The V-2 Program: Operation Backfire to the Hermes Project

The Blossom Project

Telemetry was successfully obtained for the first time during the flight on 23 January 1947. Data detailing the performance of the V-2’s entire operating system was transmitted from the rocket to the ground recording stations. But even with telemetry, certain equipment had to be recovered physically.

A series of flights known as the “Blossom Project” was inaugurated under direction of the Air Material Command with V-2 #20. This was a series of seven flights to test the possibilities of ejecting a canister with a parachute and recovering it intact. The parachute was to be ejected at the zenith of flight.

The first of this series was fired on 20 February 1947. The parachute was not of conventional design but was composed of two parachutes. The first was constructed with ribbons to reduce the initial shock when the parachute opened; the ribbons were covered with a metallic mesh to aid in radar tracking. This ribbon parachute was eight feet in diameter. The second ‘chute was released at approximately 30 miles altitude and was 14 feet in diameter.

The canister attached to these parachutes contained fruit flies and various types of seeds to determine the possible effects of biological mutations caused by the cosmic rays of the upper atmosphere. Cameras and photo-electric cells were also included for other experimentation. The canister descended for 50 minutes and, with the aid of radar, was recovered immediately. Missile performance was excellent for 27 seconds. At that time, the pitch motion showed a disturbance and at 37.5 seconds later, the missile began to roll. It was determined that this action was caused by the loss of the Number 3 jet vane due to the failure of an electronic tube in the computer.

As a part of the Blossom Program, five biological flights were conducted at White Sands Proving Ground by the Aero-Medical Laboratory of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Live animals were sent into space to investigate the possible danger and limiting factors of space flight.

David G. Simon, then an Air Force Captain stated:

“…But what are the problems of space flight in a rocket? By theorizing, the various possible dangers and limiting factors can be appraised and appropriate means of protection against each surmised. However, only by actually performing the experiment can one prove or disprove the validity of the hypothesis, learn better ways of protection against known hazards, and realize for the first time the existence of unsuspected dangers. Only the recovery of a live animal showing no demonstrable ill effects will permit the claim that no major difficulty has been overlooked.”

This series of tests were all named “Albert” after the monkey used in the first tests. Albert I (Round 37) was fired on 11 June 1948. A special capsule had been made to fit into a portion of the space for instrumentation in the nose cone. This capsule contained an anesthetized, nine-pound, rhesus monkey. The experiment ended in failure. The instruments used to transmit respiratory movements failed before take-off. Indications were that the monkey died of breathing difficulties due to the cramped quarters. Had the monkey not been already dead, he would have died at impact as the parachute intended to lower the capsule safely failed to function.

Missile velocity was 18 percent below general average and burn-out occurred prematurely at 57.5 seconds due to operation of the overspeed trip which had been tested for 5,150rpm. At the time of cut-off, the turbine speed was 5,350 rpm. Researchers determined that the turbine overspeed was caused by premature dosing of the alcohol preliminary valve due to an open wire in the control circuit.

The next of the Blossom series (Round 41) was fired on 21 March 1949. This missile was equipped with a specially designed nose cone which increased the length of the original V-2 and provided 80 to 100 cubic feet of space for upper atmospheric research instruments. Take-off and flight were normal. However, the parachute ejection system failed. As no other provision had been made for separation of the warhead, the rocket remained intact and was completely destroyed upon impact. As a result, program planners recommended that all future V-2 missiles be instrumented for air bust as well as for parachute recovery.

Albert II (Round 47) was the second missile to carry this new elongated nose cone, which provided greater instrumentation space. The structure was designed to effect separation in flight from the rear part of the missile so that the “warhead” with data records and the greater portion of the experimental equipment could be recovered by parachute. As a precautionary measure, modifications were made to the ejection system to insure against failure. As an added precaution, provisions were also made for air burst actions.

This photo of a Blossom V-2 shows the special nose cone that was added to provide more space for atmospheric research instruments.

Albert II was fired on 14 June 1949. The purpose of this flight was to evaluate the effects, if any, of cosmic radiation on genes and chromosome structures of living cells. Again, a monkey was used in the experiment, but in this flight the capsule was considerably larger to allow for a less cramped environment. Improved instrumentation meant that respiratory and cardiological data were successfully recorded. However, the parachute recovery system failed. Albert II died on impact.

V-2 #32, used for the third animal experiment, failed 24.7 seconds after take-off. This firing was on 16 September 1949. Missile velocity was below average by approximately 15 percent from the time of take-off. A violent explosion occurred in the tail section at 10.7 seconds, yet the thrust continued. Fourteen seconds later, there was another explosion, at which time thrust terminated. The missile attained an altitude of only three miles. From the pieces of the rocket that were recovered, it was determined that the probable cause of the explosions was a break of appreciable size in the alcohol fuel system.

The fourth animal experiment was conducted with V-2 #31 on 8 December 1949. This flight, as far as rocket performance was concerned, was successful in all aspects. However, the parachute, again failing, caused the death of “Albert IV” on impact. Heart and respiratory data were recorded during the entire flight until the time of death and gave no indication of “gross disturbance” as a result of the rocket flight. Nor was there any indication of ill effects during the time of the sub-gravity state. From this, it was concluded that a brief exposure to the sub-gravity state offered no major physiological hazards.

The fifth and final V-2 experiment by the Aero-Medical Laboratory was conducted with V-2 #51, fired on 31 August 1950. This time a mouse was used as the subject rather than a monkey. The mouse was not anesthetized as the purpose of the experiment was to record the conscious reaction of an animal to changing gravity conditions. No attempt was made to record heart or respiratory action, but a camera system was installed to photograph the mouse at fixed intervals.

Missile performance was satisfactory, but again, the recovery system failed. The mouse did not survive the impact, yet the film was recovered intact. The photographs showed that the mouse retained muscular coordination throughout he period of sub-gravity and was apparently as much at ease when inverted as when upright in relation to the control starting position. Although this was the last experiment in space biology using the V-2 rocket, experiments were carried out later with other missiles and eventually the subject was recovered alive after flight.

All seven missiles in the Blossom series exceeded the weight of the standard V-2 (8,800 pounds) by 981 to 1,883 pounds, yet there was no evidence that the change appreciably affected the trajectory. Of the seven, three were failures. In each instance, the failure was caused by an explosion in the tail section; all explosions were caused by leaks in the alcohol fuel system.

7 thoughts on “The V-2 Program: Operation Backfire to the Hermes Project

  1. An amazing history of the early years of today’s space program. Really a treasure trove of information and photographs! I was born in 1951 and in many ways grew up with the space program. The early years are fascinating. I’ve been reading “Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel” by Wiley Ley to gain an understanding of what it was like to be there as space exploration begin.

  2. Three were successfully set up and launched over the Baltic Sea before the parts were divided for use by the British and American Armies.
    This is new to mee following my documentation the British did fire over the North sea from Atenwalde a long the Danish coast.
    Please see Operation Backfire volume 5

    1. Thank you for the correction! I looked at the source document and it does say the Baltic Sea, but that doesn’t make sense considering that Cuxhaven is on the North Sea, not the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, the source document has no author, so I’m not sure how familiar they were with Operation Backfire itself or if this was just a typo. Thanks again!

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