Fifty years ago this month in the sandbars of Cape Canaveral, Florida, history was made as the bare-bones facility that would one day became the world's busiest spaceport launched its first rockets, a combination of captured German V-2 missiles and high-altitude rockets developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif. At the time, JPL was a U.S. Army lab operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL became a NASA lab, still operated by Caltech, when NASA was formed in 1958.
The golden anniversary of the historic rocket firings will be observed at Cape Canaveral with a commemorative celebration on Sunday and Monday, July 23 and 24. Among the guests will be many of the men and women involved in the project, including some of the JPL engineers who worked on the rockets. During the two days of festivities, guests will enjoy a lunch sponsored by the Florida Space Business Roundtable and the National Space Club, an anniversary ceremony hosted by the Air Force Space and Missile Foundation and a VIP tour of "the Cape."
Space veterans will recall the dynamic missile duo that exceeded previous rocket altitudes and velocities and provided important data regarding high-speed and high-altitude phenomena. The rocket pair, consisting of a 4.88-meter-long WAC-B rocket mated to the nose of a 12.8-meter-long V-2 missile, was part of the U.S. Army's Bumper WAC project between 1946 and 1951. The rockets were designed as a two-stage configuration, in which the V-2 missile would rise to its maximum altitude and the WAC-B rocket would tip horizontally and fire, continuing to rise.
With fishermen's cabins transformed into mission control stations and the gantry made of painters' scaffolding, the Army was confident that such a system could deliver a warhead farther than a single-stage vehicle.
After two years and seven trial rounds, July 24, 1950 marked the milestone. With about 50 launch crew members and 20 reporters watching in anticipation, the missile pair successfully lifted off. The V-2 reached a planned altitude of 15,544 meters (51,000 feet) and the WAC-B's spin rockets (used for spin stabilization) ignited, though the main motor did not. The WAC-B rocket reached an estimated 5,000 miles per hour at an altitude of about 40 kilometers (21.8 nautical miles and 350 kilometers (189 nautical miles) down range. Though the WAC's main motor never ignited, the military considered the launch successful.
Five days later, on July 29, 1950, with the refurbished two- stage missile from round 7, "the Cape" successfully launched its second rocket. Flying nine times the speed of sound (Mach 9), this rocket reached the highest velocity attained by a human-made object to date.
Since the first firing, 3,245 launches have occurred at the Eastern Test Range. The Cape's first rocket launch can be seen at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/pictures/history/rocket . For related U.S. Army visuals including video, see the following: http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/cron2a/cron2a.html , http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/real/bumbwac.ram , http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/asf/bumbwac.asf .
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