1st US rocket to reach outer space launches, February 24, 1949

-February 24, 2017

The first US rocket to reach outer space was launched from White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico on February 24, 1949. It flew to an altitude of 244 miles, high above the 62-mile Karman line that divides Earth's atmosphere and space.

Known as Bumper 5, it was a two-stage rocket that combined a German V-2 rocket with a WAC Corporal sounding rocket. The V-2 achieved its great thrust by burning a mixture of liquid oxygen and alcohol at a rate of about one ton every seven seconds, and the WAC Corporal was a hypergolic liquid-fuel rocket.

In the Bumper rocket design, the powder rocket booster normally used to launch the WAC Corporal was left out to limit the size of the combination missile and to allow the smaller rocket to fit deeply into the V-2, with enough space in the instrument compartment of the V-2 for the guidance equipment, along with the guide-rails and expulsion cylinders used as a launcher for the WAC Corporal. These cylinders were activated by means of a compressed-air-bottle through a pressure reducer and a solenoid valve. The valve was activated by the final cut-off signal of the V-2, causing the fins of the WAC Corporal to slide out of the three slots in the upper part of the warhead launcher.

Bumper 5 was the first in the program to be fired with a fully-tanked second stage, which allowed 45 seconds burning time. Thirty seconds in, the V-2 attained a speed of 3600 mph and separated from the WAC Corporal, which then attained a speed of 5150 mph and an altitude of nearly 250 miles. This was the greatest velocity and the highest altitude ever reached by a man-made object.

A Bumper V-2 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral in 1950. Source: NASA

The Bumper Program began after World War II when German rockets were seized and sent to White Sands, which became the first US ballistic testing ground.

After the war, many German rocket scientists went to the US and Soviet Union where they would continue their work and help both nations realize the potential of rocketry. In the US, the rockets were assembled under the supervision of Wernher von Braun, a German specialist.

The work of American rocket pioneer Robert H Goddard, who experimented with a gasoline rocket that was a forerunner in the modern era of rocket flight, as well as a gyroscope system for flight control and parachute recovery systems, was combined with the Germans' expertise to provide a starting point for the US space program.

The program began with high-altitude atmospheric sounding rockets and would develop a variety of medium- and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Bumper rockets were used for upper atmosphere research, but were also the basis for most early American rockets, including the Redstone, Atlas, and Titan that would launch astronauts into space.

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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on February 24, 2014 and edited on February 24, 2017.

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