Writing Space History – Part I

I am wrapping up my first week of working full time on a book I’m called “Before This Decade Is Out.” It’s a history of the Space Race, of the American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; the Soviet Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz missions; and the memories of the people who worked on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center. As I prepared to publish my father’s memoirs, I realized that there were thousands of other people with their own perspective of life at the Cape. I’ve read the books about and by the astronauts and other key figures, but I wanted to know more about what the grunts doing the work on the ground to make the programs a success.

John Glenn boarding Friendship 7 before becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 20, 1962.

Hence, the new book. I’m seeking out those eyewitnesses who are still with us to find out what their experiences were from the time. I’ve had to figure out how best to record telephone or video chats (OBS Studio is my friend), and how to efficiently transcribe them. While I’m searching for more interviews, I’ve created the basic structure of the book. It’s organized chronologically, with a series of entries about the missions, the astronauts and the key events that took place from 1958 to 1973.

Apollo 12 Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon orbiting the moon aboard the Yankee Clipper.

Writing history requires accurate sources, and here I’m eternally grateful to the work of the early NASA historians, whose comprehensive works are available online. Other sources were written by historians or the participants themselves. Notable among them so far is flight controller Gene Kranz’s autobiography Failure Is Not an Option, Andrew Chaikan’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, and Moon Shot, which includes memories from astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. The writing requires a measure of precision. Not all of the sources agree on the details, which becomes a distraction and requires additional research. Finding just the right words to explain concepts, like orbital maneuvering, takes time and requires frequent rewrites.

The ascent stage of a Lunar Module being prepared for flight.

The first draft is going to take at least several more weeks, but this is a passion project for me. And when all is said and done, I hope you’ll enjoy the amazing story I’m trying to tell!

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.