The 6555th, Chapter III, Section 5

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

The Atlas Ballistic Missile Program

The U.S. also made great strides with ICBM programs in the late 1950s and early 1960s, beginning with the ATLAS. The ATLAS' development was a much larger enterprise than the THOR program, but its flight test program moved ahead quickly once the missile arrived at the Cape. Like THOR, ATLAS involved several major contractors: Convair (General Dynamics) was responsible for the ATLAS' airframe; North American had the contract for the missile's rocket engines; General Electric had the contract for the nose cone, and it shared the missile's guidance system contract with the A.C. Spark Plug Company. In a related effort, the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation conducted ATLAS reentry vehicle research under the X-17 program at Cape Canaveral between May 1955 and the end of March 1957. Following completion of the X-17 flight test program in March, Convair proceeded with the ATLAS development program, which was scheduled to advance through four series of flight tests:18


August 1957


Late 1956

May 1956

July 1956

Cape Canaveral 1958

The missiles used in all four series were 75 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. The lightest (Series A) missiles were only expected to fly 460 nautical miles downrange, but each succeeding series would be flown further (e.g., 3,000 nautical miles for Series B, 4,500 nautical miles for Series C and 5,500 nautical miles for Series D). Though the overall flight schedule was dependent on the timely completion of ATLAS facilities at the Cape, the first two ATLAS launch pads, a missile storage building (Building "K"), a missile guidance facility and a data collection equipment station were completed by the end of 1956. The first Series A test missile was launched from Pad 14 on 11 June 1957, but the ATLAS' rocket engines lost thrust approximately 24 seconds into the flight. The missile performed a "couple of loops" and fell through its own trail of fire before a Range Safety Officer sent a command to destroy it less than a minute after lift-off. Despite the missile's failure, the flight met some of the test objectives for the airframe and the launch system.19


Two more Series A missiles were launched from Pad 14 on 25 September and 17 December 1957. During the first of those flights, the propulsion system functioned normally for approximately 32 seconds before a liquid oxygen regulator problem reduced thrust and finally cut all power. The third ATLAS flight on December 17th was completely successful, and another successful flight marked Pad 12's debut as an ATLAS launch site on 10 January 1958. Pad 14 supported two other Series A launches on 7 February and 5 April 1958, and two more Series A missiles were launched from Pad 12 on 20 February and 3 June 1958. The mission on June 3rd was the final flight in the ATLAS "A" Series.20

The first Series B ATLAS was launched from a third site --Pad 11 --on 19 July 1958. The missile lost thrust 43 seconds into the flight, exploded and fell into the Atlantic about three miles from the Cape. Following that failure, three Series B missiles were launched from pads 13, 11, and 14 on August 2nd, August 28th and September 14th respectively. All of them met all of their test objectives. Another Series B missile was launched from Pad 13 on September 18th, but a turbo pump failure cut off power 84 seconds into the flight, and the ATLAS disintegrated. Another Series B missile met some of its objectives on November 17th, and the next ATLAS in the series flew the entire length of the Range (i.e., 5,500 nautical miles) on 28 November 1958. One more "B" series missile was launched into orbit from Pad 11 on December 18th to relay President Eisenhower's Christmas message to the world. (This public relations effort was called Project SCORE.) The empty ATLAS booster remained in orbit for 34 days before it reentered the atmosphere and burned up.21

The ATLAS flight test program was still behind schedule, but the first Series C missile was launched successfully from Pad 12 on 23 December 1958. Though the missile's data capsule was not recovered, the flight met all other test objectives. Three more Series C missiles were launched from Pad 12 during the first half of 1959, including the first ATLAS to carry a recoverable ablative nose cone. Two more Series B missiles were launched from pads 14 and 11 on January 15th and February 4th. The first exploded 109 seconds into the flight, but the second performed very well, and a support aircraft photographed the latter missile's tank and nose cone reentry. The first Series D missile was launched from Pad 13 on 14 April 1959, and two more "D" series missiles were launched from pads 14 and 13 on May 18th and June 6th. All three exploded less than 3 minutes after launch. In summary, only two of the test missiles launched in the first half of 1959 were highly successful; the other six failed to meet most of their test objectives, and their poor performance caused a 60-day slip in the ICBM's journey to operational status.22

After a lackluster string of launches in the first half of 1959, two very successful flights in July 1959 were heartening. The first of those, which involved a "C" Series missile launched from Pad 12 on July 21st, included the first recovery on a full-scale ATLAS nose cone. The other was a "D" series flight from Pad 11 to an impact area near Ascension on July 28th. All test objectives were met on another Series D flight from Pad 13 on August 11th, and the last Series C mission (launched from Pad 12 on 24 August 1959) ended on a high note when the missile's nose cone was recovered 5,000 miles downrange. Eight more "D" series missiles were launched in ballistic missile tests over the next four months from pads 13 and 11. Though the results of those flights were mixed, five of them were very successful, and the other three met some of their test objectives.23


Under continued pressure from an apparent "missile gap" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. Air Force moved quickly to activate the ATLAS as Weapon System 107A-1 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Months before the "D" Series proved itself at the Cape, the first operational ATLAS launch complex was completed at Vandenberg, and construction of a second operational complex was underway. Launch facilities for two squadrons of ATLAS missiles were also being built at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska during this period. Construction for two more ATLAS squadrons began before the end of 1959 at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington and Forbes Air Force Base, Kansas. The Air Force accepted the ATLAS on 1 September 1959, and SAC Commander Thomas S. Power declared the missile "operational" about a week later. One of three ATLAS "D" missiles was put on alert at Vandenberg's Complex 576A shortly thereafter.24

The operational ATLAS "D"s stood on gantry-supported pads initially, but later on they were laid horizontally in unhardened, roofless support facilities to simplify their support requirements. Earthen roofs were introduced to provide approximately 25 pounds per square inch of blast protection for the ATLAS "E" missiles that came later. The most advanced version -- the ATLAS "F" -- sat at the bottom of an underground launch facility reinforced to withstand overpressures of 100 pounds per square inch. In addition to a mixed squadron of nine ATLAS "D," "E," and "F" missiles activated at Vandenberg Air Force Base, 12 ATLAS squadrons were activated in Wyoming, Nebraska, Washington, Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico between September 1960 and the end of December 1962. Though the ATLAS "D" was supposed to remain operational until 1967, all three ATLAS series were phased out between May 1964 and March 1965 as part of a general retirement of the nation's first-generation ATLAS and TITAN I ICBMs. Like the THOR, the ATLAS booster was mated to a variety of high energy upper stages over the next quarter century, and, as of this writing, it remains an important part of the U.S. space program.25

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