Until the arrival of the rockets and the rocketeers, Cape Canaveral was a sleepy place. Even its name – derived from the Spanish Cañaveral or Cañareal, meaning ‘Canebrake’ – was reflective of its dense thickets of cane vegetation and as recently as six decades ago it was home to barely a handful of scattered farming and fishing communities. Other than that, the Cape’s primary inhabitants were rattlesnakes and alligators, raccoons and scorpions and, of course, the ubiquitous, merciless swarms of mosquitoes. When the first military personnel arrived here to set up the Army’s Long Range Proving Ground in the spring of 1950, a joke very quickly made the rounds that the security detail would go to sleep in their tents at night…and awaken the following morning to the most unlikely of bedfellows: a bunch of fearsome rattlesnakes!
It was a touch of spirited banter, of course, but the Cape in the first few years after the end of the Second World War was quite different from the bustling spaceport that we know today. When Army master sergeant Dick Jones arrived in the small town of Cocoa Beach, he asked somebody where Cape Canaveral was and the directions he received were as follows: go across a wooden bridge and when you reach the ocean, take a left. The place upon which America’s next generation of missiles were to be tested showed few outward signs of being a place of human destiny: it was a deserted wilderness, with only a dirt track tracing a route from Patrick Air Force Base to the 19th-century brick-built lighthouse at the Cape itself. When the first four concrete launch pads were assembled, it seemed that they were the only artificial objects in this remote corner of the world.
Yet that world was about to change. In all fairness, the Cape had changed, ever since the 1920s, when the Homestead Act opened the area up to settlement, but it was with the arrival of the military that the real metamorphosis began. In the years after the Second World War, old empires crumbled and the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves as the planet’s new powerbrokers, each mutually distrustful of the other. The development of intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver conventional and nuclear warheads accelerated on both sides and one incident, in May 1947, tipped the scales of fate in Cape Canaveral’s direction. A V-2 missile – one of more than a dozen seized from Nazi Germany – launched north from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, but inexplicably veered out of control to the south. Terrifyingly, it passed over El Paso, Texas, before it crashed into the Tepeyac Cemetery in Juarez, Mexico, creating a 50-foot-wide crater.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the incident left the administration of President Harry Truman severely embarrassed. It underlined the need for a new missile testing site, far from population centres and sufficiently expansive to accommodate several downrange tracking stations. White Sands was only 135 miles long and perilously close to inhabited areas and as early as October 1946 the Joint Research and Development Board, under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, established a committee to analyse possible locations for a new long-range missile proving ground. Options included northern Washington state, with a range in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, or El Centro, California, with a range along the Mexican coast of Baja. A third was Cape Canaveral itself, with a range over the Atlantic Ocean. Washington’s isolation and poor weather quickly eliminated it from consideration and in September 1947 El Centro was selected, with Cape Canaveral as backup. However, Mexico’s refusal to allow US missiles to overfly Baja ultimately scuppered El Centro’s chances and Britain’s agreement to lease its territory in the Bahamas for tracking stations led to the selection of the Cape.
In May 1949, Truman formally established the Joint Long Range Proving Ground at Cape Canaveral and within a year work had begun to construct permanent roads and launch sites there. The area’s close proximity to the equator meant that missiles could take advantage of the Earth’s rotation and its accessibility by road, rail and shipping carried their own benefits. Construction was a laborious process, as heavy trucks became bogged down in the sand and cement often had to be prematurely dumped. (In fact, large underground piles of cement are still present, close to the earliest launch pads.) The rocket which flew first from this desolate place was a strange hybrid of a US research rocket, known as the WAC-Corporal, mated to a captured German V-2. It was called ‘Bumper’.
“The concept of mating the two evolved and this resulted in the launchings first at White Sands and eventually down here at the Cape,” said Dr William Pickering, a one-time head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in a July 2000 NASA oral history. “The significance of it was the first real application of a stage rocket with high altitude and high velocity. Staging, of course, has been very important to the whole science of rocketry ever since.” And ‘staging’ was to be one of the fundamental aims of the Bumper: the V-2 would power the first minute of the flight, after which it would provide a high-altitude ‘bump’ to the WAC-Corporal, pushing it away and enabling it to fire its own engine for 45 seconds to complete the second stage of the flight.
Bumper originated as an unlikely marriage between Nazi Germany’s fearsome weapon of war, which had rained death and destruction upon London and Antwerp, and an American research rocket, designed and built by Douglas Aircraft, the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory and JPL. It was formally inaugurated in June 1947, with its objectives listed as evaluating the capabilities of a two-stage missile at high velocities and investigating atmospheric phenomena at greater altitudes and more extreme speeds than had ever previously been attempted. The rocket stood more than six stories tall, with the stubby, 45-foot-long V-2 capped by the slender, 15-foot-long WAC-Corporal.
Six Bumpers flew from White Sands between May 1948 and April 1949, with mixed blessings. The first suffered an earlier-than-planned shutdown of its second stage engine, but still achieved an altitude of 80 miles and a maximum speed of 2,740 mph. The second launch failed when the V-2 fell victim to an interrupted propellant flow, whilst the third suffered a failure in its WAC-Corporal, the fourth experienced an explosion in the tail of the V-2 and the sixth encountered problems with both stages. Only Bumper 5, in February 1949, accomplished the maximum success, reaching an altitude of 244 miles and attaining a speed of around 5,150 mph.
The last two planned Bumpers required more range – an additional 75 miles – than was available at White Sands, precipitating the decision to launch them from Cape Canaveral. By the early summer of 1950, the first four launch pads had been completed and Pad 3 was selected for the Bumpers, apparently because it was located on somewhat drier and firmer ground. Over the years, myths have arisen that the Bumpers ascended from little more than temporary concrete slabs, but the readiness and sophistication of Pad 3 was impressive. It comprised a series of underground tunnels and equipment rooms, over which was poured a reinforced concrete pad, measuring 98 x 96.5 feet. It had an elaborate water deluge system, built into kerbs which bordered the pad, and a catch basin to trap any spillages of volatile fuel or oxidiser.
And that fuel and oxidiser represented some of the most hazardous chemicals available at the time. Liquid oxygen for the V-2 was trucked into the Cape from Tampa and in those days tankers did not hold such cryogens particularly well; often they would begin to evaporate…and only half a truckload would actually reach the launch site. Giant aluminium drums, each filled with 32 gallons of either red fuming nitric acid or aniline for the WAC-Corporal, were also delivered in their dozens. Both of these substances were ‘hypergolic’, readily burning on contact, without the need for an igniter. At White Sands, engineer Bob Droz fuelled the Bumper personally, using flexible hoses; on one occasion, a pinhole leak had developed and the escaping substance burned the top of his head. “We were pretty casual,” Droz told the NASA oral historian in July 2000. “We took the precautions, but mostly it was just face masks and rubber gloves.” All around the launch pad, sticks were festooned with ribbons, which fluttered to tell engineers the direction of the prevailing wind. “Everybody had orders that if anything happened, get upwind,” recalled Norris Gray, then-chief of fire safety at the Cape. “Red fuming nitric and aniline…is a hypergol. If you inhaled a good whiff of it, I don’t think you would last too long. It would just melt your lungs. It would cure a good cold, real quick!”
The impending launches of the two Bumper rockets had other implications, too. Since 1949, the US government had begun condemning derelict property and purchasing private property and residents found themselves removed from the Cape by bus and housed in the Brevard Hotel in Cocoa Beach. Eventually, all of the remaining families who refused to depart were removed by the courts. Norris Gray remembered the antics of one particular woman, whom he called Mona Martin, who pulled out a shotgun when the federal judge approached her to move out of her home. “She wanted to fuss, no matter what it was,” Gray told the NASA oral historian. “Nobody else to talk to, I guess.”
By the beginning of June 1950, the construction of Port Canaveral for the berthing of range instrumentation and cargo ships had gotten underway and a few weeks later, on 19 July, Bumper 7 was raised to a vertical position on Pad 3 in anticipation of the Cape’s first-ever rocket launch.
It was not to be.
The attempt was scrubbed when the V-2 first stage failed to achieve its required thrust for liftoff. Subsequent investigation revealed that a stuck fuel valve had corroded in the Cape’s salty air and moisture. Unlike modern launches, in which safing of the vehicle is conducted from within the control centre, in the case of Bumper the technicians were obliged to manually tend to the rocket. An improperly capped hose had also caused red fuming nitric acid to spill onto the pad, but this was cleaned up so quickly that it did not even scar the concrete. Norris Gray, who later received a commendation for his exemplary performance in this critical period, modestly played down his role. “We had to safe it, get it all down, drain it, dry it out, take it back to Patrick, redo it and re-valve it and brought [Bumper] 8 up,” he said. “But a lot of us stayed on the launch pad, around that area, for two weeks straight, not going home, so our families really caught it back then.”
With Bumper 7 thus exchanged for Bumper 8, the next attempt to launch came on the morning of 24 July. At the stroke of 9:28 am EDT, fifty-five thousand pounds of thrust pummelled the concrete of Pad 3 as the V-2’s engine ignited. “It rose pretty fast,” remembered Dick Jones, “as compared to an Atlas or Titan or even a Redstone, because it didn’t have all that weight to lift that those other rockets do. The roar wasn’t all that great, nothing like a Saturn V taking off, where you can feel the impact against your face.” Still, the ascent into the Florida sky was picture perfect, the WAC-Corporal ‘bumping’ off the V-2 on schedule and igniting its own rocket motor. The mission lasted two minutes, reaching a peak altitude of about ten miles and a downrange distance of 160 miles.
Five days later, on the 29th, Bumper 7 finally flew. It matched its predecessor in terms of altitude and distance and closed out a remarkable chapter of high-altitude rocketry in spectacular style.
More than six decades have passed since the growl of rocket engines first echoed across the marshy landscape of Cape Canaveral. Since then, other vehicles have far surpassed the accomplishments of the Bumpers: multi-stage rockets have delivered men to the Moon and rovers to Mars and robotic explorers to the outer planets and the edge of the Solar System. Before the hundredth anniversary of the Bumpers, it can be hoped that still more audacious advances will have been taken and that, perhaps, a rocket from Cape Canaveral will have enabled humanity’s first footsteps on the Red Planet itself.
The first four launch complexes at the Cape saw their own successes and calamities and all had been effectively retired from service before the first American astronaut rose into space in May 1961. Pads 1 and 2 operated between 1954 and 1960, primarily to test the Air Force’s Lockheed-built Snark cruise missile. This nuclear deterrent was designed to fly away from its launch point for up to 11 hours, then return to land on metal skid-like plates on the ‘Skid Strip’ at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Multiple launch failures prompted some observers to nickname the Atlantic Ocean, off Cape Canaveral, as “Snark-infested waters”, because so many of the missiles ended up there. (One Snark flew too far, failed to respond to commands and ended up crashing in Brazil. A farmer found its remains in 1982.) Pad 4, which actually consisted of two launch complexes, supported missions from 1952 to 1960, lofting the Bomarc, Matador and Redstone missiles.
As for Pad 3, little visible trace remains today of the site from which the Bumpers made history. The small wooden blockhouse, used by the firing crew and their support personnel, was dismantled in 1951 and all that now survives is a 20 x 20-foot concrete slab, about 500 feet from the pad. Over the decades, it became overgrown as the land reasserted its authority and it was not rediscovered until 1998. Its mobile service tower – famously built from painters’ scaffolding poles, purchased from Orlando – is long gone. So too is the pine telegraph post which once served the Bumpers as an impromptu umbilical tower. The impressive warren of underground tunnels and equipment rooms still survive. The surface of the pad, unbelievably, still bears the outline of Bumper’s firing table: a small grey stain on the concrete, testament to the achievement of a true pathfinder from a bygone era.
This is the first in a series of History articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus upon Pad 14, the launch complex from which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.