The Space and Missile Systems Center traces its ancestry back to the Western Development Division (WDD). WDD was activated in July 1954 and was redesignated as the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (AFBMD) in June 1957. The original mission of the organization was to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for the Air Force, but responsibility for developing the first military satellite system was added in February 1956. The ICBM mission remained with AFBMD and its successors through the decades that followed, but the Department of Defense (DOD) reassigned the space mission several times before settling on a final pattern. In February 1958, the DOD activated the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and placed it in charge of all DOD space programs during their research and development phases. In September 1959, ARPA lost its dominant role, and the DOD divided responsibility for developing military satellites among the three services. The Army was to develop communication satellites; the Navy, navigation satellites; and the Air Force (i.e., AFBMD), reconnaissance and surveillance satellites. The Air Force was also to develop and launch all military space boosters. This arrangement continued until March 1961, when the DOD gave the Air Force (AFBMD) a near monopoly on development of all military space systems, ending the role of the Army and the Navy except under exceptional circumstances. The final policy change occurred in September 1970. The DOD declared that the Air Force would remain responsible for developing, producing, and launching space boosters and for developing, producing, and deploying satellite systems for missile warning and for surveillance of enemy nuclear delivery capabilities. However, all three military departments would have the right to submit proposals for development of satellite systems for other purposes, and DOD would decide whether to approve those proposals. In theory, this decision gave considerable leeway to the Army and the Navy and eroded the Air Force space monopoly to a considerable degree. In practice, however, the Air Force has continued to develop most of the satellite systems used by the DOD.

By 1961, therefore, AFBMD had two parallel missions to perform, but it was not necessarily clear that the two missions belonged together. Over the next several decades, in fact, the missile and space functions were separated and rejoined repeatedly, causing numerous reorganizations and redesignations. Because of the increasing importance of space systems, the space and missile functions were separated in April 1961, when AFBMD was inactivated and replaced by the Ballistic Systems Division (BSD) and the Space Systems Division (SSD). In July 1967, the space and missile functions were reconsolidated in the interests of economy, and BSD and SSD were merged to form the Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO). Space and missile functions were separated a second time in October 1979, when SAMSO was divided into the Space Division and the Ballistic Missile Office. These two organizations were redesignated as Space Systems Division (SSD) and Ballistic Systems Division (BSD) in March 1989. By the early 1990s, missile programs were being cut back due to the end of the cold war, and a final series of redesignations and realignments brought the space and missile functions together for a third time. In May 1990, BSD was redesignated as the Ballistic Missile Organization (BMO) and realigned under SSD. In July 1992, SSD was redesignated as the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC)--the name it bears today. Finally, in September 1993, BMO was inactivated and absorbed by SMC, recreating the situation that had existed in the 1950s and again in the 1970s, when a single organization was responsible for both space and missile programs.

SMC and its predecessors have been supported over the years by private sector organizations that have provided systems engineering for its programs and technical direction to its contractors. The first such organization was the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation, chosen in 1954 to provide systems engineering and technical direction for WDD's missile programs. In 1958, Ramo-Wooldridge merged with Thompson Products to form Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge (TRW). However, Congress expressed reservations about the propriety of a profit-making entity serving an agency of the government so closely and exclusively and, in 1959, it recommended that a nonprofit agency be established as the systems engineering arm of the Air Force for space and missile programs. In June 1960, a nonprofit organization--The Aerospace Corporation--was created at the initiative of the Secretary of the Air Force to perform that function. At that time, plans called for TRW to continue providing systems engineering for existing missile programs and for Aerospace to provide systems engineering for all space programs and for future missile programs. As it turned out, Aerospace did do some work in the missile field but focused primarily on space, and TRW remained the primary source of systems engineering for missile programs.

Changes in the organizational structure of SMC have been paralleled by changes in the field units assigned to it. Beginning in the 1950s, SMC's predecessors acquired units that controlled DOD satellites in orbit, conducted satellite launches and R&D missile launches, and operated the ranges that supported those launches. The satellite control function was originally performed by the 6594th Test Group, created in 1959, and later by the Air Force Satellite Control Facility, which replaced the Test Group in 1965. During the 1960s, launches were performed by the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing, at Vandenberg AFB, and the 6555th Aerospace Test Wing, at Cape Canaveral AFS. In 1970, the 6555th became a Group and was realigned under the 6595th, and the 6595th was realigned under a new field unit, the Space and Missile Test Center (SAMTEC). SAMTEC was made responsible for overseeing launches at Vandenberg and the Cape and for operating the Western Test Range that supported launches out of Vandenberg. In 1977, it also acquired responsibility for running the Eastern Test Range that supported launches at the Cape. In 1979, SAMTEC was redesignated as the Space and Missile Test Organization (SAMTO) and was restructured with two major field units of its own--the Eastern Space and Missile Center (ESMC) and the Western Space and Missile Center (WSMC). ESMC and WSMC conducted launches and operated the ranges on the east and west coasts respectively.

Through these field units, SMC's predecessors were involved not only in development and acquisition of space systems but in space operations as well. However, this began to change in September 1982, when Air Force Space Command was activated to serve as the operational command for military space systems. In the years that followed, Space Command gradually took over the operational functions previously performed by the above-mentioned field units, and in the process, it absorbed most of the units themselves. The Air Force Satellite Control Facility was inactivated in October 1987, and most of its personnel and functions were taken over by Space Command. HQ SAMTO was inactivated in October 1989. A year later, the Eastern and Western Space and Missile Centers were reassigned to Space Command, and the transfer of launch operations to Space Command began.

While SMC's predecessors were losing field units involved in operations, they were gaining units involved in research. In October 1982, the Air Force Space Technology Center (AFSTC) was activated at Kirtland AFB and assigned to Space Division. At the same time, three pre-existing laboratories were assigned to the AFSTC--the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory, and the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (later redesignated as the Air Force Astronautics Laboratory). Creation of the AFSTC centralized Air Force space technology efforts and reoriented them to better serve the needs of the program offices at Space Division. In December 1990, the AFSTC was redesignated as the Phillips Laboratory, and the three laboratories formerly assigned to it were folded into it to form a single super laboratory. Finally, in January 1993, Kirtland AFB, where the Phillips Laboratory was located, was transferred to SMC, and the 377th Air Base Wing, the host wing at Kirtland, was assigned to SMC as well.

Because of changes in their field units, therefore, SMC and its predecessors have played a diminishing role in space operations and an increasing role in space-related research. However, acquisition of space and missile systems has been the core mission and a constant over the years. Following sections in this Historical Overview will look at those acquisition efforts as well as the workplace--Los Angeles AFB--in more detail.