The 6555th, Chapter IV, Section 5

Taking the High Ground: The 6555th's Role in Space through 1970

Organizational Changes 1965-1970

In the midst of so many different missions, the TITAN III Division's leadership and organization remained relatively stable. Lieutenant Colonel Ducote was promoted to Colonel in November 1965, and he continued to serve as the TITAN III Division Chief until his retirement on 30 November 1967. He was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel Mack E. Baker, who had replaced Major Henry as Payloads Branch Chief in July 1965. Lieutenant Colonel Elmer T. Helms replaced Lieutenant Colonel Baker as Division Chief in 1969. Lieutenant Colonel John M. Kminek served as Acting Division Chief during the first half of 1970, before Lieutenant Colonel Julius R. Conti became the Division Chief later in the year. The only significant change in the Division's organization during this period came in May 1968, when the Division's activities were realigned to match functions in the Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO). As a result of that realignment, the Division's Operations Branch and Test Support Branch were combined to form the Program Management Branch. The Systems Branch was renamed the Launch Vehicle Branch, and the Payloads Branch remained unchanged.30

On the other hand, change was evident in the Division's manpower tables long before the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program was cancelled in 1969. Though the TITAN III Division's strength rose to 36 officers, 76 airmen, and 19 civilians in 1965, it dropped to approximately 100 personnel in 1966. It fell to 90 officers, airmen and civilians in 1968, and, toward the end of 1970, the Division's manning authorizations were cut to 74. (Its actual manning was reduced below than number in 1971.) Manpower losses were even more severe in other parts of the 6555th, as more and more Air Force space and missile programs shifted to Vandenberg for operations in the mid-1960s.31

At its peak in January 1964, the 6555th Aerospace Test Wing had 144 officers, 573 airmen and 76 civilians assigned to its various activities. Unfortunately, the Wing also lost any chance for an ATLAS/AGENA blue suit launch capability in January 1964, and the TITAN II Weapons Division was discontinued at the end of June. The Wing's strength dropped to 147 officers, 398 airmen and 64 civilians by June 1964, and it fell to 104 officers, 324 airmen and 59 civilians by the end of June 1965. Further reductions were punctuated with the completion of the GEMINI Launch Vehicle Division's mission in November 1966, and the Wing's manning stood at 70 officers, 204 airmen and 47 civilians by the end of 1966. By the middle of 1967, the Wing's manning was down to 256 personnel, and 214 of those people were assigned to just two organizations -- the MINUTEMAN Division and the SLV-V (TITAN) Division. The Wing's complement of officers and airmen increased slightly in 1968, but overall manning slipped back to 262 officers, airmen and civilians by the end of 1969. Strength continued to decline as MINUTEMAN launch operations were wrapped up in 1970, and Lieutenant Colonel Conti's TITAN Systems Division had 78 of the Wing's remaining 154 personnel by the end of 1970.32

On 1 April 1970, the Wing was redesignated the 6555th Aerospace Test Group, and it was reassigned to the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing as one of the 6595th's three Groups. Though this realignment constituted a two-fold drop in status for the 6555th, it came as no surprise to officials who had been following the shift in Air Force operations toward Vandenberg in the 1960s. While Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral both supported Air Force ICBM test flights in the 1960s, the MINUTEMAN III R&D program was the last Air Force ballistic missile effort on the Eastern Test Range, and it would end in December 1970. Cape Canaveral remained an excellent launch base for manned space missions and deep space probes, but with the exception of the TITAN III program, the Cape's space launch facilities and programs were dominated by NASA. In contrast to the Eastern Test Range, the Western Test Range had long-term commitments to SAC and the Air Force for operational tests of the TITAN II, MINUTEMAN I, II and III, and later ballistic missile programs, and the Western Test Range was ideal for DOD launches that placed satellites into polar orbit. Most of those facts were known as early as 1967, when NASA space programs required 50 percent of the Eastern Test Range's total effort, and the U.S. Navy commanded another 30 percent of the Range's time as its principal customer for ballistic missile test support. When other users were considered, SAMSO actually provided only 11 percent of the Eastern Test Range's activity in 1967. On the other hand, SAMSO accounted for 45 percent of the workload at Vandenberg, and SAC required another 30 percent. NASA claimed the remaining 25 percent of Western Test Range's activity, mainly in the form of instrumentation ship support for the Apollo manned space program. By 1970, the Western Test Range's operations had become much more important to the Air Force than the Eastern Test Range's launch activities, so it was logical to give the 6555th a less prominent role.33

The 6555th Aerospace Test Group continued to serve with some distinction after 1970, but if one merely considers the 6555th's accomplishments through 1970, the Group clearly had many reasons to feel proud. For its outstanding missile safety record in 1961, the 6555th was awarded the USAF Missile Safety Plaque for the first time in history. It received that award two more times in 1966 and 1970. On 25 October 1962, the 6555th was awarded the first in a series of six Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards covering the Wing's efforts from 21 December 1959 to 31 March 1971. In October 1962, the Wing also received its first Group Achievement Award from NASA for support of Project MERCURY. A second NASA Group Achievement Award followed in December 1965 for the 6555th's role in the GEMINI VII/VI rendezvous mission, and the Wing also won the Theodore von Karman trophy in 1967 for support of Project GEMINI. While those awards paid tribute to the excellence, dedication and stamina of the 6555th, the most important reward was probably nothing more than a feeling shared by the 6555th and many of its contractors: as space age pioneers, they helped build the missile and launch vehicle programs which paved most of America's road into space.34

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