It was near midnight amid cool desert darkness in Yuma, Arizona, on November 18, 1966 -- 50 years ago this year. Along Firing Front Road on U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground's Kofa Firing Range, a gigantic 119 foot white gun solemnly pointed straight-up into the night sky.
The members of the work crew excitedly gathered behind bombproofs and a countdown began. At the stroke of 11:56 p.m., the gun boomed louder than anyone had heard before and coughed a plume of bright orange-red fire 70 feet into the atmosphere. The blast caused a scientific payload to sail upward into the lower reaches of outer space, then land 30 miles away on the proving ground.
The shot was a complete success, accomplishing all mission objectives -- and setting a still standing world record; the highest altitude artillery shot ever recorded, 111 miles. The flight of the payload was tracked from ground stations located in Gila Bend, Az., Arizona Western College, Az., and Blythe, Ca.
Unfortunately, the High Altitude Research Project (HARP), which had been designed to propel satellites into orbit, was cancelled shortly thereafter. YPG's HARP gun never again fired a shot into space. Since that day, it has largely slumbered in the desert.
Wayne Schilders, Chief of YPG's Weapons Operation Division, first came to Yuma Proving Ground as a 19-year old in 1984 and has worked around artillery throughout his adult life. He was a member of the crew that fired the HARP gun horizontally into an earthen berm in 1992, which was the last time it was fired.
"That was a quarter century ago," he said with a smile, "and everyone else in the division is sort of envious, for few of us are still around."
Though he was not at the proving ground for the famous 1966 shot -- he was two years old at the time -- and no photos have been found, Schilders has heard many stories about it. "I've seen video footage of firing of the HARP gun built on the Caribbean island of Barbados, and it's an impressive sight. The YPG gun is virtually identical."
Because YPG's HARP gun was not involved in firing programs for the majority of its life, it has sometimes been neglected. When the cover protecting its muzzle rotted away, a colony of bees set up housekeeping in the barrel. An owl built a nest inside the open breech and several packrats inhabited the metallic housing of a hydraulic pump located on the ground next to the gun. An even worse prospect awaited the gun on Barbados, however, as decades of massive rust have turned it into an unusable, decayed monument.
But the situation with Yuma's gun has been largely solved.
Schilders and his crew have cleaned the barrel, spending hours scraping out wax and syrupy honey, even using a propane torch to melt wax. The desert packrats were unhappy when their nest of twigs and brush was taken apart. The owl had vacated its nest by the time it was removed, but Schilders remembers skeletons of numerous small animals scattered nearby on which it had dined.
"We're taking care of the HARP gun now," he said. "We've replaced numerous hoses, have placed protective devices inside both the muzzle and breech, and have made sure no wildlife returns. It's in decent shape and only surface rust removal and lubrication, as well as careful inspections and repairs here and there, would be necessary to fire it again."
Schilders points out that YPG's HARP gun is a unique, one-of-a-kind system that might be useful even today. "Though the barrels were cast during World War II, they are extremely heavy duty and were designed to take punishment," he said. "Several private firms have cast feelers our way regarding firing it again."
Bill Heidner, Director of YPG's Heritage Center Museum, says the gun is a historic artifact and that the preservation measures are required by the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Regarding firing the HARP gun again, he sees it as a realistic possibility that makes logical sense. "All the reasons that brought the HARP gun to Yuma Proving Ground in 1966 remain today," he stated.
These reasons include restricted airspace that extends from the ground to outer space and a huge 1300 square mile fairly remote proving ground.
"Private firms feel they can launch small satellites with a giant gun like the HARP using modern propellants packing more energy than those of the past," said Heidner.
"If you can fire packages into space with a stationary gun, multiple times per day, it can be done cheaply in comparison to a rocket," he said. "These firms look at it as a business proposition. Their intention is to get things into space cheaply, quickly and effectively, and multiple times within a short period."
When considering the cost per pound of propelling a payload into space by rocket, it amounts to thousands of dollars. With gun technology, that could be potentially reduced to the hundreds of dollars per pound range.
So, will Yuma Proving Ground's monstrous HARP gun come to life again? It's an interesting possibility that only time will answer