000 ft). Following a conference at APL on February 2, Aerojet submitted a letter proposal on February 22 bearing the lengthy title: "Proposal to Develop Sounding Rockets Capable of Attaining Altitudes in Excess of 600 000 Feet [182 880 m] and Carry a Payload from 300 to 1500 Pounds [136 to 680 kg], This to Include Liquid Rocket Motor and Fuel Development and Also to Develop Efficient High Thrust Launching Rockets."

Meanwhile the Naval Research Laboratory, which had provided many experiments for the V-2s, was consulted. On March 1, 1946, Van Allen recommended that the Navy Bureau of Ordnance negotiate a contract with Aerojet for the procurement of 20 liquid-propellant sounding rockets, 15 of which would go to APL and 5 to NRL. The contract was formally awarded to Aerojet on May 17 for 20 XASR-1 sounding rockets.25 The rocket performance stipulated was the delivery of 68 kg (150 lb) of payload to over 91 440 m (300 000 ft) - obviously, the Aerobee would have to be considerably larger than the Wac Corporal. At APL, which was assigned the task of technical direction by the Navy, James A. Van Allen took charge of the Aerobee program.26

The Aerobee industrial team was essentially the same as that which built the Wac Corporal. Aerojet Engineering 27 was the prime contractor while Douglas Aircraft Co. performed aerodynamic engineering and some manufacturing. The original Aerobee was about 6 m (19 ft) long and weighed roughly 725 kg (1600 lb). It featured the same propellants as the Wac Corporal (furfuryl alcohol and red fuming nitric acid) and a 1.8-m (6-ft) solid-propellant booster that accelerated the basic vehicle to about 300 m/sec (1000 ft/sec) before dropping off.

The first Aerobee test took place at White Sands on September 25, 1947, when a dummy Aerobee was launched with a live booster to check out stage separation. Two similar tests followed in October. Then, on November 24, 1947, the first full-scale Aerobee was launched. Although the flight had to be terminated after 35 seconds because of excessive yaw, so many subsequent flights were successful that the rocket was soon renowned for its reliability - particularly in comparison with the V-2. Orders for more....




An Aerobee 150 sounding rocket.

An Aerobee 150 sounding rocket.


....Aerobees from Government agencies began to arrive at Aerojet. Aerojet has made various versions of the Aerobee ever since.

Some 40 of the original Aerobee design (XASR-1) were fired before this sounding rocket was supplanted by an improved model termed the "Aerobee-Hi" and, after further improvements, the Aerobee 150.28 There were actually two Aerobee-Hi's: the Air Force version (Air Force-Hi) and the Navy version (Navy-Hi) as well as some interim and "standard" models.29 The Aerobee-Hi's were born when the Navy and Air Force were approached by Aerojet in 1952 on the subject of an improved Aerobee - a rocket capable of lifting 68 kg (150 lb) to about 240 km (150 ml). Aerojet [21] received an Air Force contract in 1952 and another from the Navy in 1953. The fundamental difference between the Aerobee-Hi and the original Aerobee - whose thrust had been upgraded from 1179 to about 1800 kg (from 2600 to about 4000 lb) - was the propellant capacity. Beyond this, the Air Force and Navy each had its own modifications of the basic vehicle. 30 The first Air Force-Hi rose from Holloman Air Development Command in New Mexico on April 21, 1955. It carried a payload of 97.5 kg (215 lb) to 198.0 km (123 mi). The first Navy launch occurred at White Sands on August 25, 1955, but the test rocket attained scarcely more than 3-km (2-mi) altitude when the main Aerobee engine failed to ignite. Despite the initial difficulties the Navy experienced, the Aerobee-Hi soon proved as reliable as its predecessor and replaced the original Aerobee as the "workhorse" of space research.31




Back in December 1945 when the NRL Rocket-Sonde Research Branch was taking its first steps, the engineers in this embryonic organization had planned to build their own research rockets. The availability of the V-2s only delayed these plans. At the beginning of their search for the best rocket, NRL engineers C. H. Smith and Milton Rosen set a performance goal of 227 kg (500 lb) of payload at roughly 160 km (100 ml). They reasoned that some experimenters might be satisfied with the 45-kg (100-lb) payloads of the Aerobees then under development but that others needed something closer to the V-2 ton-size payloads. The rocket design finally selected was therefore much larger than the Aerobees on the drawing boards and understandably bore considerable resemblance to the V-2. Originally, this big rocket was called the Neptune; the name it is now remembered by is the Viking. 32

While the Aerobee received its technical direction from APL (the Laboratory was supported largely by Navy funds), NRL took charge of the Viking. The Navy was the key Government agency in sounding rocket development, although the Army and Air Force did play their roles, as mentioned in connection with the Wac Corporal and Aerobee-Hi. The two major contractors on the Viking were Glenn L. Martin Co., which won the competition for the prime contract in August 1946, and Reaction Motors,....



A Navy Viking rocket on the launch pad at White Sands, circa 1949.

A Navy Viking rocket on the launch pad at White Sands, circa 1949.


....Inc., which built the rocket engine under a separate contract from the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics.33 Program direction at NRL was originally by C. H. Smith, under E. H. Krause; but in the fall of 1947, both Krause and Smith left to work on another project. Their places were taken by Homer E. Newell, Jr., and Milton W. Rosen, respectively.34

The original Martin contract called for 10 Vikings. Altogether, 14 were built, with the last 2 assigned to tests in the Vanguard Earth-satellite program. There were many minor variations from vehicle to vehicle, but two major varieties are recognized: the type 7 and the type 9 Vikings. All rockets of type 7 were about 15 m (49 ft) high and weighed about 4500 kg [23] (almost 5 tons) loaded. In contrast, the type 9 Viking was shorter (about 13 m (42 ft)) and much squatter; it was 50 percent heavier and could carry 450 kg (1000 lb) to 254 km (158 mi). In fact, the type 9 Viking looked less like a sounding rocket and more like a military missile. At one time, thought was actually given to converting the Viking to a submarine-launched missile.

Viking 1 was fired from White Sands on May 3, 1949; the 12th, the last of the sounding rockets, left its launch pad on February 4, 1955. Two particularly interesting launches were Viking 4, which was fired from the deck of the U.S.S. Norton Sound in the Pacific (Project Reach) and Viking 8, which broke away from its moorings during a supposed static test firing on June 6, 1952. It landed on the desert 8 km (5 mi) away.

The Vikings transported a great many experiments into the upper atmosphere and above - 254.3 km (158 mi) up for Viking 11 on May 24, 1954. They also took impressive high-altitude photographs of the Earth. But the Viking was too expensive and required too many ground personnel and facilities to make a practical sounding rocket. The most significant contributions from the Viking program were in technology. The Viking pioneered the gimbaled engine and paved the way for the Vanguard program with its first-stage powerplant.




When the V-2 series terminated in 1952, the Aerobees had taken over most of the research workload. In the background, however, the military services were developing a great variety of missiles and pilotless aircraft, many of which could be combined to make passable sounding rockets. Most of these missiles were rather small solid-propellant rockets, but they had the advantage of being highly reliable, available, and, when they became obsolete, very cheap. Typical of the missile-based research rockets are those using Nike boosters, such as the Nike-Cajun.

The Deacon was a member of a family of solid rocket motors named after ecclesiastical dignitaries; viz, the Curate and Vicar motors. The development of this series began near the end of World War II under the National Defense Research Council.35 When work on the solid-propellant Deacon at Allegany Ballistics Laboratory, Cumberland, Md., terminated with the end of the war, some 300 propellant grains became "surplus." The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) purchased these propellant grains and, working with Allegany, assembled them into what is now known as the Deacon rocket motor.

[24] NACA did not want the Deacon motors for sounding rockets but rather for propelling aerodynamic models at its Wallops Island Test Station.36 The first models using the Deacon were fired out over the Atlantic in April 1947. The Deacon motor was also employed during Operation Pogo to fire metalized parachutes to high altitudes for radar tracking. The Navy Terrapin sounding rocket also used the Deacon motor. Deacons were also carried to high altitudes by balloons prior to firing in the well-known "rockoon" program.

In 1956, studies at PARD indicated that the Deacon's performance could be substantially improved by substituting new propellants while still retaining the Deacon's convenient configuration and size. NACA contracted with Thiokol Chemical Corp., Elkton, Md., for the development and construction of this new motor.37 The name Cajun was applied to the motor by Joseph G. Thibodaux, head of the PARD rocket section and from New Orleans. The first Cajun firing occurred at Wallops Island on June 20, 1956.

In size, the Deacon and Cajun were no competitors to even the smallish Wac Corporal. The Cajun was just under 264 cm (104 in.) long and weighed 75.3 kg (166 lb) before firing. The Deacon's dimensions were similar.

When the Deacon and Cajun rockets were combined with the solid-propellant booster of the Nike I guided missile, two very capable sounding rockets evolved: the Nike-Deacon (called DAN for Deacon and Nike) and Nike-Cajun (CAN). DAN could take a 23-kg (50-lb) payload to 111 km (69 mi), while the higher performance CAN could carry the same payload to 167 km (104 mi).38

The original mating of the Nike and Deacon was carried out by NACA PARD personnel in 1953 as an in-house project with later financial support from the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories (AFCRL). The objective of the NACA work was again the acceleration of model rockets and aircraft to high Mach numbers. The first of these firings took place on November 19, 1953, at Wallops Island.

[25] The Nike-Deacon began its sounding rocket career in 1954 at a meeting of the Upper Atmosphere Rocket Research Panel. Panel Chairman James A. Van Allen asked the NASA representative, William J. O'Sullivan, from Langley Research Center, if one of the PARD vehicles might not be less expensive and more easily launched than the Aerobee. O'Sullivan recommended the Nike-Deacon. Subsequently the Aeronautical Engineering Department of the University of Michigan, which was developing upper atmosphere instrumentation for AFCRL, was funded by AFCRL to convert the PARD Nike-Deacon into a sounding rocket. The new rocket was launched from Wallops Island for the first time on April 8,1955.39

It was only logical next to combine the Nike booster with the improved version of the Deacon, the Cajun. The same NACA-Michigan-Thiokol group made the modifications. The first launch of the combined Nike and Cajun took place at Wallops Island on July 6, 1956.40

The Nike-Cajun quickly superseded the Nike-Deacon and was widely used during the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It also found application in the Weather Bureau's Project Hugo - a long-range weather research program. The Nike-Deacons and Nike-Cajuns were cheap and reliable, the basic rocket motors having been developed and well tested during their military and NACA careers. Further, they were simple and easy to use - scientists could take them wherever targets of opportunity existed. The University of Michigan group, for example, fired five Nike-Cajuns from the U.S.S. Rushmore in 1956. Many launchings in various parts of the world followed.




Rockoons have been mentioned several times in the preceding pages, particularly in connection with the Deacon rocket. The Deacons were used on most rockoons, but a rockoon is actually the combination of any balloon with any rocket. The rockoon concept seems to have been originated by Lt. M. L. (Lee) Lewis during a conversation with S. F. Singer and George Halvorson during the Aerobee firing cruise of the U.S.S. Norton Sound in March 1949. The basic idea is to lift a small sounding rocket high above the dense atmosphere with a large balloon in the Skyhook class. Once enough altitude is attained, the rocket is fired by radio signal straight up through the....




A Navy rockoon just after a shipboard launch. A Deacon rocket is suspended below the balloon.

A Navy rockoon just after a shipboard launch. A Deacon rocket is suspended below the balloon.


[27] ...balloon. The rocket will reach much higher altitudes than it could from the ground. The rockoon has turned out to be a simple, cheap way of getting high-altitude data without special facilities. Many rockoons employing Deacon, Loki, and Hawk rockets were fired between 1952 and 1960. Once satellites and high-altitude sounding rockets became available in adequate numbers, the use of rockoons declined.

James A. Van Allen first put rockoons to practical use when he and his group from the University of Iowa fired several from the Coast Guard Cutter East Wind during its cruise off Greenland in August and September 1952. 41 Van Allen was looking for high-altitude radiation near the magnetic poles and needed a vehicle that could reach well over 80 km (50 mi) with an 11-kg (25-lb) payload and yet still be launched easily from a small ship. The rockoon was the answer. With his rockoons, Van Allen detected considerable soft radiation at high altitudes - much more than scientists expected. This was one of the first hints that radiation might be trapped by the Earth's magnetic field. One drawback to the rockoon was that it had to be fired before high-altitude winds carried it out of radio range.

Project Farside was an attempt to reach extreme altitudes with the rockoon concept. Using a four-stage solid-propellant rocket hung below a 106 188-m3 (3 750 000-ft3) balloon, altitudes approaching 6437 km (4000 mi) were reached during the fall of 1957. Farside was an Air Force Office of Scientific Research project, using various instruments provided by the University of Maryland. Six rockets were built by Aeronutronic Systems, Inc. Bad telemetry precluded the discovery of the Van Allen belts during the Farside shots near Eniwetok.




If balloons were so useful in stretching rocket performance, why not try high-altitude aircraft? Thus, the "rockaire" concept was born. Actually the rockaire concept was first suggested by Hermann Oberth in his 1929 classic Wege zur Raumschiffahrt. The Air Force studied the idea on and off from 1947 on. The Navy did the same and finally tried the idea out on August 16, 1955, using a Navy F2H2 aircraft off Wallops Island. An altitude of 54 864 m (180 000 ft) was reached with a 69.9-mm (2.75-in.) folded-fin aerial rocket (FFAR) of Korean vintage.42 The Air Force launched theirs in 1956.43 In general, however, the rockaire concept never achieved the popularity of the rockoon. Apparently no important scientific rocket [28] research was carried out with rockaires, in contrast to the hundreds of rockoons fired during the 1950s.




To summarize the period from 1945 through the beginning of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), on July 1, 1957, the development of sounding rocket technology may be characterized by the following:


The period 1945-57, then, was primarily a period of perfecting both rocket and instrument techniques. No spectacular new scientific discoveries came during the 1945-57 period, although the discipline of geophysics was extended from 32 to 40 km (20 to 25 mi) and there were some solid achievements in aeronomy. It was still a time of preparation. True, Van Allen's discovery of soft radiation at high altitudes was interesting, and solar research had been greatly stimulated by the first ultraviolet spectrograms of the Sun. Hundreds of sounding rockets had begun to sketch out the complex, ever-changing upper atmosphere and ionosphere; rocket pictures of the Earth's weather showed the practical potential of high-altitude vehicles. Nevertheless there was nothing that might be labeled a "scientific breakthrough," like the later discoveries of the Van Allen belts, the magnetosphere, etc.


22. F. J. Malina and H. J. Stewart, "Considerations of the Feasibility of Developing a 100,000 ft. Altitude Rocket (The 'Wac Corporal')," JPL Memorandum 4-4 (Jan. 16, 1945).

23. Many liquid-propellant sounding rockets, such as the Aerobee, employ solid-propellant boosters that propel the rocket clear of the launch tower. "Research and Development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, GALCIT," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Vl (Sept. 1946), 52.

24. James A. Van Allen, John W. Townsend, Jr., and Eleanor C. Pressly, "The Aerobee Rocket," in Homer E. Newell, Jr., ed,, Sounding Rockets (New York, 1959), p. 55,

25. The APL rockets were given the name "Aerobee" by Van Allen, a combination of the name of the prime contractor, Aerojet, and the name of APL's series of Navy missiles, the Bumblebees. The five NRL rockets were originally called "Venus," but eventually the name "Aerobee" was applied to all rockets in this long series of sounding rockets.

26. For details, see Aerobee High-Altitude Sounding Rocket Design, Construction and Use, Johns Hopkins University, Bumblebee Series Report 95 (1948).

27. Another link between the Aerobee and Wac Corporal lies in the fact that von Karman and other JPL personnel helped found Aerojet Engineering.

28. see Appendix A for a listing of all major models of the Aerobee series. As might be expected in such a long program, there have been a great many changes over and above major model changes. Appendix B summarizes NASA firings from 1959 through 1968.

29. John w. Townsend, Jr., Eleanor Pressly, Robert M. Slavin, and Louis Kraft, Jr., "The Aerobee-Hi Rocket," in Homer E. Newell, Jr., ed., Sounding Rockets, p. 74.

30. For a description of the differences, see Upper Atmosphere Research Report No. X NRL-4576 (Sept. 8,1955).

31. For details see J. w. Townsend and R. M. Slavin, ``Aerobee-Hi Development Program, Propulsion, XXVII (Mar. 1957), 263.

32. The name was changed when it was discovered that the Navy already had an aircraft called the Neptune.

33. Milton w. Rosen, The Viking Rocket Story.

34. Homer E. Newell, Jr., ``Viking,,, in Homer E. Newell, Jr., ed., Sounding Rockets, pp.235-242.

35. W. J. O'Sullivan, ``Deacon and Cajun, in Newell, ed., Sounding Rockets, p. 96.

36. This work was done under the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) of the Langley Research Center. PARD employed rocket-propelled and gun-propelled models to attain the high velocities necessary to NACA's exploration of the supersonic night regime. see R. s. Watson, Flight Investigation of 6.25-inch-diameter Deacon Rocket and 10-inch-scale Model Rocket, NACA RM L8H26 (Mar. 25, 1949). For general treatment see J. A. Shortal's History of Wallops Station Comment Edition (Wallops station, 1969), which describes the substantial rocket experience NACA (and later NASA) gained from the supersonic, rocket-propelled vehicle work at Wallops

37. Other contenders for the cajun contract were ABL and the Grand Central Rocket Co. Grand Central lost the competition but went on to build its proposed motor anyway. This motor was eventually employed in the Asp sounding rocket.

38. L. M. Jones, w. H. Hansen, and F. F. Fischbach, "Nike-Cajun and Nike-Deacon," in Newell, ed.,Sounding Rockets, p. 190.

39. R. H. Heitkotter, Flight Investigation of the Performance of a Two-stage Solid-propellant Nike Deacon {DAN) Meteorological Sounding Rocket, NACA TN 3739 (July 1956).

40. J. F. Royall, Jr., and B. J. Garland, Characteristics of the Nike-Cajun (CAN) Rocket System and Flight Investigation of Its Performance, NACA RM L57D26 (1957).

41. James A. van Allen, "Balloon-Launched Rockets for High-Altitude Research," in Homer E. Newell, Jr., ed., Sounding Rockets, p. 143.

42. Malcolm D. Ross, "Aircraft Launched Rockets," in Newell, ed., Sounding Rockets, p. 165.

43. R M. Slavin, "The Air Force Rockaire Program," Jet Propulsion, XXVII (Mar. 1957), 279.