Bumper 8 - Celebrating 70 Years of Cape Canaveral Rocket Launches
Updated: Mar 24
Today, July 24, marks the seventieth anniversary of the first rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Bumper 8. Over seven decades, "The Cape", as it came to be called, supported the first manned American space missions, launches to deep space, and landing and recovery of flown first-stage boosters. It is home to some of the most important sites of space history in the world.
A map of all Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center launch sites (wikipedia.com)
Although the history of Cape Canaveral starts roughly 12,000 years ago, its involvement in missiles and rocketry began in 1949. It became the test site for missiles when the legislation for the Joint Long Range Proving Ground was signed by President Harry Truman. The Cape was chosen due to its close proximity to the Earth's equator as well as the Atlantic Ocean. It is more favorable to have the downrange area sparsely populated in case of malfunctions during launch. Downrange is the horizontal distance travelled by a rocket, or its horizontal distance from its launch site. Cape Canaveral was chosen over El Centro, California, a city near Baja, because the Mexican government refused to let rockets travel through Baja air space (a stray rocket from White Sands, New Mexico crashed into a Mexican cemetery but that's another story). The Duval Engineering Company of Jacksonville, Florida, built the first permanent launch site.
The Bumper Project belonged to the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps program. Ultimate responsibility of the rocket was contracted to the General Electric Corporation. Bumper was a two stage rocket consisting of a German V-2 first stage and a WAC (without-any-control) Corporal sounding rocket second stage. The V-2 was a captured German ballistic missile used in the second World War and was the predecessor to the Redstone, Jupiter-C, and Saturn rockets. The WAC Corporal was a liquid-fueled hypergolic rocket designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL is now responsible for the robotic exploration of the solar system, most notably the Voyager program. The rocket's payload consisted of small research packages.
The first six Bumper launches took place at White Sands, New Mexico, from 1948 to 1950. The final two, Bumpers #7 and #8, were intended to test the separation of rocket stages during flight and therefore required a longer range than what White Sands had to offer. At the time, construction of launch sites at Cape Canaveral were already underway. Bumper 7 was scheduled to launch on July 19, 1950 at Launch Complex 3 but the rocket misfired on the pad. LC-3 was used because it was the first launch site complete (LC-4 was still being built and LC's 1 and 2 were not built yet). Five days later, Bumper 8 lifted off at 9:28 a.m. EDT and became the first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral. It reached altitude of 10 miles (16.1 kilometers) and travelled 200 miles (322 kilometers) downrange. Bumper 7 launched on July 29.
Photographers capture the first Cape Canaveral rocket launch (thisdayinaviation.com )
The launches of Bumpers #8 and #7 set the stage for the Cape's rich history and international status as one of the oldest and most successful spaceports in the world. Twenty-two more launch complexes were built following the end of the Bumper program for a total of twenty-four by the start of 1960. Some complexes had multiple launch pads. Infrastructure and operations expanded rapidly to suit the country's growing arsenal of missiles and small rockets. The guided missiles tested and launch from Cape Canaveral include Snark, Matador, Lark, Bomarc, Polaris, Jason, Navaho, Alpha Draco, and Bull Goose. Larger ballistic missiles and development vehicles include Redstone, Jupiter, Jupiter A, Jupiter C, Juno I, Juno II, Atlas A, Atlas B, Atlas C, Atlas D, Titan I, Thor, Thor Able I, Thor Able II, Vanguard, and X-17. Once the Space Race began near the end of 1957, operations at the Cape shifted to orbital flight. The first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit took place on December 6 with the flight of Vanguard TV-3. Unfortunately, the rocket reached only four feet before crashing back down into the pad. On January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 became the first US satellite in orbit. It launched on a Juno 1 rocket from Launch Complex 26. The site is now the Air Force Space & Missile Museum. Once NASA was formed, Cape Canaveral became the basis for its launch operations.
The 1960s brought more visitors to the Cape than any other decade with the first manned space launches from the United States. This new era kicked off with the flight of Mercury-Redstone 3 in May 1961 carrying Alan Shepard, the first American in space, from Launch Complex 5. Following Gus Grissom on Mercury-Redstone 4 was John Glenn's Mercury-Atlas 6 flight, the first crewed American orbital mission. Three more Mercury missions flew until Spring of 1963. All four orbital missions took off from Launch Complex 14. Up next was the Gemini Program in which two astronauts flew the same spacecraft. Ten missions launched from Launch Complex 19 from 1965 to 1966. On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 perished in a fire that engulfed their capsule during a plugs-out test at Launch Complex 34. Eighteen months later, Apollo 7 became the last crewed flight to launch from Cape Canaveral. It was also the last launch from that specific launch complex; superstition caused its deactivation in early 1969.
The launch of Mercury-Redstone 3 from LC-5 on May 5, 1961 (NASA)
This decade was also the busiest for unmanned launches of all shapes and sizes— everything from sounding rockets to missions to other planets. These rockets include Atlas (A, B, C, D, E, and F) Atlas Agena A MIDAS, Atlas Agena B and D, Atlas Antares II, Atlas Centaur, Delta (A, B, C, D, E, G, L, M, and N), Delta II, Juno II, Saturn I, Saturn IB, Titan I, Titan II, Titan IIIC, Thor Able Star, and Thor Delta. The strip of Atlas and Titan pads was known as ICBM Row. Notable missions include those of the Mariner, Ranger, Pioneer, Telstar, Surveyor, and Manned Orbiting Laboratory programs. Missile launches include Polaris (A-1, A-2, A-3, and FTV), Poseidon, Mace A and Mace B, Pershing, Minuteman (I, II, and III), Dragon, Arcas, Loki, and Super Loki. Sounding and weather rockets include Blue Scout Jr, Blue Scout I and II, Scout, Nike Cajun, Nike Smoke, and Nike Tomahawk among others.
Aerial view of ICBM Row and other launch complexes circa 1964 (space.com)
Lots of launch complexes deactivated at the end of the 1960s and were eventually demolished and sold for scrap. With the Space Race coming to a close, most major launches were of lunar and interplanetary probes and landers. Rockets launched from the Cape in the 1970s include Atlas, Atlas Agena D, Atlas Centaur, Delta (1000, 2000, 3000, and 4000), Titan IIIC, and Titan IIIE Centaur. Notable missions launched on these vehicles include those of the Helios, Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager programs. Missiles include Poseidon, Trident, Pershing IA, Polaris A-3. Weather and sounding rockets were flown as well.
The following decades saw fewer launches but larger and more powerful rockets. This is partly due to the introduction of the Space Shuttle in 1981 and its large payload capacity.
Rockets launched from the Cape in the 1980s include Delta (1000, 2000, 3000, and 4000), Titan IIIC, Titan 34D, and Titan IVA. The Pershing II missile and weather rockets were still being flown. Launch Complex 46 was constructed at this time.
By the 1990s, most launches occurred from the northernmost complexes of the Cape. Some underwent renovations to accommodate larger rockets. Rockets launched include Atlas Centaur (I, II, IIA, and IIAS), Delta (1000, 2000, 3000, and 4000), Athena I, Athena II, Delta II, Delta III, Titan IIIC, Titan IVA, and Titan IVB, as well as sounding and weather rockets. One particular launch was of a student-run suborbital Super Loki from LC-47. Three missions to Mars launched in the 90s as well— Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Climate Orbiter, and Mars Polar Lander.
Rockets launched from the 2000s include Atlas V, Atlas Centaur (IIA, IIAS, IIIA, and IIIB), Delta IV medium, Delta IV heavy, and Titan IVB. 2001 Mars Odyssey and the Mars Exploration Rovers were also launched early in the decade.
The presence of commercial rocket launches has been growing since the 2010s now that independent agencies and companies have greater access to space than ever before. Some launch complexes, such as 13, 36, and 40 have been turned over to commercial partners for renovation, testing, and launches. LC-13 is currently being used by SpaceX for landing and recovery of its flown first-stage boosters. The site is now known as Landing Zone-1. Rockets launched include Atlas V, Delta IV medium, Delta IV heavy, Minotaur IV, and Falcon 9. Notable launches include those of the GRAIL, Mars Science Laboratory, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and X-37B programs.
Falcon Heavy side boosters landing at Landing Zones 1 and 2 (wikimedia commons)
Although the majority of launch complexes are permanently deactivated and demolished, I personally have noticed a resurgence in launch activity at Cape Canaveral. Historic sites, particularly those of manned flights, are protected as National Historic Landmarks and are able to be visited by the public. Though they may not be much to look at anymore, each of these places have some kind of energy, a sort of magic about them I cannot explain. I've visited every year around my birthday for a number of years now (although not this year for obvious reasons) and love it so much I hope to work there after I graduate. I sincerely encourage everyone to plan a visit to Cape Canaveral and the neighboring area and enjoy the history of it all.
How to Visit:
Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour (through the Kennedy Space Center)
how I visit every year — highly recommended
Cape Canaveral's Rise to Space Tour (also through KSC)
I have yet to take it but it stops at different places than the one above
tour the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse and other sites (through Canaveral Lighthouse Tours)
went on one a few years ago but I think they've changed it since then
free admission and not on CCAFS so no special pass required
Air Force Space & Missile Museum website
not open to the general public unless through KSC
July is a very special time for spaceflight, particularly manned missions. 19 years after the launch of Bumper 8, the crew of Apollo 11 returned to Earth from their historic lunar trip. On July 21, 2011, the landing STS-135 Atlantis brought an end to the Space Shuttle program. Other important events are the end of the Space Race on the 17th, the launch of Gemini 10 on the 18th, first manned lunar landing on the 20th, the second crewed American flight on the 21st, the launch of Apollo 15 on the 26th, and the fourth manned lunar landing on the 30th.
Author's note: Thanks for reading and remember to like and share!
Dean, James. “65 Years Ago, Cape Took Flight with Bumper 8.” Florida Today, 25 July 2015, www.floridatoday.com/story/tech/science/space/2015/07/25/years-ago-cape-took-flight-bumper/30639193/.
Lethbridge, Cliff. “LAUNCH PAD 3 SUPPORTS THE FIRST ROCKET LAUNCH FROM CAPE CANAVERAL.” Bumper 8 Cape Canaveral's First Launch, 2000, www.spaceline.org/bumper/bumper8.html.
Swopes, Bryan. “Bumper 8 Archives.” This Day in Aviation, 24 July 1950, www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/bumper-8/.