Tag Archives: White Sands Proving Grounds

29 May 1947, 0130 GMT

Hermes II (NASA)

29 May 1947: At 1930 hours, Mountain Daylight Time, a Hermes II two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket was launched from Launch Complex 33 at southern end of the White Sands Proving Grounds, east of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

White Sands Proving Grounds Gate sign

Earlier in the day, a launch attempt failed when the first stage engine failed to produce thrust. Repairs were made and the second attempt succeeded—sort of. . .

The plan was for the rocket to arc toward the north, heading for the far end of the proving grounds. Instead, the Hermes II arced to the SOUTH.

The Range Safety Officer was prevented from sending a DESTRUCT signal when a program scientist physically restrained him. The rocket peaked at 35 nautical miles (65 kilometers), passed over Fort Bliss and El Paso, and after about five minutes of flight, hit the ground about one-half mile from the Buena Vista Airport in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

People standing on the rim of the crater on the night of 29 May 1947. (El Paso Times)

At impact, the rocket dug a crater 50 feet (15.2 meters) across and 24 feet (7.3 meters) deep. The explosion shook buildings in El Paso and 25 miles (40 kilometers) away in Fabens, Texas. The rocket barely missed a powder magazine where mining companies were storing dynamite and other explosives.

Fortunately, there were no injuries, and property damage was minor.

Hermes II crater near Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The crater is approximately  50 feet across and 24 feet deep, (White Eagle Aerospace)

Hermes II was the world’s first multi-stage rocket. Developed from the German V-2 rocket (Vergeltungswaffen 2), it was intended to serve as a test bed for ramjet development. The upper stage had a broad wing for flight tests of a split-wing two-dimensional ducted-airfoil ramjet. (For this launch the ramjet was not operational.) The span of the fins were increased to improve stability.

The Hermes II was 51.50 feet (15.70 meters) tall. The tail fins had a span of 17.75 feet (5.41 meters), and the second stage wing span was 15.26 feet (4.65 meters). The rocket had a gross weight of 31,750 Pounds (14,400 kilograms). The liquid oxygen/alcohol-fueled engine produced 60,000 pounds of thrust (267 kilonewtons).

In 1948, the Hermes II was redesignated RTV-G-3 by the U.S. Army.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 May 1946

V-2 “Round 3” is prepared for launch at White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico, 10 May 1946.  (The Space Race – Rockets)

10 May 1946: The first successful launch of a captured V-2 ballistic missile in the United States took place at the White Sands Proving Ground in the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico. With a burn time of 59 seconds, the rocket reached an altitude of 70.9 miles (114.1 kilometers) and traveled 31 miles (49.9 kilometers) down range.

On 15 March 1946, a static test firing of a V-2 rocket had taken place at White Sands, and then on 16 April, a rocket was launched. One of the stabilizing fins failed, and then radio conttact was lost at 19.5 seconds. The rocket reached a peak altitude of only 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) before crashing a short distance from the launch site. (A 9-minute video of the preparations and launch can be seen at:  https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6apkns  Notice the extremely casual attitude toward personnel safety displayed throughout the film.)

A German V-2 rocket is launched from the White Sand Proving Grounds, New Mexico, 10 May 1946. (Popular Science)

The V2, or Vergeltungswaffen 2 (also known as the A4, or Aggregat 4) was a ballistic missile with an empty weight of approximately 10,000 pounds (4,536 kilograms) and weighing 28,000 pounds (12,700 kilograms), fully loaded. It carried a 738 kilogram (1,627 pound) (sources vary) explosive warhead of amatol, a mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. The propellant was a 75/25 mixture of of ethanol and water with liquid oxygen as an oxidizer.

The complete rocket was 14.036 meters (46.050 feet) long, and had a maximum diameter of 1.651 meters (5.417 feet). The rocket was stabilized by four large fins, 4.035 meters (13.238 feet) long, with a maximum span of  3.564 meters (11.693 feet). The leading edge of these fins was swept 60°, and 3°. A small guide vane was at the outer tip of each fin, and other vanes were placed in the engine’s exhaust plume.

Cutaway illustration of a V-2 rocket. (U.S. Army)

When launched, the rocket engine burned for 65 seconds, accelerating the rocket to 3,580 miles per hour (5,760 kilometers per hour) on a ballistic trajectory. The maximum range of the rocket was 200 miles (320 kilometers) with a peak altitude between 88 and 128 miles (142–206 kilometers), depending on the desired range. On impact, the rocket was falling at 1,790 miles per hour (2,880 kilometers per hour), about Mach 2.35, so its approach would have been completely silent in the target area.

The V-2 could only hit a general area and was not militarily effective. Germany used it against England, France, The Netherlands and Belgium as a terror weapon. More than 3,200 V-2 rockets were launched against these countries.

U.S. soldiers examine an incomplete V-2 rocket at Kleinbodungen, Germany, 1945.

As World War II came to and end, the Allies captured many partially-completed missiles, as well as components and parts. Sufficient parts and materiel and been transferred from Germany to construct more than one hundred V-2 rockets for testing at White Sands. No missiles were received in flyable condition. Over a five year period, there were 67 successful launches, but it is considered that as much knowledge was gained from failures as successes.

Along with the rockets, many German engineers and scientists surrendered or were captured by the Allies. Under Operation Paperclip, Wernher von Braun and many other scientists, engineers and technicians were brought to the United States to work with the U.S. Army’s ballistic missile program at Fort Bliss, Texas, White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico, and the Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama.

Dr. von Braun with V-2 rocket components in Texas, circa 1945. (Thomas D. McAvoy)

Tests of the V-2 rockets led to the development of U.S. rockets for the military and NASA’s space program. A NASA article states,

“The contribution that the V-2 made to guided missile technology is immeasurable. In general, the program provided training for men in the handling and firing of large missiles, experiments directly concerned with design of future missiles, operational tests of future missile components, and experience in collecting upper atmosphere and ballistic data.”

Notes Regarding History of V-2 Operations at White Sands, MSFC History Office, Mashall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

V-2 Round 3 is launched at WSPG, 10 May 1946.

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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Wernher von Braun: 23 March 1912–16 June 1977

Wernher von Braun, Director, Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA)
Dr. Wernher von Braun, Director, Marshall Space Flight Center, 1 May 1964. (NASA)

23 March 1912: Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, rocket engineer, was born at Wyrzysk, Province of Posen, in the German Empire, in what is now Poland. He was the second of three children of Magnus Alexander Maximillian von Braun, head of the Posen provincial government, and Emmy Melitta Cécile von Quistorp.

Wernher von Braun, at center, with his brothers, Magnus (left) and Sigismund (right). (NASA)

Wernher von Braun originally wanted to be a musician and composer, having learned to play the cello and piano at an early age. After reading a speculative book on space flight, though, his interests shifted.

In 1929, the 17-year-old von Braun joined Verein für Raumschiffahrt, the German rocketry association. He worked with Hermann Oberth in testing liquid-fueled rockets, based on successful rockets designed by Dr. Robert H. Goddard in the United States.

Rudolf Nebel (left) and Wernher von Braun with small liquid-fueled rockets, circa 1930. (Unattributed)
Rudolf Nebel (left) and Wernher von Braun with small liquid-fueled rockets, circa 1930. (Unattributed)

Von Braun graduated from Technische Hochschule Berlin in 1932, with a degree in mechanical engineering (Diplom-Ingenieur). Two years later, he received a doctorate in physics (Dr. phil.) at Friederich-Wilhelm University of Berlin. He also studied at ETH Zürich.

In Germany before World War II, Dr.-Ing. von Braun worked on the problems of liquid-fueled rockets and developed the Aggregat series of rockets, including the A4, which would become known as the V-2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2) military rocket. The German Army’s Ordnance Department gave von Braun a grant to further study liquid-fueled rockets, which he pursued at an artillery range at Kummersdorf, just south of Berlin

As rocketry work expanded, the tests were eventually moved to the Peenemünde Military Test Site on the island of Usedom on the Baltic coast, where von Braun was technical director under Colonel Dr. Ing. Walter R. Dornberger.

Wernher von Braun with a number of German officers at Peenemunde, March 1941. (Left to right) Oberst Dr. Walter Dornberger, General Friederich Olbricht, Major Heinz Brandt, von Braun; others not identified. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.024-03/CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Wernher von Braun with a number of German officers at Peenemünde, March 1941. (Left to right) Colonel Dr. Ing. Walter Dornberger (partially out of frame), General der Infanterie Friederich Olbricht*, Major Heinz Brandt, Prof. Dr. von Braun; others not identified. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1978-Anh.024-03/CC-BY-SA 3.0) [*General Olbricht developed Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.]
Aggregat 4 prototype (probably V-3) ready for launch at Prüfstand VII, August 1942. (Bundesarchiv)

The first successful launch of the A4 took place 3 October 1942. By the end of World War II, Nazi Germany had launched more than 3,200 V-2 rockets against Belgium, England, France and The Netherlands.

V-2 rocket launch at Peenemünde, on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. (Bundesarchiv)

As World War II in Europe came to a close and the collapse of Nazi Germany was imminent, von Braun had to choose between being captured by the Soviet Red Army or by the Allies. He surrendered to the 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, United States Army in the Bavarian Alps, 2 May 1945.

Dornberger, Herber Axter, von Braun and Hans Lindenberg, 3 May 1945. (U.S. Army)
Major-General Dr. Ing. Walter R. Dornberger; Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Axster, Dornberger’s chief of staff; Prof. Dr.-Ing. Wernher von Braun (with left arm in cast); and Hans Lindenberg, chief propulsion engineer; at Reutte, Austria, 3 May 1945. (Technician 5th Class Louis Weintraub, U.S. Army)

Under Operation Paperclip, Wernher von Braun and many other scientists, engineers and technicians were brought to the United States to work with the U.S. Army’s ballistic missile program at Fort Bliss, Texas, White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico, and the Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama.

A-4 Number 3 is prepared for launch at White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico, 10 May 1946. With a burn time of 59 seconds, the rocket reached an altitude of 70.9 miles (114.1 kilometers) and traveled 31 miles (49.9 kilometers) down range. (The Space Race – Rockets)

Sufficient parts and materiel and been transferred from Germany to construct more than one hundred V-2 rockets for testing at White Sands. Over a five year period, there were 67 successful launches, but it is considered that as much knowledge was gained from failures as successes.

Dr. von Braun with V-2 rocket compnents in Texas, circa 1945. (Unattributed)
Dr. von Braun with V-2 rocket components at White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico, 1 November 1946. (Thomas D. McAvoy)

In 1950, von Braun and his team were sent to Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama, where they worked on more advanced rockets. The first production rocket was the short-range ballistic missile, the SSM-A-14 Redstone, which was later designated PGM-11. This rocket was capable of carrying a 3.8 megaton W39 warhead approximately 200 miles (322 kilometers) The first Redstone was launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 20 August 1953.

Compare the military Redstone SSM-A-14 in this photograph to the Mercury-Redstone rocket in the photograph below. This rocket, CC-1002, was the first Block 1 tactical rocket. (MSFC-580069)

Modified Redstone MRLV rockets were used to launch the first Mercury spacecraft with NASA astronauts Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom. Von Braun later worked on the U.S. Army’s Jupiter-A intermediate range ballistic missile. A modified Jupiter-C was used to launch Explorer 1, the United States’ first satellite.

Explorer 1 launch, Launch Complex 26A, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 1 February 1958, 03:48:00 UTC. (NASA)
Explorer VII/Juno II launch, from LC-5, Capa Canaveral Air Force Station, 13 October 1959. (NASA MSFC-5900711)
Mercury-Redstone 4 (Liberty Bell 7) launch at Pad 5, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, 12 20 36 UTC, 21 July 1961. (NASA)

Wernher von Braun traveled to Germany in 1947 to marry his cousin, Maria Irmengard Emmy Luise Gisela von Quistorp, and then returned to the United States. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America in 1955.

The von Braun family, circa 1955 (U.S. Army)
Prof. Dr. von Braun with his family, circa 1957. Left to right, Maria Luise von Braun, Margrit Cécile von Braun, Dr. von Braun and Iris Careen von Braun. (U.S. Army)

In 1960 von Braun and his team were transferred from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to NASA’s new Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal. He was now able to pursue his original interest, manned flight into space. Work proceeded on the Saturn rocket series, which were intended to lift heavy payloads into Earth orbit. This resulted in the Saturn A, Saturn B and the Saturn C series, ultimately becoming the Saturn V moon rocket.

Saturn SA-1 accelerates after liftoff, 27 October 1962. (NASA)
Apollo-Saturn IB AS-201 launch from Pad 34, Kennedy Space Center, 26 February 1966. (NASA)

With the Apollo Program coming to an end, Dr. von Braun left NASA in 1972. A year later, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Wernher von Braun died of pancreatic cancer, 17 June 1977 at the age of 65 years.

Apollo 4 Saturn V (AS-501) on the launch pad at sunset, the evening before launch, 8 November 1967. (NASA)
Saturn V first stage F-1 engines running, producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Ice falls from the rocket. The hold-down arms have not yet been released. (NASA)
Dr. von Braun pauses in front of the Apollo 11/Saturn V at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). (NASA MSFC-6901046)

© 2019 Bryan R. Swopes

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