By Darren Court, Museum Director/Curator and the WSMR Public Affairs Office
Edited by Jenn Jett, Museum Specialist
The Hermes program was the Army’s second missile program, started in November 1944 in response to the German V-2 program, with the purpose of determining the missile needs of the field forces. With General Electric as the prime contractor, the task was to “seek and develop long range missiles that could be used against both ground targets and high-altitude aircraft.” With the capture of the German V-2’s, a perfect test vehicle was acquired for these purposes.
In addition to the “normal” V-2 tests, the Army undertook the development and testing of a longer-range cruise missile type weapon, this became the Hermes II – a high velocity ramjet-powered missile. The cruise missile itself, called the “comet,” was to be boosted by the V-2. However, this changed the dynamics of the rocket, requiring larger tail fins to be added. In addition, the V-2 was fitted with ramjet powered “wings” at the guidance and control section of the rocket.
Five flights were made from 1947 to 1950 before the whole project transferred to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. From there, the research evolved into the development of the Redstone rocket. The very first Hermes II flight, however, is the most famous, as the rocket veered 180 degrees off course and landed in Mexico.
The HERMES Project
The HERMES Project was established in 1945 with the General Electric Company to initiate development of long-range rocket and launching equipment. In scope, the project was to encompass all phases of missile research and development to provide a broad base and source of supply of guided missiles. The objectives of the HERMES program were changed from time to time as the national guided missile program developed. The program included every phase of guided missile work with the exception of large scale production and warhead and fuse development.
Research and development were conducted in missile structures, transonic and supersonic aerodynamics, remote and on-missile guidance and control, ground launching and handling equipment, flight test instrumentation, subsonic and supersonic ramjet engines, fuels and propellant combinations, and rocket engines of various types. The project was divided into three phases: literature search, familiarization with German guided missile development, and design and development of experimental systems.
Concerning the last phase Project HERMES was divided into three general categories:
1. The A1 and A2 series of missiles
2. The A3 series of missiles
3. Other missiles and supporting research.
Included in the latter category are the V-2 and Bumper series.
Early research and development work under the HERMES Project consisted of general study, component development and experimental work at White Sands Proving Ground with modified German V-2 material. Numerous avenues and designs of test vehicles were pursued during the early start of the project. For instance, by the end of the year 1950 the HERMES Project had four test vehicles under development; the Bumper (a V-2 with WAC Corporal) for testing the feasibility of separation at high velocity of a two-stage missile; HERMES A-4 (V-2) missiles made from captured German rocket spare parts for high altitude research; HERMES B-1, which was a ramjet for tests and; HERMES II, a two-stage missile using the V-2 as its first stage rocket and a ramjet in the second stage.
HERMES A1 and A2 Series
The HERMES A1, A2, and A3 series were part of the HERMES I program, which used the German “Wasserfall” configuration for its original design. Work on HERMES A1 as an anti-aircraft missile began in 1946, but the scope of the entire HERMES Project changed in 1947, limiting it to a surface-to-surface missile. Six A1 test vehicles were approved for guidance and control tests against surface targets; one of these was damaged beyond repair in static testing and the other five were flight tested between May 19, 1950 and April 26, 1951.
Since guidance problems were of major interest in the A1 development program, the designers adopted the German “Wasserfall” missile configuration. This step also allowed the HERMES Project to utilize the experience of the German guided missile personnel who had been assigned to HERMES Project at the inception of the program. HERMES motor experiments promised better performance with safer fuels, so the “Wasserfall” propulsion system was not incorporated into the A1 rocket. The missile was 25.5 feet in length and 34.5 inches in diameter; its control and stabilizing surfaces were four fixed wings and four controlled fins; its new liquid propellant power plant generated 16,000 pounds of thrust to give the vehicle a maximum velocity of 1,800 miles per hour. Guidance controls consisted of roll-and-pitch stabilization using gyroscopes plus ground-originated radar signals operating jet and air control vanes. The rocket was highly maneuverable and an ideal test vehicle for a control experimentation.
Ground guidance was essentially a single tracking radar and a computer with the missile carrying a combination beacon-transponder. A comprehensive set of electrical test equipment for HERMES A1 was designed by General Electric. This equipment resulted from experience gained in V-2 and Bumper operations, which indicated that an electrical failure of one type or another were the causes of the most lost time in pre-firing checkout of the missile.
Discontinuation of HERMES A1 as a tactical missile was ordered on 18 May 1950, the day before the first firing of the A1 at White Sands Proving Ground. Although none of the A1 missile flights were completely successful, the functional operability of the system was well demonstrated. HERMES A2 originated in 1946 as a wingless version of the A1, but the plan was not pursued. Studies in 1949, directed toward development of low-cost missile system, were labeled A2. A solid propellant motor system was selected and applicable portions of the A1 guidance system were to be employed. A 1,500 pound payload was to be carried a 75 miles at maximum range.
Development on HERMES A2 was confined to work on the propulsion system. The A2 motor was test-fired at the Air Force Missile Test Center in Florida using the RV-A-10 (A2) test vehicle. Four firings were conducted. Range safety requirements had been discussed for several years prior to the A3B test flights, and positive steps had been taken to ensure emergency cutoff capabilities worked in previous test series. Safety developments to the time of the A3B series resulted in a cutoff receiver and antenna mounted on fin #3 of the missile.
The flight test program for the A3B was formulated in early 1953 as a series of 28 firings. The first six missiles were to be test-fired in order to perfect an operating system; the second six missiles were destined for tests of accuracy; the remaining missiles would provide data on system performance under simulated filed conditions. In mid-1953, the number of A3B missiles authorized for flight tests was reduced to six, but the original objectives for the first six missiles were retained to demonstrate the feasibility of the basic guidance system concept.
Although system accuracy was not demonstrated and, therefore, some of the A3B flights considered fully successful, the series did prove the system inherently capable of the predicted performance based on the actual hardware employed. The General Electric Company’s participation in the HERMES Project was terminated by an agreement on June 30, 1951. HERMES Project technical work not terminated in that agreement was ended on December 31, 1954.
Today one of the few pieces of the project which remains can be found at Launch Complex 33. The site, which contains the original Army Blockhouse and V-2 gantry, numerous concrete launch pads, and a HERMES A1, is a New Mexico and National Historic Landmark.
Timeline of Hermes Project Launches
13 August 1953
Hermes A3A #4
Missile velocity of 4,150 feet per second at burnout recorded.
05 October 1953
Hermes A3A #5
Excessive velocity was blamed for roll instability occurring at 161 seconds.
21 October 1952
Hermes A3A #6
Missile operated as expected until 75 seconds after launch; failure of the 150-volt and 120-volt batteries resulted in loss of flight control from ground.
20 November 1953
Hermes A4A #7
Functioned until about 20,000 feet before impact when a tail fin control malfunctioned and the missile spun out of its trajectory.
15 January 1954
Hermes A3A #8
Loss of stable flight control 53 seconds after take-off.
11 May 1954
Hermes A3B (XSSM-A-16) #1
Altitude 106 kilo miles; range 48.2 nautical miles. All systems performed well except electrical loss of B+ power at 141 seconds.
20 July 1954
Hermes A3B #3
Altitude 117.6 kilo miles; range 59.7 nautical miles. Proportional guidance blocked by ground equipment testing.
26 August 1954
Hermes A3B #2
Altitude 9.2 kilo miles; range 8 nautical miles. Emergency cut-off by a guillotine device.
21 September 1954
Hermes A3B #4
Altitude 118 kilo miles; range 61.7 nautical miles. All systems worked as expected.
19 October 1954
Hermes A3B #5
Altitude 118.2 kilo miles; range 63.3 nautical miles. All systems worked as expected.
16 November 1954
Hermes A3B #6
Altitude 113 kilo miles; range 54.5 nautical miles. Range data erratic due to variations in beacon integration.