The Buzz

The Corporal M2: America's First Nuclear Guided Missile

Six days after the Allies’ D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy in June 1944, Germany retaliated by launching its first Vergeltungswaffe, or Vengeance Weapon, at the city of London. The V-1 was actually a Fie-103 cruise missile designed by Robert Lusser of Fiesler Aircraft. Made from nonessential war materials and covered in sheet metal, the V-1 was powered by a revolutionary Argus As-14 pulse jet engine and carried a 1,870- pound warhead a distance of 150 miles. Although the Allies were never concerned that this buzz bomb could effectively turn the tide of war, they were disturbed that Germany could produce such an advanced weapon. They immediately considered countermeasures, with the American Army Air Force turning to a group of homegrown rocket enthusiasts for an answer.

The American rocketeers were led by Frank Malina, a graduate student at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), who in 1936 had convinced a group of friends to begin research into a high- altitude sounding rocket. Malina’s plans were based on the writings of Robert Goddard and funded by a private grant from Weld Arnold. He further appealed to Theodore von Karman, a distinguished Hungarian aerodynamicist on the staff at Caltech to support his research. With von Karman’s backing, the group was able to find room in a laboratory on the Pasadena campus, where they became known collectively as the “Rocket Research Project.”

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The first professional undertaking by the group was sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Army Air Force (AAF). In a 1938 contract entitled “Galcit Project #1,” they were tasked with providing research into rocket systems for aircraft auxiliary propulsion. Satisfied with the results, the AAF decided to bypass the NAS and issue direct-contract renewals beginning in June 1941. The acquisition of intelligence about a large German missile and three British photographs of a V-1 caused the AAF to request an analysis from von Karman in July 1943. On August 2 came a follow-up request from Caltech-Air Corps Materiel Command liaison officer W.H. Joiner for a paper on long-range rockets. Delivered in November, the paper was written by Malina and an associate, Hsue-Shien Tsien, with a foreword by von Karman entitled “Memorandum on the Possibilities of Long-Range Rocket Projectiles.” It envisioned an orderly progression in rocket development to be provided by the group, now renamed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Colonel Gervais Trichel, commander of Army Ordnance’s newly formed Rocket Research Branch, also received a copy of the JPL proposal from Robert Staver, the Caltech/Army Ordnance liaison officer. Although the AAF did not respond to the study, Trichel requested an expanded proposal along with the promise of $3.3 million in funding. According to Malina, the request “threw us into a proper dither.” Malina and von Karman replied on January 22, 1944, with a proposal for a 10-mile-range solid-fuel rocket, followed by a 12-mile-range liquid-fuel rocket to be supported by a ramjet motor. Upon obtaining design information from the first two phases of projectile development and the results of the special jet unit under phase 3, the design and construction of a projectile weighing 10,000 pounds or more and having a range on the order of 75 miles was to be undertaken. After much negotiation for refinement of deliverables and facilities, a contract was issued for Ordnance/California Institute of Technology (ORDCIT) in June 1944, just after the first V-1 attack on London.

Development of the 530-pound, solid-fuel “Private” rocket proceeded quickly, and testing was begun at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert in late 1944. At the time, the 14-ton V-2 ballistic missile designed by Wernher von Braun had begun a second reign of terror over London, falling out of the sky at supersonic speeds with a 1,650-pound payload of high explosives. This new development caused Trichel to cover his bets by issuing a second contract for long-range rockets, dubbed “Hermes,” to General Electric. A contract was also issued to Bell Telephone Laboratories for development of an antiaircraft missile to be known as Nike. In January 1945, the JPL facilities were acquired by the U.S Corps of Engineers and became a government-owned activity operated by the California Institute of Technology. The ORDCIT program was ordered to support all other guided missile contracts calling for specific missiles.