Space Cover #45, V-2, Is That You? Steve Durst, The Space Unit
While a little outside the normal stream of space cover collecting, this week's Space Cover of the Week, is a Ham radio QSL card mailed to an amateur radio operator at call sign W8RM, September 25, 1947, Fort Clinton, Ohio. On the front of the QSL card confirming the Ham radio transmission are three Ham radio operators, standing in front of an American captured V-2 rocket on the rocket's Meilerwagen. But, the story continues, because the card is cancelled on the date of the first Aerobee rocket test firing at White Sands Proving Ground, September 25, 1947, near Las Cruces, New Mexico, as seen on the reverse side of the card.
Physicist James Van Allen was a member of the scientific team that tested captured V-2 rockets after WWII at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. He determined that the V-2 rocket was too heavy and complex for the upper atmosphere research tests he wanted to conduct and realized that a different rocket soon would have to replace the operational V-2 rockets undergoing test. Van Allen of Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab was also supervisor of the High Altitude Research Group, and directed operation of the University's Bumblebee series of early sounding rockets.
Visiting Dr. Rolf Sabersky at Aerojet Company in 1946 to determine rocket engine capability, Van Allen conceived of a new sounding rocket with an Aerojet booster rocket and a Bumblebee solid fuel rocket second stage, proposing the name Aerobee. The new rocket, the Aerobee, would be capable of launching a 68 kg or 150 pound payload to a 130 km or 80.7 mile space altitude. Requesting U.S. Navy support for the research rocket, Van Allen was successful in pressing the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Ordnance to place an initial order for 20 of the new Aerobee rockets.
Aerobee rockets were planned to be launched from 100-foot launch towers to provide the rocket with necessary stability until it had enough velocity for its rocket fins to be effective to control its movement. The rocket launches were made from ground, aircraft, and ship sites. The varied and dispersed sites ranged from the Artic Circle to Australia and South Africa. The rockets were launched in those areas in which scientific data needed to be collected. Data on astronomy, magnetic fields, radiation fields, and other areas of scientific interest dictated specific locations for best data collection. Van Allen's use of the Aerobee also resulted in the spectacular discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts circling the Earth. In this period of discovery, Aerobee launches were made from rocket launch sites at Wallops Island, Virginia; White Sands Proving Ground and Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Fort Churchill, Canada; Walker Cay, Bahamas; and Woomera, Australia.
Van Allen's group also experimented with high altitude photography to study meteorological phenomena and Earth cloud patterns. From this early work, weather satellites were conceived. The first details of the Earth's atmosphere with variations in temperatures and pressures, variations in atmospheric layers, atmospheric density, and turbulence, were derived using the sounding rockets. A remarkable 51% of these sounding rockets were Aerobees. An Aerobee rocket was also the first launch vehicle to carry monkeys Patricia and Mike and passenger mice Mildred and Albert, into space, May 22, 1952, at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, and then return them safely to Earth.
The Aerobee rocket further was used to capture photos of star fields in selected spectral ranges, including the first wide-angle ultraviolet photo of star fields and for recording variations in star temperatures while in flight. A similar updated methodology would later be used many years later on NASA's Apollo flights. The Aerobee's low cost and overall 97% rocket reliability permitted scientists to collect significant amounts of data easily and cost effectively ten years before space satellites could be used effectively.
The cover shown is somewhat ironic in that it pictures a captured V-2 rocket with three engineers proudly displaying it. But, the real story is that the versatile sounding rocket that would replace the V-2 rocket as a scientific launch vehicle, the Aerobee, would have its first test firing on this date, September 25, 1947, at White Sands Proving Ground, near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and commemorated on this pedestrian QSL card.