Building V-2s in White Sands

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V-2 Rocket, White Sands, NM 1946/11/21

V-2 Rocket, White Sands, NM 1946/11/21

The original stated purpose of the German team’s work was to train Americans, both civil and military, in the assembly, checkout, and launch of the large rockets they had designed. In the process, they would use the big V-2 rockets and their parts to gather data on the physical environment and radiation of the upper atmosphere.

On May 10, 1946, the first A-4 was launched to carry scientific instruments into the upper atmosphere. Several more followed that year, and, as always, the team had many failures as well as successes. The highest altitude attained by a U.S. A-4 was 132 miles (212 km). (By contrast, the experimental high-flying rocket plane known as the X-15 could fly only about half that high, and weather balloons reached altitudes only one-fourth that high.)

Demands for experimental space aboard the A-4s from government research agencies, the military, universities, and industry became so great that the A-4 Upper Atmosphere Research Panel was formed on January 16, 1947, to arbitrate requests and allocate space on flights. Between 1946 and 1951, the Hermes program, as it was known, launched 67 V-2s.

Another project developed during this period used specially adapted A-4s with modified nose cones. Called “Project Blossom” and sponsored by the U.S. Air Force Air Materiel Command and the Aero-Medical Laboratory, this program sent up canisters containing insect and plant life to study the effect of radiation on life forms at very high altitudes. Several rockets also carried mice and monkeys. In these earliest U.S. attempts to test the effects of ascent to extreme altitudes on living organisms, the nose cones were supposed to return to Earth via parachute. But the parachutes kept fouling and the ejection mechanism was not perfected, so the recovery method was poor, and few primate test animals survived.

In a project promoted by Toftoy, the team at White Sands also developed the Bumper missile, of which eight were launched between 1947 and 1950. The Bumper was a two-stage rocket—the A-4 was the first stage and a WAC-Corporal sounding rocket, weighing only 661.5 pounds (299.8 kg), was the second stage. These rockets could go higher than the A-4 alone and could measure temperatures and cosmic radiation at much higher altitudes. Bumper No. 5, launched February 24, 1949, reached an altitude of 244 miles (392 km), a record at that time. It marked the first U.S. experience with large two-stage rockets.


Following the war, in an effort to acquire the know-how of this clearly revolutionary new technology, the U.S. and other Allies scrambled to capture as much V-2 hardware, documents, and V-2 technicians as they could. This included the British, French and Soviets. The British, under Operation Backfire, succeeded in examining and experimentally test launching, with the assistance of German technicians, three V-2 rockets. The Backfire launches took place in the British zone of occupation, at a former Krupp armament proving ground at Altenwalde, near Cuxhaven, Germany, on the North Sea coast. The launches were made on 2, 3, and 15 October 1945. The last launch was known as Operation Clitterhouse and included foreign (U.S., French, and Soviet) observers. The data acquired from all the launches and contained in five illustrated manuals was shared with the U.S. The French obtained the services of Wolfgang Pilz and other V-2 researchers who helped them build their first liquid-fuel missiles. The French Veronique sounding rocket, which outwardly resembled the V-2, also resulted from these efforts.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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