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24 July 2009

On this day in history: First rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, 1950

At the end of the Second World War, the United States government prioritised the extraction of key German scientists and the technology they worked on. Key to this operation - codenamed 'Paperclip' - were the brains behind the V-2 rockets, especially the project leader, Dr. Vernher von Braun. Von Braun and his team were relocated to the U.S. along with three-hundred train loads of V-2 rocket parts.

In 1946 the U.S. army began testing the reassembled rockets at White Sands in New Mexico. Over the next few the operation grew, bringing in experts from all three armed services, universities and the aeronautics industry. The development of ballistic missiles, particularly as a delivery system for nuclear warheads, required a new purpose built test-site.

In October 1949, President Harry S. Truman established the Joint Long Range Proving Grounds at the chosen location: Cape Canaveral in Florida. Nine months later, on 24th July 1950, the army launched a modified V-2 rocket called Bumper 8. The rocket reached an altitude of around 10 miles.

Following the establishment of NASA in 1948, Cape Canaveral became the launch centre for historic missions into space including the launch of the first American satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958; the 1961 Freedom 7 mission that carried Alan Shepherd on a suborbital flight for NASA's first manned space mission; and, John Glenn's orbital flight the next year. The Apollo and Space Shuttle programmes launched from the Kennedy Space Center on the nearby Merritt Island. Nevertheless, the launch site at the Cape continued to be used for the Viking missions to Mars and the Voyager programme, and is still used today for the launch of unmanned missions.

The NASA web site includes the text of The Kennedy Space Center Story, chapter one of which details the early flights from the Cape.

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