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What is coastal Carolina’s contribution to the space program?

Ben Steelman

From 1946 to 1948, the U.S. Navy, in cooperation with physicists at Johns Hopkins University, conducted “Operation Bumblebee,” a top-secret ramjet missile testing program, off Topsail Island.

Following earlier tests off Island Beach, N.J., and Fort Miles, Del., a 500-man detachment of sailors and Marines under Lt. Cmdr. Tad Stanwick arrived at Topsail during the summer of 1946 to begin building facilities. The site was operational in March 1947. During the next 18 months, researchers launched more than 200 experimental two-stage rockets, ranging in length from 2 to 13 feet.

The site was eventually abandoned due to less-than-ideal weather conditions and increased seagoing traffic nearby, but Operation Bumblebee proved extremely fruitful. Data from the tests led directly to the development of the Navy’s Talos, Terrier, Tartar and Sea Sparrow missile systems, as well as to the evolution of supersonic jet engine designs.

Much of Operation Bumblebee remains behind. The missile assembly building at 720 Channel Blvd., Topsail Beach [Map this], is now the community Assembly Building, including the Missiles and More Museum, which contains artifacts relating to the missile tests as well as other aspects of local history. Among the artifacts is an actual missile that washed up on the beach nearby in 1994.

One of the launch pads is now a patio at the Jolly Roger Motel, 803 Ocean Blvd., Topsail Beach [Map this], and a number of the three-story concrete observation towers, built along the missiles’ 20-mile flight path, have been converted into private homes.

The project’s name, incidentally, came from a sign that one of the scientists spotted over a Navy officer’s desk: “According to recognized aerodynamical tests, the bumblebee cannot fly because of the shep and weight of its body in relation to the total wing area. But, the bumblebee doesn’t know this, so he goes ahead and flies anyway.”

The Topsail Missiles and More Museum, 720 Channel Blvd., Topsail Beach [Map this], will reopen April 6, 2009. Its hours will be 2-4 p.m. Monday-Friday until Memorial Day weekend. It will then be open 2-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday until Labor Day weekend. After Labor Day, its hours will revert to 2-4 p.m. Monday-Friday until it closes for the season in mid-October. Admission is free. For information, call the museum at (910) 328-8663.

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