Sniffing the Edge of Space
The captured V2s were immediately used by the Army, first as a test bed for development of our own artillery rockets, then as upper atmosphere sounding research vehicles. These flights were made from White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico.
Sixty-seven V2s were launched from White Sands. Not all were successful. Some exploded just after launch. The record altitude achieved was just over 132 miles.
Experience with the V2 gave scientists data they needed to develop our own sounding rockets. The first was the WAC Corporal. It was designed not just as a sounding rocket, but as a test bed for development of artillery rockets by the Army Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal. By the way, the WAC did not refer to the Women’s Army Corp, but stood for ‘Without Attitude Control.’ In other word, it was a free flight bird.
It was a small vehicle, one foot in diameter and just a tad more than 16 feet long. Its engine was also small, generating just 1500 pounds of thrust. Propellant was Red Fuming Nitric Acid and Aniline, a hypergolic mixture, making ignition sure fire (forgive the pun). It was launched from a tower using a solid booster, a system that would be used in later projects.
Developed by a fledgling Jet Propulsion Institute (JPL), the WAC Corporal would lead to one of the most successful sounding rockets of all time—one that ‘all grown up’ would play an important role in America’s space program. The WAC Corporal itself would play a seminal role in ICBM and space launch vehicle development and would lead to the Army’s first artillery rocket, the Corporal.
The WAC Corporal was flown 17 times, reaching a top altitude of 80 miles. Later, it would be mated with a V2 in Project Bumper as a test bed for multi staging. Six bumpers were launched from White Sands. Bumper 5 attained an altitude of 248 miles, a record for the time. It had left the atmosphere and gone into space.
After flight 6, two Bumpers were launched from an undeveloped Cape Canaveral Test Range to test the capability of a multi-stage rocket to pitch over to a low angle and fly close to horizontally in the atmosphere. Bumper 7 reached a velocity of Mach 9, the fastest, at the time, any vehicle had ever flown in Earth’s atmosphere.