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It's not exactly Home Of The Space Program, but Topsail Island and today's space transportation technology do have a relationship akin to "Birthplace Of...". The most visible evidence of that is a concrete slab that is the Jolly Roger Motel's patio and seven rectangular towers that haphazardly dot the island. The towers are actually precisely located for equipment to track and time the Terrier, Talos and ramjet missiles that were developed and test-launched here.
The patio was the launch pad. It was 1946 and Topsail was an un-bridged island that the W.W.II military called "the sand spit." And the sand spit, for the US government, was the perfect place for a secret missile development and test site.
Following W.W.II, Topsail Island was "seized" by the US government to develop a long-range defense missile for the Navy. It was only 50 years ago, but there were few residents on the remote island, hardly any development, not much to harm in case of explosion and, probably, very few noticed that the island had been "seized." Those few who did notice also noticed that the island was bridged for the first time to the mainland, electricity and fresh water became available. The routes that were being used, later became roads. On Topsail Island, "seized by the government" actually looked pretty good at the time.
The government project was dubbed Operation Bumblebee after a needlepoint message regarding the aerodynamics of a bumblebee which shouldn't allow it to fly. "...But the bumblebee doesn't know this, so he goes ahead and flies anyway..." Somehow this applied to the impossibilities looming ahead for this mission.
Toward the goal of a supersonic missile that would swiftly reach a target up to 20 miles away, the mission had to get the ramjet up to supersonic speeds and demonstrate that it developed thrust. The ramjet rocket that was developed is the basis of supersonic jet technology. Up to that time, the ramjet would light and burn, but the theory that it developed thrust was not proven. With instrumentation in the towers, it was proven that the ramjet could develop and maintain thrust. The 6"-diameter rocket, fashioned from the tailpipe of a Navy Thunderbolt airplane, was powered by a mixture of propylene oxide and the oxygen of the atmosphere scooped into the front end of the open pipe, compressed in the chamber by its own speed, and ignited. Voila! Thrust.
During the two years of government use of Topsail Island, more than 200 experimental rockets were fired. The test launchings resulted in the ramjet rocket which was the foundation of the guided missile program, which advanced the technology of jet propulsion and, consequently, was a first step in the technology that propels our space program.
In 1948, the 26-mile length of Topsail Island became an inadequate range for missile firings. It seems apparent, with the perspective of time, that the potential was exceeding the goals of Operation Bumblebee. The project was divided and transferred to other test sites that would eventually become NASA, including Cape Canaveral. The "sand spit," towers and assembly building were returned to land owners, and equipment was given to counties and towns.
Missiles and More are celebrated at the Topsail Island Museum, located in the Assembly Building, 720 Channel Blvd., Topsail Beach. The museum is open from April to mid October. The hours are:
2-4pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday,
Closed Sunday & Wednesday.
From November to April visitation is by appointment only, including group tours,
arrangements can be made at the Topsail Chamber of Commerce,
numbers are listed below.
Toll Free: 800-626-2780
Business Office: 910-329-4446
Admission is free,
but donations to the museum are always appreciated.
The museum features video oral histories, artifacts and exhibits from the colonial era to W.W.II. A new exhibit focuses on the Women Air Service Personnel (WASPS) who served at nearby Camp Davis (Holly Ridge, NC) during W.W.II.
Last Revised: November 21, 2008 03:13 PM.
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