America's First Rocket Company: Reaction Motors, Inc. By Frank H. Winter. Reston Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2017. Figures. Endnotes. Index. Supporting Materials. Pp. xx, 303. $39.95 Hardcover ISBN: 978-1624104411
We need an occasional reminder that the history of rocket development and manufacturing in the United States did not begin with Wernher von Braun and his associates from Peenemunde, most of whom came to America under Operation Paperclip in late 1945. By then, the U.S. military already had contracted with at least two home-grown companies--Reaction Motors, Inc. (RMI) and Aerojet Engineering Company--that had jumpstarted and substantially improved rocket-engine production. As Frank Winter explains in America's First Rocket Company, four American Rocket Society members founded RMI in December 1941 and, three months later, obtained its first government contract for a liquid-propellant, jet-assisted-take-off (JATO) unit.
Over the next 30 years, as an independent enterprise and as a division of Thiokol Chemical Company after April 1958, Reaction Motors built increasingly powerful rocket engines to propel U.S. military missiles and experimental aerospace planes. The company's rocket engines powered Convair's experimental MX-774 test missile, predecessor of the Atlas ICBM, in the late 1940s. From the Gorgon family of missiles that originated officially in 1943, to the Bullpups that evolved during the late 1950s and early 1960s, RMI supplied the propulsion systems. It did the same for the Navy's surface-to-air Lark, the Air Force's area-defense anti-aircraft Bomarc booster, the Army's short-range Lance, and a host of other small missiles.
With its sights set on designing rocket engines to propel craft ever faster, higher, and farther, RMI developed an engine in 1948 for the Viking sounding rocket and, thereby, staked a claim to spaceflight. From the XLR-11 power plant that enabled Captain Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier in the X-1 on 14 October 1947, to the XLR-99 engine that boosted X-15 pilots to hypersonic velocities in the early 1960s, RMI...