Roar of the Bumper: Remembering the Cape’s First Launch, 70 Years On

Bumper 8 takes flight from Cape Canaveral, 70 years ago today. Photo Credit: NASA/U.S. Army

For decades, we have grown used to watching launches from Cape Canaveral. But until the arrival of the rockets and the rocketeers, the Cape was a sleepy place, characterized by dense thickets of cane vegetation and home to scattered farming and fishing communities, as well as alligators, racoons, scorpions and ubiquitous mosquitoes. When the first military personnel arrived here to set up the Army’s Long Range Proving Ground in early 1950, a joke soon made the rounds that the security detail would bed down in their tents each night, only to awaken the next morning to the most unwelcome of bedfellows: a bunch of fearsome rattlesnakes. It is hard to imagine, seeing what we see today, what a different world this place once was. And on 24 July 1950—70 years ago today—the Cape observed its very first rocket launch with the flight of Bumper 8.
Video Credit: Dan Beaumont Space Museum, via Air Force Space & Missile Museum

When Army master sergeant Dick Jones arrived in the tiny town of Cocoa Beach, all those years ago, he asked someone 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. Jones found a deserted wildernes, with only a dirt track tracing a route from Patrick Air Force Base to the 19th-century brick-built lighthouse on the Cape itself. When four concrete launch pads were built, it seemed that they were the only artificial structures in this natural place.

Truly, it was the arrival of the military which transformed the Cape in the uncertain years after the Second World War. Missile tests had been conducted at White Sands, N.M., but their location in relative proximity to inhabited areas led to discussions of where best to site a future launch complex.

A joint research and development board convened in October 1946, with options ranging from northern Washington state to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and from El Centro, Calif., to the Mexican coast of Baja. In September 1947, Cape Canaveral was picked as a backup site, behind El Centro. But Mexico’s refusal to allow U.S. missiles to overfly Baja ultimately scupped El Centro’s chances and the Cape—aided by Britain’s agreement to lease its Bahamian territory for tracking support—won out.

The eight Bumper missions carried American dreams to the edge of space. Photo Credit: U.S. Army, via Alan Walters/John Hilliard

In May 1949, President Harry S. 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 vehicle which flew first from this desolate place was a hybrid of a U.S. 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 a fundamental aim of 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.

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, tasked with 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 six stories tall, with the stubby, 45-foot-long (13.7-meter) V-2 capped by the slender, 15-foot-long (4.5-meter) WAC-Corporal.

The foundation for the shed that is in the foreground of this story’s lead image, at the overgrown site of Pad 3, location of Cape Canaveral’s first rocket launch, 70 years ago today. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

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 (130 km) and a maximum speed of 2,740 mph (4,400 km/h). 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 (392 km) and attaining a speed of around 5,150 mph (8,290 km/h).

The last two planned Bumpers required more range—an additional 75 miles (120 km)—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 arose 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 feet (30 meters) by 96.5 feet (29.4 meters). It had an elaborate water deluge system, built into kerbs which bordered the pad, and a catch basin to trap any propellant spillages.

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 start to evaporate and only half a truckload would actually reach the launch site. Giant aluminum drums, each filled with 32 gallons (145 liters) of red fuming nitric acid or aniline for the WAC-Corporal, were also delivered in their dozens. Both were “hypergolic”, readily burning on contact, without the need for an igniter.

Eight Bumper vehicles were launched between May 1948 and July 1950. Photo Credit: U.S. Army, via Alan Walters/John Hilliard

At White Sands, engineer Bob Droz fueled the Bumper personally, using flexible hoses; on one occasion, a pinhole leak developed and the escaping substance burned the top of his head. “We were pretty casual,” Droz told a 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 U.S. 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.

Overgrown and derelict today, the concrete surface of Pad 3 still bears the scars of Cape Canaveral’s first rocket launch. Photo Credit: NASA

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 center, in for Bumper the technicians were obliged to manually tend the rocket. An improperly capped hose 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 work, 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 recalled, years later. “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 a.m. EDT, a total of 55,000 pounds (29,950 kg) of thrust pummeled 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 (16 km) and a downrange distance of 160 miles (260 km).

Many of the United States’ early rockets were descended from the fearsome V-2 of Nazi Germany. They included the single-stage Redstone, a weapon of war which eventually put America’s first man into space. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Today, seven decades on, little trace now remains of Pad 3. Its tiny wooden blockhouse, using by the firing crew and their support personnel, was dismantled in 1951 and all that now survives is a concrete slab about 500 feet (150 meters) from the pad. Gradually, it became overgrown and 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. However, 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 achievements of a bygone era.

Thanks to AmericaSpace Head Photographer Alan Walters for his assistance in sourcing and supplying images for this article.

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