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On Dec. 15, 1960, representatives of the Air Research and Development Command (AFMC’s grandparent), NASA, and the Atomic Energy Commission met at the Inglewood headquarters of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, SMC’s predecessor. There, they initiated a joint effort to develop a high-altitude satellite system that could detect nuclear explosions—at first in space, and, with later improvements, on the ground and in the air. The program was known at the time as Vela Hotel, and it was to be the space-borne portion of a wider effort—Vela—to detect nuclear explosions using other platforms as well. Its primary purpose was to monitor compliance with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty then being negotiated in Geneva. Over the next five to 10 years, it became a model of good management, good design, and good cooperation in military space programs.

The division had started laying the groundwork for the program in 1959, when the Office of the Secretary of Defense had assigned overall responsibility for it to the Advanced Research Projects Agency. AFBMD created the Vela Satellite Program Office when ARPA assigned execution of the program to the Air Research and Development Command. ARPA had to reject AFBMD’s first development plan, which called for a development budget of $100 million, because it lacked enough funding. Finally, ARPA and AFBMD reduced the scope of the initial, 10-satellite program to fit a budget of about $15 million.

The Atomic Energy Commission began to develop the detectors for the payload through its Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Laboratories. They flew experimental detectors on launches of Space Systems Division’s Discoverer satellites in 1961-1962. In the meantime, Space Systems Division (one of AFBMD’s successors) began to develop the spacecraft by issuing a contract on Nov. 24, 1961 to Space Technology Laboratories, a subsidiary of the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, soon to become TRW.

The original contract called for ten Vela satellites to be built for $15 million. They were to be launched from Cape Canaveral in pairs on five Atlas/Agena boosters during 1963-1964. As it turned out, the first six satellites were so successful, reliable, and long-lived that the last four were never launched. Space Systems Division launched the first pair on Oct. 16, 1963, a few days after the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect, and it launched the other two pairs on July 17, 1964 and July 20, 1965.

These first satellites were small and unsophisticated, weighing about 300 pounds each. In 1965, the Department of Defense approved an advanced Vela program, and Space Systems Division issued a contract for the Advanced Vela spacecraft to TRW. The advanced spacecraft contained more detectors, including optical flash detectors, and more housekeeping equipment, and the first four weighed roughly 500 pounds each. The last two weighed even more. In the end, six advanced Vela satellites were launched in pairs on Titan IIIC boosters using Transtage upper stages. The three launches took place at Cape Canaveral on April 28, 1967, May 23, 1969, and April 8, 1970.

The Vela satellites monitored compliance with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and provided scientific data on natural sources of space radiation for many years. The least successful of the original satellites operated for ten times its design lifetime of six months. The last of the advanced Vela satellites was deliberately turned off on Sept. 27, 1984, over 15 years after it had been launched. From beginning to end, Vela was one of the Air Force space program’s greatest success stories.


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Implemented by Charles P. Vick, Sara D. Berman, and
Christina Lindborg, 1997 Scoville Fellow
Maintained by Steven Aftergood
Originally created by John Pike
Updated Sunday, March 09, 1997