The rocket that launched the space age

The first U.S. rocket to reach outer space was launched on February 24, 1949. A two-stage rocket that combined a German V-2 rocket – the first to reach space in 1942 – and a WAC Corporal sounding rocket, it reached the then highest altitude ever reached by a human-made object. A.S.Ganesh looks at this historic launch and the circumstances leading up to it...

February 24, 2019 01:05 am | Updated November 10, 2021 12:18 pm IST

This two-stage Bumper  rocket – with a large V-2 first stage carrying a small WAC Corporal second stage – was launched by the U.S. in 1950.

This two-stage Bumper rocket – with a large V-2 first stage carrying a small WAC Corporal second stage – was launched by the U.S. in 1950.

Are you aware that the first rocket that made it to space was actually built for war? The German V-2 A4 rocket, launched off the Baltic coast, achieved an altitude of almost 190 km – high above the Karman line and into outer space – on October 3, 1942. Designed by the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, it was employed to deadly effect as it later became the world’s first long-range combat-ballistic missile.

An end and a beginning

As the Americans advanced into a collapsing Nazi Germany during World War II, they also gained access to many of these rockets. The Bumper Program was born in the aftermath of Germany’s surrender and the seized rockets that fell into American hands were sent to White Sands, which became the first U.S. ballistic testing ground.

A number of German specialists who had helped developed these rockets also made their way to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and went on to help both these nations realise the potential of rocketry. The U.S. was lucky to get the services of von Braun himself.

The rockets arrived in White Sands as component parts that then had to be assembled as per the requirements. These were done under von Braun’s supervision for specific experiments.

In March 1946, the first White Sands V-2 was static launched. This was followed by a full launch a month later and in the five years that followed, more than 60 V-2 rockets were launched at White Sands. This included Bumper 5, which became the first U.S. rocket to fly into space on February 24, 1949.

The Bumper 5 was a two-stage rocket that combined the V-2 rocket with a WAC Corporal sounding rocket. While the V-2 achieved its thrust by burning a mixture of liquid oxygen and alcohol at a rapid rate, the WAC Corporal was a hypergolic (the rocket propellant ignites instantly on mixing with another substance) liquid-fuel rocket.

Bumper 5 gets a bump up

As the first in the Bumper Program with a fully-tanked second stage, the Bumper 5 effectively had 45 seconds burning time. The V-2 attained a speed of 3,600 mph (5,793 kmph) in 30 seconds, before separating from the WAC Corporal. The WAC Corporal went on to reach a maximum speed of 5,150 mph (8,288 kmph) and an unprecedented height off 244 miles (392 km) – the greatest velocity and the highest altitude ever reached by a human-made object till then.

The first U.S. craft to go past the Karman line into outer space carried with it telemetry, transmitting technical information, including high-altitude temperature measurements, to ground stations.

The Bumper rockets were predominantly used for upper atmosphere research, but provided a starting point for the U.S. space programme and the space age in general. For, almost every early American rocket that followed, including those that sent humans to space, was a direct descendant of a rocket that was initially built for destruction.


What is the Karman line?

The Karman line is an attempt to define a boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and the outer space. While everyone understands that the atmosphere doesn’t end abruptly and that this boundary changes constantly, the Karman line is generally accepted as the beginning of space.

Named after Hungarian physicist Theodore van Karman, who arrived at the figure 83.6 km through his own calculations in the 20th century, the imaginary boundary has no fixed value as yet. While the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FIA) defines the Karman line as the altitude of 100 km above sea level, NASA and the U.S. Air Force use the value of 80 km for the beginning of space.

With civilians now about to reach the heights that has historically been restricted to military and exploratory space missions, it might soon become necessary for an international law to define where air space ends and outer space begins.

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