The first firing of a V-2 engine at White Sands took place on March 15, 1946 at the 100,000 pound thrust static test stand just a mile south of the main post.
The first full-fledged V-2 launched in April 1946 rose to an altitude of only 3.5 miles and crashed in a huge fireball. Then the Army and White Sands Proving Ground did something unusual by today’s standards. They invited VIPs and the news media to watch the next launch.
With mayors, military leaders, photographers and reporters watching, the second V-2 launch on May 10, 1946, flew as advertised. The rocket climbed straight up then pitched to the north. It reached an altitude of 71 miles and impacted about 35 miles uprange.
It marked the first successful launch of a large rocket on American soil and accelerated the United States into the Space Age. Appropriately, Life Magazine ran a five-page photo spread of the mission.
Scientific Research Directive
In addition to improving rocket technology, the military had the foresight to direct that all V-2s carry some sort of scientific payload. The “V-2 Upper-Atmosphere Research Panel” was created to take proposals for experiments and decide which agency would use each rocket.
So on July 9 and 19, 1946, V-2s carried corn seeds and fruit flies aloft to expose them to cosmic radiation. Other studies included solar spectroscopy, solar radiation, artificial meteorites, temperatures, ambient pressures, winds and the composition of the atmosphere itself at various altitudes.
On October 24, 1946, motion picture footage taken from a V-2 captured 40,000 square miles of Earth’s surface. On March 7, 1947, a Naval Research Laboratory team led by John Mengel put a camera aboard a V-2 that achieved a 100-mile altitude to bring back the first “space” photos of Earth.
The most important experiments might have been the Albert series of monkey launches. In 1948 and 1949 monkeys were placed into the payload compartment and instrumented to measure their heart and respiration rates. Luckily this data was telemetered to the ground for recording because the parachutes failed miserably and the monkeys died on impact. However, both measurements were within normal ranges during the acceleration forces at liftoff and the weightlessness experienced at flight apogee. It gave scientists confidence that a large mammal like a man would some day be able to safely ride a rocket.
The first two rockets ever fired at White Sands were married together to form the Bumper vehicle. The V-2 acted as a booster with the WAC Corporal mounted on top as the second stage. It was the world’s first large-scale, two-stage vehicle. While the first Bumper firing was May 13, 1948 it was the February 24, 1949, launch that caught the public’s attention. That WAC Corporal reached an altitude of 250 miles and a speed of 5,000 miles per hour. Both were records and received a great deal of attention as the American public took interest and pride in the development of this “amazing” new technology.
Later, Bumpers were the first vehicles launched at the new Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1950.