The First Launch from Florida

It all began on a lazy summer morning in 1950. There were a few scattered clouds in the sky. The temperature was a balmy 85 degrees, and there was a light wind blowing in from the southeast at ten miles an hour1. Only a handful of people knew what was happening that morning. It was the beginning of a new era.

The Launch of Bumper WAC 8 on July 24, 1950 from Cape Canaveral.

Witnesses from miles away saw it before they heard it. A point of light, trailing wisps of smoke. And then came the sound. A low rumbling roar.2 It was a noise that would become familiar to residents of Brevard County. It was the sound of a rocket engine.

It was the first launch from Cape Canaveral. July 24, 1950.

The rocket was called Bumper WAC 8. Not a particularly auspicious name, the Bumper WAC was a combination of a German V-2 rocket first stage, and a WAC Corporal second stage. They were designed to test two-stage rocket flight and extend the range of guided missiles.

The Bumper WAC program got underway in the summer of 1947, and the first test flight was held at the White Sands Missile Proving Grounds in New Mexico on May 13, 1948. Bumper 1 reached an altitude of 79 miles, but the WAC Corporal second stage cut off early. Three more tests were held in 1948. All of them were failures.

The fifth Bumper WAC test was conducted on February 24, 1949. This time everything worked well. The first stage worked flawlessly and the second stage separated and ignited at an altitude of 20 miles. It reached a maximum altitude of 244 miles, setting the record at the time.

A sixth test in April of that year failed.

At this point, the tests were moved to the new Joint Long Range Proving Ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Here, the rockets would be fired out over the Atlantic Ocean, allowing researchers to safely test for range instead of altitude.

Bumper 7 was scheduled for launch on July 19, 1950. But it failed to build enough thrust to lift-off. The humid air had corroded a fuel valve. It was removed from the launch stand and returned to Patrick Air Force Base for repairs.3

Bumper 8 was moved into its place, and was launched on July 24.

This time the launch was successful. The film of the launch shows the missile gaining altitude and arcing over into horizontal flight. Despite the fact the V-2 exploded mid-flight, the WAC Corporal separated cleanly.

Five days later, Bumper 7 was launched again. The test was a success, as the second stage set a speed record, flying just under 200 miles at an altitude of about 22 miles.

That was the end of the Bumper program. But, the stage had been set, and thousands of launches (and quite a few explosions) would follow in the decades afterward.

The First Man Into Space

Yuri Gagarin was short man with a big smile.  He was born in Klushino, a village about 140 miles west of Moscow, in March of 1934. His parents worked on a collective farm, his father as a carpenter and bricklayer and his mother as a milkmaid. The family survived the German occupation that began in November of 1941, living for 21 months in a mud hut behind their house, which had been occupied by a German officer.

When he was 16, Gagarin became an apprentice foundryman at a steel plant near Moscow, while continuing to take classes. He learned to fly while working at the Saratov Industrial Technical school.  After graduation, he was drafted by the Soviet Army and sent to Orenburg for training in the MiG-15. By November of 1959, he had been promoted to Senior Lieutenant.

Gagarin on a visit to Sweden in October 1964. Courtesy SAS Scandinavian Airlines

Gagarin was chosen for the Soviet space program in 1960.  He and 19 others underwent physical testing and training similar to the Mercury 7, but unlike the Americans, it was all conducted in strict secrecy.

On April 12, 1961, Gagarin became the first human being in space and the first to orbit the Earth. The flight of Vostok 1 began just after nine in the morning local time on April 12, 1961. “Let’s roll,” he told controllers after liftoff. It would take ten minutes for the Vostok to reach orbit and loft Gagarin into the history books. He would circle the Earth once in a flight that lasted 108 minutes. As he crossed the coast of Africa, his retrorockets fired, bringing him down in a rocky reentry caused in part when the equipment module didn’t separate cleanly from the descent module.

Courtesy Reubenbarton / Wikimedia Commons.

At about 23,000 feet, Gagarin ejected from the Vostok as planned and he parachuted safely to the ground. After landing, he told a startled farmer not to be afraid, and that he needed to find a telephone to call Moscow.

It was only after Gagarin was safely in orbit that the Soviet’s announced the mission publicly.

Gagarin on the cover of Time’s April. 21, 1961 issue. Courtesy Time Magazine.

After returning safely to Earth, Gagarin became an international celebrity, touring the world to celebrate the Soviet accomplishment. But, much like John Glenn, the Soviets wanted to keep Gagarin out of harm’s way. He was the backup pilot to Vladimir Komarov on the first flight of the Soyuz spacecraft in April of 1967. The flight completed 18 orbits in just under 27 hours, but with a series of technical problems that forced controllers to abort the mission. After re-entering the atmosphere, the main parachute and the reserve parachutes both failed, and Komarov began the first in-flight casualty of the Space Race when the Soyuz capsule crashed to the ground. After that Gagarin was banned from participating directly in the Soviet space program. He became the deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, which was later renamed in his honor.

Less than a year later, Gagarin was killed in what was called a routine training flight in March of 1968. The cause of the crash of the Mig-15UTI was investigated several times, but there’s never been a definitive answer to what caused the crash.

Gagarin’s Vostok 1 Capsule on display at the RKK Energiya Museum near Moscow. Photo courtesy SiefkinDR/Wikimedia Commons.

Big Rockets, Bigger Building

It is one of the enduring symbols of the U.S. Space Program, clearly visible from miles away as you approach the Kennedy Space Center. It’s the Vehicle Assembly Building, commonly known as the VAB, of of the largest buildings in the world. In the decades since it was built, it housed the enormous Saturn V, the Space Shuttles and soon, the Space Launch System.

The VAB was necessary because of the size of the Saturn V and the complex work necessary to put the elements of an Apollo mission together. Designed by Morrison-Knudsen, construction began in August of 1963. More than four thousand pilings were driven into the Florida bedrock, and 30,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured to create the foundation.

The massive facility was completed in 1965. It stands 526 feet tall and covers eight acres. The doors on each side are the largest in the world, at 456 feet high, and taken 45 minutes to completely open or close. They lead to the four high bays, where the Saturn V could be erected.

Apollo 14 rolls out of the VAB, headed for Pad 39A, on November 9, 1970.

Humidity can be a serious problem, so the building has a massive air conditioning system. Because the inside of the building is so large, rain clouds can actually form just below the ceiling on human days. And those big, flat walls had to be reinforced against wind, especially the powerful winds generated by hurricanes. The building was designed to withstand winds of up to 120 miles an hour.

The first stage of Apollo 8 inside the VAB on February 1st, 1968.

“I’d never seen a building that big before,” my father tells me. “The Lunar Module team had an office on the 14th or 15th floor. Windows in the office looked out over the interior, including the ground far below. I tried to keep my distance from the windows; they made me real nervous.”

Mating the Apollo 8 Command and Service module to the top of the Saturn V stack. October 1, 1968.

To accomplish the task of building the Saturn V, the building had 71 cranes and hoists, including two 250-ton bridge cranes. The VAB is 3.5 miles from Launch Pad 39A and 4.2 miles from Launch Pad 39B.  The trip aboard one of the two crawler-transports would take up to five hours.

After Skylab, the VAB was renovated to handle operations on the Space Shuttle. These days, it’s providing a home for the new Space Launch System.

For more on the effort to achieve John F. Kennedy’s challenge of putting a man on the moon, please check out my father’s memoirs. Missile Man: One Man’s Memories of Life on the Front Lines of the Space Race is now for sale on The Kindle Edition is available now, and a Print-On-Demand version is coming soon.

Space History to Be Made in 2019

2019 is shaping up to be a monumental year for space exploration, especially by commercial interests hoping to fill the gap left after the United States stopped flying manned missions in 2001.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on launches involving spacecraft designed to carry humans aboard.   Keep in mind these launch dates are likely to be delayed.

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Learning to Save Lives

I just got home a short time ago from my orientation as a volunteer for Best Friends Atlanta, an organization that serves as a shelter and an adoption center for dogs and cats in Metro Atlanta.  The organization has centers here, as well as in New York City, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.  Their goal is to “save them all” and create a world in which there are no more homeless pets.

The first time I learned about Best Friends last fall when they began bringing pets needing homes to the television station I was working for at the time.  Visits like this are a staple of daytime and morning newscasts. What intrigued me at the time was how much everyone working in the newsroom loved seeing the dogs.

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My Brain is Whack or: Living with Major Depression Part I

I believe most of us know about depression, having experienced it in varying degrees as we grow up and grow older.  I have had the clinical symptoms of clinical depression since I was 15 years old. That’s going on forty years now. At first, and for many years, I didn’t understand that the way I felt was so deeply altering and guiding my path through life.  I’m just coming out of what they call a major depressive episode… and I want to share as much as I can in hopes it may be able to help others.

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Homeopathic Money: The Recipe

Why spend real money to buy fake miracle cures when you can create your own. Money, I’m talking about, not cures. You will not find this ANYWHERE else on the Intertube.  The following information was revealed in a vision of Donald Trump dressed as Mayor Snoogans McCheese. In the vision, the man who destroyed his own country, asked Americans to pay for his Homeopathic Wall along the Mexican border with Homeopathic dollars.

President Fatty McFatFat selling Homeopathic Government.

DO NOT share this information with the Government! It’s a secret!

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Visiting the Moon for Christmas

“Please be advised, there is a Santa Claus.”

Astronaut Jim Lovell, Christmas morning, 1968.

This week will mark the 50th anniversary of what I will argue was the most daring mission in the history of human space exploration. It started with three men climbing into a small capsule on December 21st.  They would return to Earth six days and three hours later. It wasn’t an effort to set an endurance record and didn’t even come close. But for the first time, mankind would come close to our nearest companion, the moon. It was an enormous risk, but one NASA was willing to make to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

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Robocaller Telemarketing Hell

I’m in the middle of searching for work, and for that, I need to be able to use Do Not Call Registrymy phone. But, the overwhelming number of bullshit calls I’ve been getting from vermin telemarketers has grown fantastically in recent weeks. I have no way of knowing what phone numbers prospective and legitimate callers are going to use, which means I have to answer every call.

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