The 6555th, Chapter III, Section 1

The 6555th's Role in the Development of Ballistic Missiles

Ballistic Missile Test Organizations and Commanders

As MATADOR flight testing got underway at Cape Canaveral in the summer of 1951, Air Force planners redoubled their efforts to develop the ballistic missile as a logical successor to the pilotless bomber. Convair was awarded an Air Force contract to study the merits of the ballistic missiles in relation to aerodynamic missiles, and, in September 1951, Convair proposed a ballistic missile along the lines suggested by Consolidated-Vultee's rocket experiments in the late 1940s (i.e., a lightweight pressurized booster with swiveling engines for directional control and a separable nose cone to simplify atmospheric reentry problems). An ad hoc committee of the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board supported Convair's proposal on the grounds that it was technically feasible, and Convair presented the Air Force with a plan in 1953 for rapid development of the missile.1

In October 1953, an 11-member Air Force panel of experts was formed under Dr. John von Neumann to evaluate strategic missile programs. This Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee (SMEC) was nicknamed the "Teapot Committee" in a light-hearted gesture that belied the seriousness of its work. In February 1954, the Teapot Committee recommended a "radical reorganization" of America's ballistic missile effort to catch up with the Soviet Union in long-range ballistic missile development: the Soviets were clearly ahead of the Americans in heavy ballistic missiles by this time, and they had tested their first H-Bomb successfully in August 1953. The Committee noted that a recent breakthrough in nuclear warhead design offered the U.S. a shortcut, making a relatively lightweight (240,000-pound) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) possible within eight years. This missile would only weigh half as much as the ATLAS ICBM proposed by Convair (e.g., 450,000 pounds), and the H-Bomb's extra "punch" would allow designers to loosen proposed target accuracy requirements from 1,500 feet to approximately three miles. (Accuracy requirements were loosened further -- to five miles -- after the Atomic Energy Commission predicted it could develop a one-megaton warhead light enough to be carried on the 240,000-pound version of the ATLAS.) Given those parameters, the ATLAS' five-engine configuration could be trimmed down to a three-engine, booster-sustainer (1 and 1/2 stage) design.2

Based on the Teapot Committee's recommendations, RAND studies and successful lightweight H-Bomb tests in 1953 and 1954, the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff (General Thomas D. White) assigned the Air Force's highest research and development priority to the ATLAS project (Weapon System 107A-1) on 14 May 1954. On July 1st, the Air Research and Development Command established the Western Development Division (WDD) under the command of Brigadier General Bernard A. Schriever to manage the ATLAS project. Toward the end of August 1954, General Schriever recommended that the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation be given responsibility for technical direction and systems engineering for ATLAS, and Ramo-Wooldridge became an indispensable partner in the WDD's supervision of contracts for the ATLAS and later ballistic missile programs. A full "go-ahead" for the ATLAS design was ordered in January 1955, and the TITAN (Weapon System 107A-2) was added to the ICBM effort to trail behind the ATLAS' development program by about a year as a "hedge against failure."3

As WDD Commander In 1956

To counter the likelihood that the Soviets would have ballistic missiles before the U.S. could field the ATLAS or TITAN ICBMs, the Air Force awarded a research and development contract to the Douglas Aircraft Company on 27 December 1955 for the THOR intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). This effort was designed to get a strategic ballistic missile (Weapon System 315A) into the West's inventory as soon as possible. Like the ATLAS and TITAN, THOR requirements were "frozen" early in the development process to avoid further delays, and the various missile components and support equipment for each weapon system were developed concurrently to insure the earliest initial operating capability (IOC) for each type of missile. Bureaucratic red tape and funding delays were also reduced significantly after the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development (Trevor Gardner) had the Deputy for Budget and Program Management (Hyde Gillette) set up a committee to streamline administration. The new "Gillette Procedures" were approved in November 1955, and they cut the number of official agency review levels for ballistic missiles from 42 to 10. The Western Development Division became the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (AFBMD) on 1 June 1957, and it continued to manage a whole family of ballistic missile programs, reconnaissance satellite projects and at least one solid propellant rocket project.4

Because most ballistic missile components were being tested elsewhere in the United States, the Western Development Division only required a very small liaison office at AFMTC from the middle of August 1955 through the end of April 1956. By the middle of 1956, ballistic missile flight tests were anticipated at Cape Canaveral in 1957, and the liaison office was replaced by the Western Development Division Field Office on 1 May 1956. (Ramo-Wooldridge activated its own Flight Test Office at AFMTC on the same date to provide technical assistance.) Though the Field Office only had three officers and four civilians assigned to its operations when it opened for business in May, it grew slowly and steadily to 49 officers, eight airmen and 21 civilians by December 1959. The ATLAS, TITAN and THOR field testing programs were assigned to the Field Office initially, and the X-17 Research Test Vehicle and the MIDAS satellite project were added shortly thereafter. The Field Office's X-17 Branch was phased out on 1 May 1957, but its personnel were given other duties, including the MINUTEMAN (Weapon System 133A) field test program, which required the creation of a MINUTEMAN project division in January 1959. (On 1 December 1957, the Field Office was renamed the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division's Office of the "Assistant Commander for Missile Tests," but it continued to function as a field office.) Many of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division's contractors and sub-contractors maintained their own field offices at AFMTC, and it was the Field Office's function to provide a working liaison between General Schriever's Division and AFMTC.5

Since the Assistant Commander for Missile Tests' resources were reassigned to the 6555th Guided Missile Group (Test and Evaluation) when the latter was redesignated the 6555th Test Wing (Development) on 21 December 1959,* we should make some mention of the Field Office's commanders as well as their successors in the 1960s. Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Mathison became the Chief of the WDD Liaison Office in August 1955, and he continued to serve as General Schriever's Assistant Commander for Missile Tests in the Western Development Division's Field Office through 8 July 1956. Lieutenant Colonel Mathison was succeeded by Colonel Henry H. Eichel on July 9th, and Colonel Eichel continued in that capacity after the Field Office was renamed the Office of the Assistant Commander for Missile Tests in December 1957. Colonel Eichel also became the first commander of the 6555th Test Wing (Development) on 21 December 1959, when the 6555th Guided Missile Group (Test and Evaluation) was removed from AFMTC, redesignated and assigned to the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division. Colonel Paul R. Wignall succeeded Colonel Eichel as the 6555th's Commander on 13 June 1960, and he commanded the Wing for the next two and one-half years. Colonel Harold G. Russell commanded the 6555th from 1 December 1962 through 2 August 1964. He was succeeded by Colonel Otto C. Ledford, who served through 14 September 1967. Colonel Marc M. Ducote assumed command briefly in September, but he was succeeded by Colonel Herbert J. Holdsambeck on September 26th. Colonel Holdsambeck continued to command the 6555th until 9 August 1969, whereupon Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Reynolds assumed command temporarily until Colonel Davis P. Parrish's arrival on 24 September 1969. Colonel Parrish continued to command the 6555th through 23 August 1972.6






The 6555th's manpower and mission in the last half of the 1950s should also be mentioned. When the Western Development Division's liaison office opened in August 1955, the 6555th Guided Missile Squadron had 11 officers and 135 airmen assigned to various aerodynamic missile programs. During this period, the 6555th: 1) launched MATADORS, 2) supported the BOMARC, and 3) prepared for the day when blue suit crews would begin launching SNARKs. While the Liaison Office's presence grew, the 6555th's strength remained relatively stable (except for the last half of 1958) at about a dozen officers and 145 airmen. After the 6555th was redesignated a Wing and assigned to the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division on 21 December 1959, it picked up technical management for the Air Force's ballistic missile flight test programs at the Cape, and its mission was expanded to include the attainment of a military launch, test and evaluation capability for ballistic missiles. The Wing gained the resources of the Assistant Commander for Missile Tests, and it had a force of 71 officers, 159 airmen and 21 civilians by the end of 1959.7

The 6555th: Missile and Space Launches Through 1970
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925