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San Diego's Missile

This is definitely rocket science.

Atlas missile production at General Dynamics
Atlas missile production at General Dynamics

The road that led to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Cocoa Beach, hard by the Banana River, where alligators sunned on muddy shores and water moccasins slithered through nearby mangrove swamps, was straight and level. Blinding to the eyes, white as snow under Florida’s summer sun. The paving, someone told me, originated from excavations of seashell deposits from eons ago, when the region lay under an ancient sea. In the distance, a scattering of newly constructed missile service towers, painted red, jutted skyward from a flat landscape. In one of those towers stood the first of the Atlas test flight missiles, Atlas 4-A. I had this fleeting thought about how neat it was that a quirk of planning had paved the way to the stars with remnants of an ancient time.

We were the tiger team, a dozen engineers and scientists, sent to Cape Canaveral by our company, Convair, a division of General Dynamics, based in San Diego, to make certain that the first flight prototype of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was ready to fly. We were the experts, a bunch of kids in our twenties, trusted to do what was required to make the most advanced rocket on the planet work as designed.

The year was 1957.

I moved to San Diego in late 1955 with my family after a three-year stint with Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo. By then I knew something about rocket engines, and the rumors were that something big was going on at Convair. I was aware that Convair’s origin was in Buffalo as Consolidated Aircraft, and that Colonel Reuben E. Fleet had moved the company to San Diego in 1934. There the company developed and built the fabled PBY Flying Boat. As World War II approached, Consolidated developed the famous B-24 Liberator Bomber and rolled out over 6700 from its original plant and a second factory further north. Colonel Fleet sold his holdings to the Avco group in 1941. It merged Consolidated with Vultee in Downey, California, and named it Consolidated Vultee, later shortened to Convair. The next dozen years showed mixed successes, when in 1953 another visionary, John J. Hopkins, purchased Convair while creating another conglomerate, General Dynamics.

We arrived to discover a sleepy Navy town. Mud flats where Mission Bay now basks in the sun. An abandoned slaughterhouse on Morena Boulevard. Traces of a trolley line that once ran from San Diego to La Jolla. A symphony orchestra of little renown performing in the high school auditorium. Broadway lined with saloons and tattoo parlors. Hiring in, I soon became aware that Convair, with its Atlas missile, was on the leading edge of a very serious business, although initial impressions were discouraging.

The Atlas engineering department was packed into the upper floors of Building 3, across from the administration building called “The Rock.” There appeared to be no room for expansion, yet new hires were appearing every day. Convair was paying good salaries. Senior engineers could earn $10,000 a year. It doesn’t seem like much now, but it was sufficient for most of us to settle into new three-bedroom homes purchased for less than $20,000.

It was a remarkable collection of engineers and technicians, hailing from all parts of the nation, from automotive firms, other aerospace companies, a carpet factory in North Carolina. There was even a group we called the “The Foreign Legion,” skilled designers from England, who were kept in secluded quarters because they did not have the secret clearance needed to work on the program.

Atlas rocket and propulsion diagrams

Our top supervisors occupied tiny glass-enclosed offices along the walls. My boss, Larry Jirsa, who was responsible for rocket propulsion installations, had a desk on the main floor. The situation was eased in the months ahead by the furious addition of a broad mezzanine above the floor of Building 1, the seemingly endless factory that ran along the west side of Pacific Coast Highway, adjacent to Lindbergh field. It was a hot, dirty, and noisy environment in which to work.

Atlas was designed with six-inch and twelve-inch slide rules and mechanical calculators. Digital computers advanced rapidly during the 1950s but were still tedious to operate. They were used for the more complex problems. Programming was done by full-time operators in machine language, then converted into stacks of punched cards by keypunch operators. The digital computers then converted the holes in the cards into ones and zeros that the computer could understand. At the end of the 1950s a roomful of computers had less capability than a single desktop computer today.

I didn’t see that there was any means of manufacturing missiles in large numbers. The only signs of hardware were a pair of missile tanks and wooden vehicle mockups in a corner of the manufacturing building. The Convair factories were busy doing other things: manufacturing twin engine, 340/440 passenger planes, F102/106 fighter craft, and preparing to undertake manufacture of the attractive but ill-starred 880/990 jet carriers. Lunchtimes, we gathered at a spot overlooking Lindbergh Field, where often as many as three new F-106s thundered away, their afterburners shattering the peace of Point Loma residents at the end of the runway.

But manufacturing space was opened up, and over the next year and a half a flurry of design, development tests, and fabrication activity saw the completion of initial designs; building test models of Atlas, designated A, B, and C; erection of test-firing facilities at Sycamore Canyon and Edwards Rocket Base, where numerous test firings were performed; construction of missile launch facilities at Cape Canaveral; and production of all ground equipment for servicing and trans- porting Atlas missiles.

Then the Air Force notified Convair that in order to avoid conflict with other programs, they wanted the operational Atlas to be built at a separate plant. To comply, company officials made arrangements to purchase 243 acres of open land on Kearny Mesa from the city for $3500 an acre. The firm of Pereira and Luckman was selected to build a pair of engineering and administration buildings connected by a lobby that featured a spiral ramp leading to the upper floor; test and engineering laboratories designated as Building 4; Building 5, a huge fabrication and assembly structure; and Building 3, designated for electronics engineering, test and development laboratories, and assembly. By mid-1958 the facility was complete. The Atlas missile program moved out of its cramped San Diego quarters to do its work at the new site.

Who could have guessed, looking around that crowded engineering department in the closing months of 1955, that this was the beginning of an initiative that would by the end of the decade see the employment of more than 100,000 workers, including subcontractors, scattered among multiple missile sites around the nation, or that over time the operation would gain autonomy, separate from Convair, as the Astronautics Division of General Dynamics?


The genesis of the ballistic-missile industry, and subsequently space launch rockets for both the United States and the Soviet Union, arguably lies in the German development of the V-2 rocket during World War II. Neither nation had anything like it in the works. Paradoxically, the German effort had its genesis in the U.S. development work undertaken by Robert H. Goddard during the 1920s and 1930s, which received scant attention by the military establishment.

Immediately after German resistance collapsed, urgent efforts were undertaken by both the United States and the Soviets to acquire the remaining V-2 inventory, the factory equipment used in their manufacture, and the scientists and engineers who developed them. Substantial parts went in both directions. The German engineers and scientists who arrived in the United States were moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where they formed the core of the missile work undertaken there. That eventually came to be a major NASA activity, Marshall Space Flight Center.

The importance of these acquisitions was underscored by the knowledge that the Germans already had multistage missiles that could reach New York on the drawing boards. More significant, the ballistic missile was recognized as the most desirable way to deliver atomic bombs. Bombers could be shot down, but ballistic missiles, because of their high velocities, were invincible, and perceived to be capable of deadly accuracy.

This was of equal importance to both America and the Soviets. In 1949, intelligence sources determined that the Soviets had either detonated an atomic bomb or were ready to do so. It signaled the onset of what was to be called the Cold War. It came as a surprise to some, and much was made of the likelihood that spies had acquired Manhattan Project secrets. There was little doubt that the Russians knew of the American development. But they were also known to have equivalent engineers and scientists, and with the information already avail- able in the scientific com- munity, would have certainly developed the bomb, with or without stolen data. Work continued under the Atomic Energy Commission to refine the design and reduce the size of bombs exploded over Japan in World War II. In 1952, President Truman authorized the development of the hydrogen bomb. Concerns developed at the high- est levels of the military establishment and the Federal Government about bomb delivery systems.

During President Truman’s administration, ballistic missile studies were undertaken by several aeronautical companies which built on what was learned in the German V-2 program. At the Vultee Corporation in Downey, California (later to join with Consolidated Aircraft to become Convair), research and development was undertaken on the MX-774, an early prototype ballistic missile powered by a cluster of four, 8000-pound thrust engines. In the course of this work, Karel Bossart, a brilliant and affable Belgian émigré engineer, became convinced that rockets must be built to maximize performance, and firmed up his ideas about how to construct lightweight propellant tanks. Those thoughts were to be crucial to the final design of Atlas. The MX-774 program was sparsely funded, but three missiles were carried as far as flight tests, completed in 1948. All failed to complete their flights, but they served to validate concepts that were incorporated into the Atlas design.

Further efforts under Bossart, Bill Patterson, Lloyd Standley, and others were moved to San Diego, and for a few years studies proceeded on scarce funding. Things began to warm up in 1953, when the Air Force asked Convair to submit a plan for a crash program to develop the company’s proposed MX-65 design for a five-engine, 12- foot-diameter missile. That was when requirements were solidifying for an intercontinental missile that could carry a nuclear warhead. Most of the ICBM work was concentrated at Convair. Soon, however, with Air Force support, Martin-Marietta under- took work on their Titan 1, which used the same propellants as Atlas. It was abandoned due to development difficulties and the company went on to develop its Titan II model.

There were also requirements for intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Under Air Force direction, work proceeded at Douglas Aircraft on the Thor missile, while the Army had Chrysler and the German team at Huntsville working on the Jupiter and Redstone missiles. Early in 1954, the Von Neumann committee issued a report that a vehicle smaller than the MX-65 would do the job, in light of a reduction in the weight of nuclear warheads. Studies continued into early 1955, when a ten-foot-diameter, stage-and-a-half configuration was selected over several candidates. The name chosen for the missile was Atlas. By the end of 1955, Convair was under contract for missile development, and in 1956 the production program for the Atlas ICBM system was off and running.

Retired Lt. Col. James Dempsey was hired to run the project, led by an energetic team that included chief engineer Mort Rosenbaum, chief project engineer Char- lie Ames, Karel Bossart, Howard Dunholter, Hans Friedrich, and Wally Withee. The project was organized into separate groups according to specialties, such as propulsion, pneumatics, structural analysis, and ground support equipment, each directed by a line supervisor. In the working groups, I was impressed by the achievements of brilliant engineers like Dick Martin, Karl Kachigan, Jim Crooks, and Don Jenkins, and particularly the tooling and manufacturing engineers, who figured out how to produce huge propellant tanks from rolls of stainless-steel sheet half the thickness of a dime.

One of my favorite coworkers was a design engineer named Kenny King, a tall, gentle bear of a man, prematurely gray, who loved designing and clearly led a joyful life. When the occasion arose, Kenny was eager to travel to Cape Canaveral to solve a pressing problem. He wanted to get the full flavor of the program. His task completed, Kenny drove back to the Orlando airport. Spotting a large turtle by the roadside, he stopped, grabbed it, and stuffed it into a carry-on suitcase among his shirts and things, much to the future dismay of Mrs. King, who had little notion of how to clean turtle excrement from clothing, whereupon she threw everything out. On board the flight, the turtle, discomfited by its close quarters, humped up and broke the latches. Kenny spent the rest of the flight holding the suitcase closed with his feet, while the turtle struggled to make an exit. Kenny kept the turtle, even when years later he left Convair to design airplanes for Boeing.

The Air Force committee that studied and finally recommended that the Air Force proceed with the development of Atlas reads like a showcase of Nobel prize winners: Trevor Gardner, Dr. John von Neumann, General Bernard Schriever, Clark Millikan, Dr. George Kistiakowsky, Dr. Dean Wooldridge, Dr. Simon Ramo... On receiving their recommendations, the missile programs proceeded apace, also due to the concerns and physical drive of members of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in the Subcommittee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. Among its members were Senators Johnson, Stennis, Symington, Saltonstall, Prescott Bush, Jackson, and Goldwater, one of whom was destined to be a future president.

The Air Force Western Development Division under General Bernard Schriever recognized the enormity of the task before it, and being ill-staffed for the job, hired in a systems-advisory firm organized by Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge to help oversee the program. There was some contentiousness between Ramo-Wooldridge and Convair, now General Dynamics, over how much control they would have over the program. In addition, their systems engineers were vocally skeptical of the Atlas concept. Like the Germans in Huntsville, they favored rigid propellant tanks. That led to the parallel ICBM work at Martin-Marietta. In the end, General Dynamics prevailed and controlled vehicle production, test, and base activation to its conclusion. Ramo and Wooldridge eventually spun off what was to become the Aerospace Corporation, a permanent West Coast advisory to the Air Force, and went off to other ventures.


Our tiger team bunked in nearby Cocoa Beach, sparsely populated and bathed in constant white noise from ocean breakers and an ever-present offshore breeze that whistled through palm fronds. The settlement consisted of a rundown Starlight Motel, the rooms musty and damp from the adjacent Atlantic, a pair of restaurants with stone barbecue pits in the back yard, and a rustic pub where we gathered nightly for the few pleasures the little settlement offered. Mostly drinking. Poker at a pair of corner tables. Who- ever had the talent banged on an upright piano that had its sound board exposed, revealing felt strikers painted in a rainbow of colors. Occasionally, the more rambunctious among us took up limbo, to the accompaniment of cheers by spectating beer drinkers.

We worked hard, drank hard, and were cruel with our jokes — like the ridicule heaped on our guidance and navigation expert, already an alcoholic at 25, who stumbled into the swimming pool on returning to his room after an evening of drinking, and who would have certainly drowned had we not pulled him out. He was brilliant. Being away from home somehow got to him.

On the first day, we got into our Hertz rentals and drove to the guard gate for our authorizations to enter the military base. The civilian workers at the desk had no apparent notion of organization, but eventually worked their way through our security clearances, got us photographed, and then awarded our badges, as though some honor had been conferred upon us.

Duncan Collins, our tiger team leader and Atlas structures group supervisor, led us into the control center, where we were introduced to the base manager, B.G. McNabb, assistant manager Jerry Jeremiah, and John Harrison, the test conductor for missile launch pad 13. B.G. McNabb was tough, burly, and short in stature. He was a no-nonsense manager — the right man to keep the Atlas program running at Cape Canaveral.

The missile service tower stood about 200 yards from the domed, concrete block-house, an open steel structure mounted on tracks, powered by a diesel engine that served to move it away from the missile in the last minutes before launch. At its base, the tower was surrounded by an assortment of power supplies, gas and propellant storage tanks, as well as equipment storage buildings for servicing the missile.

After reviewing our agenda with McNabb, Jeremiah, and Harrison, we donned hard hats and left for the launch pad for a preliminary walkdown of Atlas 4-A, the first flight vehicle, and the attendant launch facility. I had primary responsibility for the propulsion system, but took the opportunity to ride the elevator to the top of the tower, where it seemed that you could view most of Florida. Atlas was a captive animal, enclosed in the service tower, with work platforms encircling it every ten feet. Sounds of metal clanging on metal. High-pressure gases venting. A strong sea breeze whistling through the girders. Canvas wind shields flap- ping. Sea gulls and cormorants circling the launch site.

The real work was yet to begin. Days of testing, countdown reviews, repairs, and replacement of items discovered to be damaged, nonfunctional, out of specification, or without a paper trail. Soon enough we reached the point where we believed Atlas was ready for flight.

That was when high-level folks began to arrive at Cape Canaveral: our contractor, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles, Ramo-Wooldridge, their technical advisers, congressmen and four-star generals. This was no small event. A lot was riding on it. On the other hand, if we were unsuccessful, there wasn’t much choice but to fix things and try again. Money was no object. We never worried about money. Schedule was the driver. Under General Schriever’s concept of “concurrence,” many things were done in parallel. If a failure occurred, and its cause was not fixed by the next flight, the flight went ahead as scheduled.

With the work platforms retracted and the tower rolled away, Atlas stood anchored to a platform that was designed to gently release it as the engines fired up. The missile appeared poised for takeoff, silhouetted against a blue sky. A silver bullet, to be loaded with liquid oxygen and kerosene. Atlas was 10 feet in diameter and stood about 80 feet tall. At its tip, a fake warhead.


There had been much skepticism about the Atlas propellant tank concept, the brainchild of Karel (Charlie) Bossart. Realizing that minimizing weights is of paramount importance in the design of rockets, Bossart had the idea that propellant tanks could be built of thin, high-strength stainless steel. They would get their rigidity by employing internal pressure, instead of constructing tanks with thick walls.

Charlie Bossart came rightfully to be known as “The Father of the Atlas.” He was a man everyone would like for an uncle. Friendly, courteous, a knack for drawing out the best in a person. He often appeared on the design floor to sit down and chat with the working engineers, looking to understand how a particular device worked, what its weaknesses were, or how it might fail.

Then again, it may have, on occasion, been simply to shore up his own confidence that the designs were in good hands.

Test tanks bore out his theories, and Bossart’s ideas were adopted for the Atlas propellant tank design. Needless to say, there was much skepticism about the approach within the industry. Particularly derisive were the German rocket engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, who, being born to the Mercedes mentality, approached missile construction like bridge building.

In a comical incident, General Dynamics had a visitor from the Huntsville structural engineering department. Karel Bossart invited him to examine an Atlas missile tank that lay horizontal, under pressure, in its cradle outside the manufacturing building. Bossart handed him a sledgehammer and said,“Goahead,hitit.”The engineer bounced the hammer against the tank, which responded like rubber.

“Harder,” Bossart said.

Again, the visitor swung at the tank, with the same results.

“Hit it hard,” Bossart said with a grin.

The engineer reared back and swung at the tank with all his might. The tank remained undamaged. In bouncing back, the hammer left the engineer’s hands, tore off his glasses and narrowly missed his head.

“Ja whol!” he muttered, to accompanying laughter. There are other versions of this story, but all are similar. The incident didn’t help relationships with the Huntsville Germans. In the ensuing years, Marshall Space Flight Center dragged its heels in the development of the Centaur upper stage, designed along the same structural principles as Atlas. Frustrated, NASA headquarters transferred the project to its Cleveland center, Lewis Laboratory, where Abe Sil- verman provided the strong leadership needed for the

program.

With time, I came to realize that there were two cultures within NASA. There was the I-beam culture at the manned space centers that developed the Redstone, Jupiter, and Saturn series, rugged and wasteful of performance. Then there was the spacecraft-oriented culture at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories and Lewis Labs, whose missions demanded maximum performance for their remarkable explorations of the moon and the inner and outer planets. For them, Atlas, and the subsequently developed Centaur hydro-gen-fueled upper stage, were the ideal space launch vehicles. In contrast, the manned space centers, Johnson and Marshall, followed up the Saturn rockets with the prodigiously wasteful space shuttle. The space shuttle, in its 117 flights, orbited in excess of 35 million pounds — and returned most of it to Earth! Only a tiny percentage remains in orbit, including parts of the International Space Station.


On launch day the blockhouse control room was crowded with visitors. About a mile south of the launch pad we stood with a larger crowd that had gathered to watch the show. Loaded with propellants, the upper half of the rocket turned pure white as a coating of frost formed on the liquid oxygen tank. Wisps of gas were visible from the open vent valve at the top. The range safety officer, ready to destroy the missile if it went errant, was put on alert. John Harrison stepped confidently through the countdown as though he had done it a hundred times. He read from a sequential printout to verify from his engineers that their systems were ready.

“Guidance!” “Go!” “Telemetry!” “Go!” “Propulsion!” “Go!” “Hydraulics!” “Go!” “Pneumatics!”

“Go!”

“Range Safety!”

“Go!”

Harrison raised the protective cover from the start switch, counted down from ten to one, and flipped the toggle.

“Engine start,” he said calmly.

An automatic sequence aboard the missile churned through the next 30 seconds to pressurize the engine starting system, ending finally with an engine start signal that would first fire pyrotechnic igniters inside each thruster and then open the propellant valves. A puff of smoke appeared at the base of the rocket. Then nothing. The

missile stood dumb on the launcher, inert, its tanks still pressurized. We did not know whether Atlas was safe or had plans to blow up at any second.

At that time McNabb, locked into some odd, panicked plane of thought, possibly brought on by pressure from his bosses to get the Atlas launched, motioned to Jeremiah to come with him, then slipped unnoticed through the blockhouse door.

Minutes later, Harrison, who was preparing to take the Atlas through a backout procedure, was informed by the range safety officer that an automobile had drawn up to the launch pad and two men were peering under the missile. In the meantime, McNabb had repaired to a telephone at the launch site and reported to the block house,“We have a good bird here.”

Harrison, adequately armed with four-letter words, wasted no time in directing the two to depart the site immediately.

McNabb and Jeremiah walked sheepishly into the blockhouse, ready for the shellacking they knew they were going to receive from all quarters. That marked the beginning of a new order around the launch pads, when safety in operations was moved to the front burner.

We found the trouble, a malfunction in the sensing equipment below the engines that allowed the rocket engines to start following the firing of the igniters. The next day we attempted the launch again.

Atlas rose majestically, flame and smoke spouting below. It is hard to describe the feeling, watching a rocket come alive for the first time. Shock diamonds stood out in the engine exhausts. A flock of egrets took to the air from a marsh that lay between us and the launch site. Where we stood, a mile from Pad 13, we watched the missile rise slowly and silently off the launch pad. Then the sound hit us. The deep rumble of rocket engines gets you in the gut. The sharp crackle in the ears. Atlas was beautiful, shedding its frosty coat, ascending into a cloud- less sky.

Then smoke appeared where smoke shouldn’t have been. Fire spouted where fire shouldn’t have been, and the missile began to cartwheel end over end. The range safety officer flipped a switch that activated a “destruct” package aboard Atlas, result- ing in a huge explosion, bal- looning orange flames and black smoke. A thousand missile parts rained down into the Atlantic Ocean.

We learned in this test that the rear face of the engine compartment was poorly designed, allowing fuel-rich exhaust gas from the rocket engine gas generators to enter the engine compartment. The gas was subsequently ignited by a combination of radiant heat from the rocket engine exhausts and hot tur- bine parts inside the compartment.

That was the early missile experience. Try to fly, fix when a failure occurs, and try again. We made rapid progress, but not without chalking up several flight failures.

The first flight though, provided a remarkable demonstration of Charlie Bossart’s inspiration for the proper way to build a rocket propellant tank. No one imagined that it would be capable of going through the cartwheel contortions experienced in the first flight. Bossart’s tank design remains the most efficient structure for containment of rocket propellants ever devised.

* Sometimes a simple state- ment can have enormous consequences. Late one after- noon, I was seated at my desk on the fifth floor of Building 3 in Kearny Mesa when Cary Coughlin, the head of Operations Analysis stopped by. He described how a decision had been made to place ICBMs in underground silos, as the above-ground sites, containing Atlas D and E Models, were considered too vulnerable.

“Martin-Marietta,” he said, “is proposing to put their Titan I into twin silos, one of which will contain the propellants and other support equipment for their missile.” He paused, looking from me to Bob Anderson, who stood nearby. “You guys have any ideas?”

“Sure,” I said. “Stuff everything in one hole. That’s the way they build submarines.”

“Yeah,” Anderson inserted. “Two holes don’t make sense.”

Cary went away, his light bulb lit. In the weeks that followed, a proposal was made to the Air Force for an Atlas silo configuration, which was accepted.


I watched many missile launches, but nothing stands in my mind as starkly as an early dawn experience at Vandenberg Air Force base near Lompoc, California. It was on a Sunday. Our team stood on a hummock facing the Pacific, gazing expectantly across empty, rolling fields of dried grasses. There was not a sound, not even birds singing. The air was still. Then, in the distance, about a mile away, an Atlas ICBM rose slowly out of the ground, like a time-lapse video of the growth of a giant, weird fungus. It was coated with frost, lit blazing white by the sun which had just peeked over the horizon. Terrifying. Hypnotizing. A staggering view of what the shooting end of a nuclear war would look like. Fully emerged, the missile paused for a minute on its launch platform, then lifted quietly away on a pillar of fire. Five seconds later, the crackle and thunder of the rocket engines swept over us. We watched in silence as the missile rapidly escaped into a cloudless sky, arced over the Pacific toward its target 5000 miles away, and disappeared.

I am not a prayerful person, but I wondered then, and imagined that my companions wondered with me, how it had happened that humans, so capable of settling their differences amicably, had come to doing things like this.

The Atlas ICBM program culminated in a total of 72 “F” series missiles emplaced in underground silos, scattered around California, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, and New York. In addition, 30 above-ground sites with the earlier model “D” and “E” Atlas were in several states, including Washington and Wyoming.

It was the Cuban Missile Crisis that removed any doubt that the Atlas weapon system was ever needed. In fact, that period in October 1962 was arguably the closest the United States has ever come to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had installed missiles in Cuba that could reach any city on the East Coast of the United States. During the standoff, which ended in the missiles being withdrawn from Cuba, every available Atlas site was placed on alert, even though some had not yet completed their validation tests. Contract personnel were conscripted to perform duties where the sites had not yet been staffed by the Strategic Air Command. It was a somber time for General Dynamics people who were close to the emerging crisis. The Atlas weapon system was soon obsolete. Before it was even operational, General Schriever had Titan II and Minuteman under development, which better suited the Defense Department’s needs, and had strong sup- port from the Senate Armed Services Committee. By early 1965, all Atlas missiles had been removed from the launch sites. At the same time, Atlas was beginning to be applied to launching satellites into space.

Sputnik rang the alarm bell. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched an instrumented satellite, the first to orbit Earth. This caused great consternation in the military, congress, and the general public. The Russians had beaten us to space.

Until then, President Eisenhower had only a passive interest in space and small concern about Russian capabilities as revealed by the U-2 surveillance overflights. He had authorized development of the Vanguard rocket only for scientific research purposes. The embarrassment of the U-2 experience had tempered his interest in spy satellites.

Vanguard was capable of orbiting a payload weighing only nine kilograms. It failed eight out of nine flight attempts. Meantime, medium-range ballistic missiles were already available that could have been modified to carry much heftier payloads.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets accomplished the first manned orbital flight with Yuri Gagarin tucked inside a tiny capsule. That feat put urgency into the American space program. On February 2, 1962, astronaut John Glenn orbited Earth in a Mercury capsule which had been propelled into space by an Atlas rocket. Three more Mercury flights followed. The space race was on.

Atlas rocket raised into firing position, Convair, 1959

Atlas went on to become America’s premier space launch rocket. Together with its advanced upper stage, Centaur, hundreds of spacecraft were launched into Earth orbit and out into the solar system in exploration of the planets and space itself.

General Dynamics sold its Astronautics Division to Lockheed Martin in 1993. There, Atlas performed an unbroken string of 66 missions in the years up to 2003. At that time Lockheed Mar- tin introduced a more powerful version of the space launch rocket and named it Atlas V.

So Atlas lives on, replaced by a more conventional design which Lockheed Mar- tin had previously used in its Titan II ICBM. But Charlie Bossart’s remarkably efficient and elegant missile structure continues in the Centaur upper stage, and it is still being made in the old Convair Building 19, alongside Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego.

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Atlas missile production at General Dynamics
Atlas missile production at General Dynamics

The road that led to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Cocoa Beach, hard by the Banana River, where alligators sunned on muddy shores and water moccasins slithered through nearby mangrove swamps, was straight and level. Blinding to the eyes, white as snow under Florida’s summer sun. The paving, someone told me, originated from excavations of seashell deposits from eons ago, when the region lay under an ancient sea. In the distance, a scattering of newly constructed missile service towers, painted red, jutted skyward from a flat landscape. In one of those towers stood the first of the Atlas test flight missiles, Atlas 4-A. I had this fleeting thought about how neat it was that a quirk of planning had paved the way to the stars with remnants of an ancient time.

We were the tiger team, a dozen engineers and scientists, sent to Cape Canaveral by our company, Convair, a division of General Dynamics, based in San Diego, to make certain that the first flight prototype of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was ready to fly. We were the experts, a bunch of kids in our twenties, trusted to do what was required to make the most advanced rocket on the planet work as designed.

The year was 1957.

I moved to San Diego in late 1955 with my family after a three-year stint with Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo. By then I knew something about rocket engines, and the rumors were that something big was going on at Convair. I was aware that Convair’s origin was in Buffalo as Consolidated Aircraft, and that Colonel Reuben E. Fleet had moved the company to San Diego in 1934. There the company developed and built the fabled PBY Flying Boat. As World War II approached, Consolidated developed the famous B-24 Liberator Bomber and rolled out over 6700 from its original plant and a second factory further north. Colonel Fleet sold his holdings to the Avco group in 1941. It merged Consolidated with Vultee in Downey, California, and named it Consolidated Vultee, later shortened to Convair. The next dozen years showed mixed successes, when in 1953 another visionary, John J. Hopkins, purchased Convair while creating another conglomerate, General Dynamics.

We arrived to discover a sleepy Navy town. Mud flats where Mission Bay now basks in the sun. An abandoned slaughterhouse on Morena Boulevard. Traces of a trolley line that once ran from San Diego to La Jolla. A symphony orchestra of little renown performing in the high school auditorium. Broadway lined with saloons and tattoo parlors. Hiring in, I soon became aware that Convair, with its Atlas missile, was on the leading edge of a very serious business, although initial impressions were discouraging.

The Atlas engineering department was packed into the upper floors of Building 3, across from the administration building called “The Rock.” There appeared to be no room for expansion, yet new hires were appearing every day. Convair was paying good salaries. Senior engineers could earn $10,000 a year. It doesn’t seem like much now, but it was sufficient for most of us to settle into new three-bedroom homes purchased for less than $20,000.

It was a remarkable collection of engineers and technicians, hailing from all parts of the nation, from automotive firms, other aerospace companies, a carpet factory in North Carolina. There was even a group we called the “The Foreign Legion,” skilled designers from England, who were kept in secluded quarters because they did not have the secret clearance needed to work on the program.

Atlas rocket and propulsion diagrams

Our top supervisors occupied tiny glass-enclosed offices along the walls. My boss, Larry Jirsa, who was responsible for rocket propulsion installations, had a desk on the main floor. The situation was eased in the months ahead by the furious addition of a broad mezzanine above the floor of Building 1, the seemingly endless factory that ran along the west side of Pacific Coast Highway, adjacent to Lindbergh field. It was a hot, dirty, and noisy environment in which to work.

Atlas was designed with six-inch and twelve-inch slide rules and mechanical calculators. Digital computers advanced rapidly during the 1950s but were still tedious to operate. They were used for the more complex problems. Programming was done by full-time operators in machine language, then converted into stacks of punched cards by keypunch operators. The digital computers then converted the holes in the cards into ones and zeros that the computer could understand. At the end of the 1950s a roomful of computers had less capability than a single desktop computer today.

I didn’t see that there was any means of manufacturing missiles in large numbers. The only signs of hardware were a pair of missile tanks and wooden vehicle mockups in a corner of the manufacturing building. The Convair factories were busy doing other things: manufacturing twin engine, 340/440 passenger planes, F102/106 fighter craft, and preparing to undertake manufacture of the attractive but ill-starred 880/990 jet carriers. Lunchtimes, we gathered at a spot overlooking Lindbergh Field, where often as many as three new F-106s thundered away, their afterburners shattering the peace of Point Loma residents at the end of the runway.

But manufacturing space was opened up, and over the next year and a half a flurry of design, development tests, and fabrication activity saw the completion of initial designs; building test models of Atlas, designated A, B, and C; erection of test-firing facilities at Sycamore Canyon and Edwards Rocket Base, where numerous test firings were performed; construction of missile launch facilities at Cape Canaveral; and production of all ground equipment for servicing and trans- porting Atlas missiles.

Then the Air Force notified Convair that in order to avoid conflict with other programs, they wanted the operational Atlas to be built at a separate plant. To comply, company officials made arrangements to purchase 243 acres of open land on Kearny Mesa from the city for $3500 an acre. The firm of Pereira and Luckman was selected to build a pair of engineering and administration buildings connected by a lobby that featured a spiral ramp leading to the upper floor; test and engineering laboratories designated as Building 4; Building 5, a huge fabrication and assembly structure; and Building 3, designated for electronics engineering, test and development laboratories, and assembly. By mid-1958 the facility was complete. The Atlas missile program moved out of its cramped San Diego quarters to do its work at the new site.

Who could have guessed, looking around that crowded engineering department in the closing months of 1955, that this was the beginning of an initiative that would by the end of the decade see the employment of more than 100,000 workers, including subcontractors, scattered among multiple missile sites around the nation, or that over time the operation would gain autonomy, separate from Convair, as the Astronautics Division of General Dynamics?


The genesis of the ballistic-missile industry, and subsequently space launch rockets for both the United States and the Soviet Union, arguably lies in the German development of the V-2 rocket during World War II. Neither nation had anything like it in the works. Paradoxically, the German effort had its genesis in the U.S. development work undertaken by Robert H. Goddard during the 1920s and 1930s, which received scant attention by the military establishment.

Immediately after German resistance collapsed, urgent efforts were undertaken by both the United States and the Soviets to acquire the remaining V-2 inventory, the factory equipment used in their manufacture, and the scientists and engineers who developed them. Substantial parts went in both directions. The German engineers and scientists who arrived in the United States were moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where they formed the core of the missile work undertaken there. That eventually came to be a major NASA activity, Marshall Space Flight Center.

The importance of these acquisitions was underscored by the knowledge that the Germans already had multistage missiles that could reach New York on the drawing boards. More significant, the ballistic missile was recognized as the most desirable way to deliver atomic bombs. Bombers could be shot down, but ballistic missiles, because of their high velocities, were invincible, and perceived to be capable of deadly accuracy.

This was of equal importance to both America and the Soviets. In 1949, intelligence sources determined that the Soviets had either detonated an atomic bomb or were ready to do so. It signaled the onset of what was to be called the Cold War. It came as a surprise to some, and much was made of the likelihood that spies had acquired Manhattan Project secrets. There was little doubt that the Russians knew of the American development. But they were also known to have equivalent engineers and scientists, and with the information already avail- able in the scientific com- munity, would have certainly developed the bomb, with or without stolen data. Work continued under the Atomic Energy Commission to refine the design and reduce the size of bombs exploded over Japan in World War II. In 1952, President Truman authorized the development of the hydrogen bomb. Concerns developed at the high- est levels of the military establishment and the Federal Government about bomb delivery systems.

During President Truman’s administration, ballistic missile studies were undertaken by several aeronautical companies which built on what was learned in the German V-2 program. At the Vultee Corporation in Downey, California (later to join with Consolidated Aircraft to become Convair), research and development was undertaken on the MX-774, an early prototype ballistic missile powered by a cluster of four, 8000-pound thrust engines. In the course of this work, Karel Bossart, a brilliant and affable Belgian émigré engineer, became convinced that rockets must be built to maximize performance, and firmed up his ideas about how to construct lightweight propellant tanks. Those thoughts were to be crucial to the final design of Atlas. The MX-774 program was sparsely funded, but three missiles were carried as far as flight tests, completed in 1948. All failed to complete their flights, but they served to validate concepts that were incorporated into the Atlas design.

Further efforts under Bossart, Bill Patterson, Lloyd Standley, and others were moved to San Diego, and for a few years studies proceeded on scarce funding. Things began to warm up in 1953, when the Air Force asked Convair to submit a plan for a crash program to develop the company’s proposed MX-65 design for a five-engine, 12- foot-diameter missile. That was when requirements were solidifying for an intercontinental missile that could carry a nuclear warhead. Most of the ICBM work was concentrated at Convair. Soon, however, with Air Force support, Martin-Marietta under- took work on their Titan 1, which used the same propellants as Atlas. It was abandoned due to development difficulties and the company went on to develop its Titan II model.

There were also requirements for intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Under Air Force direction, work proceeded at Douglas Aircraft on the Thor missile, while the Army had Chrysler and the German team at Huntsville working on the Jupiter and Redstone missiles. Early in 1954, the Von Neumann committee issued a report that a vehicle smaller than the MX-65 would do the job, in light of a reduction in the weight of nuclear warheads. Studies continued into early 1955, when a ten-foot-diameter, stage-and-a-half configuration was selected over several candidates. The name chosen for the missile was Atlas. By the end of 1955, Convair was under contract for missile development, and in 1956 the production program for the Atlas ICBM system was off and running.

Retired Lt. Col. James Dempsey was hired to run the project, led by an energetic team that included chief engineer Mort Rosenbaum, chief project engineer Char- lie Ames, Karel Bossart, Howard Dunholter, Hans Friedrich, and Wally Withee. The project was organized into separate groups according to specialties, such as propulsion, pneumatics, structural analysis, and ground support equipment, each directed by a line supervisor. In the working groups, I was impressed by the achievements of brilliant engineers like Dick Martin, Karl Kachigan, Jim Crooks, and Don Jenkins, and particularly the tooling and manufacturing engineers, who figured out how to produce huge propellant tanks from rolls of stainless-steel sheet half the thickness of a dime.

One of my favorite coworkers was a design engineer named Kenny King, a tall, gentle bear of a man, prematurely gray, who loved designing and clearly led a joyful life. When the occasion arose, Kenny was eager to travel to Cape Canaveral to solve a pressing problem. He wanted to get the full flavor of the program. His task completed, Kenny drove back to the Orlando airport. Spotting a large turtle by the roadside, he stopped, grabbed it, and stuffed it into a carry-on suitcase among his shirts and things, much to the future dismay of Mrs. King, who had little notion of how to clean turtle excrement from clothing, whereupon she threw everything out. On board the flight, the turtle, discomfited by its close quarters, humped up and broke the latches. Kenny spent the rest of the flight holding the suitcase closed with his feet, while the turtle struggled to make an exit. Kenny kept the turtle, even when years later he left Convair to design airplanes for Boeing.

The Air Force committee that studied and finally recommended that the Air Force proceed with the development of Atlas reads like a showcase of Nobel prize winners: Trevor Gardner, Dr. John von Neumann, General Bernard Schriever, Clark Millikan, Dr. George Kistiakowsky, Dr. Dean Wooldridge, Dr. Simon Ramo... On receiving their recommendations, the missile programs proceeded apace, also due to the concerns and physical drive of members of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in the Subcommittee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. Among its members were Senators Johnson, Stennis, Symington, Saltonstall, Prescott Bush, Jackson, and Goldwater, one of whom was destined to be a future president.

The Air Force Western Development Division under General Bernard Schriever recognized the enormity of the task before it, and being ill-staffed for the job, hired in a systems-advisory firm organized by Simon Ramo and Dean Wooldridge to help oversee the program. There was some contentiousness between Ramo-Wooldridge and Convair, now General Dynamics, over how much control they would have over the program. In addition, their systems engineers were vocally skeptical of the Atlas concept. Like the Germans in Huntsville, they favored rigid propellant tanks. That led to the parallel ICBM work at Martin-Marietta. In the end, General Dynamics prevailed and controlled vehicle production, test, and base activation to its conclusion. Ramo and Wooldridge eventually spun off what was to become the Aerospace Corporation, a permanent West Coast advisory to the Air Force, and went off to other ventures.


Our tiger team bunked in nearby Cocoa Beach, sparsely populated and bathed in constant white noise from ocean breakers and an ever-present offshore breeze that whistled through palm fronds. The settlement consisted of a rundown Starlight Motel, the rooms musty and damp from the adjacent Atlantic, a pair of restaurants with stone barbecue pits in the back yard, and a rustic pub where we gathered nightly for the few pleasures the little settlement offered. Mostly drinking. Poker at a pair of corner tables. Who- ever had the talent banged on an upright piano that had its sound board exposed, revealing felt strikers painted in a rainbow of colors. Occasionally, the more rambunctious among us took up limbo, to the accompaniment of cheers by spectating beer drinkers.

We worked hard, drank hard, and were cruel with our jokes — like the ridicule heaped on our guidance and navigation expert, already an alcoholic at 25, who stumbled into the swimming pool on returning to his room after an evening of drinking, and who would have certainly drowned had we not pulled him out. He was brilliant. Being away from home somehow got to him.

On the first day, we got into our Hertz rentals and drove to the guard gate for our authorizations to enter the military base. The civilian workers at the desk had no apparent notion of organization, but eventually worked their way through our security clearances, got us photographed, and then awarded our badges, as though some honor had been conferred upon us.

Duncan Collins, our tiger team leader and Atlas structures group supervisor, led us into the control center, where we were introduced to the base manager, B.G. McNabb, assistant manager Jerry Jeremiah, and John Harrison, the test conductor for missile launch pad 13. B.G. McNabb was tough, burly, and short in stature. He was a no-nonsense manager — the right man to keep the Atlas program running at Cape Canaveral.

The missile service tower stood about 200 yards from the domed, concrete block-house, an open steel structure mounted on tracks, powered by a diesel engine that served to move it away from the missile in the last minutes before launch. At its base, the tower was surrounded by an assortment of power supplies, gas and propellant storage tanks, as well as equipment storage buildings for servicing the missile.

After reviewing our agenda with McNabb, Jeremiah, and Harrison, we donned hard hats and left for the launch pad for a preliminary walkdown of Atlas 4-A, the first flight vehicle, and the attendant launch facility. I had primary responsibility for the propulsion system, but took the opportunity to ride the elevator to the top of the tower, where it seemed that you could view most of Florida. Atlas was a captive animal, enclosed in the service tower, with work platforms encircling it every ten feet. Sounds of metal clanging on metal. High-pressure gases venting. A strong sea breeze whistling through the girders. Canvas wind shields flap- ping. Sea gulls and cormorants circling the launch site.

The real work was yet to begin. Days of testing, countdown reviews, repairs, and replacement of items discovered to be damaged, nonfunctional, out of specification, or without a paper trail. Soon enough we reached the point where we believed Atlas was ready for flight.

That was when high-level folks began to arrive at Cape Canaveral: our contractor, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in Los Angeles, Ramo-Wooldridge, their technical advisers, congressmen and four-star generals. This was no small event. A lot was riding on it. On the other hand, if we were unsuccessful, there wasn’t much choice but to fix things and try again. Money was no object. We never worried about money. Schedule was the driver. Under General Schriever’s concept of “concurrence,” many things were done in parallel. If a failure occurred, and its cause was not fixed by the next flight, the flight went ahead as scheduled.

With the work platforms retracted and the tower rolled away, Atlas stood anchored to a platform that was designed to gently release it as the engines fired up. The missile appeared poised for takeoff, silhouetted against a blue sky. A silver bullet, to be loaded with liquid oxygen and kerosene. Atlas was 10 feet in diameter and stood about 80 feet tall. At its tip, a fake warhead.


There had been much skepticism about the Atlas propellant tank concept, the brainchild of Karel (Charlie) Bossart. Realizing that minimizing weights is of paramount importance in the design of rockets, Bossart had the idea that propellant tanks could be built of thin, high-strength stainless steel. They would get their rigidity by employing internal pressure, instead of constructing tanks with thick walls.

Charlie Bossart came rightfully to be known as “The Father of the Atlas.” He was a man everyone would like for an uncle. Friendly, courteous, a knack for drawing out the best in a person. He often appeared on the design floor to sit down and chat with the working engineers, looking to understand how a particular device worked, what its weaknesses were, or how it might fail.

Then again, it may have, on occasion, been simply to shore up his own confidence that the designs were in good hands.

Test tanks bore out his theories, and Bossart’s ideas were adopted for the Atlas propellant tank design. Needless to say, there was much skepticism about the approach within the industry. Particularly derisive were the German rocket engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, who, being born to the Mercedes mentality, approached missile construction like bridge building.

In a comical incident, General Dynamics had a visitor from the Huntsville structural engineering department. Karel Bossart invited him to examine an Atlas missile tank that lay horizontal, under pressure, in its cradle outside the manufacturing building. Bossart handed him a sledgehammer and said,“Goahead,hitit.”The engineer bounced the hammer against the tank, which responded like rubber.

“Harder,” Bossart said.

Again, the visitor swung at the tank, with the same results.

“Hit it hard,” Bossart said with a grin.

The engineer reared back and swung at the tank with all his might. The tank remained undamaged. In bouncing back, the hammer left the engineer’s hands, tore off his glasses and narrowly missed his head.

“Ja whol!” he muttered, to accompanying laughter. There are other versions of this story, but all are similar. The incident didn’t help relationships with the Huntsville Germans. In the ensuing years, Marshall Space Flight Center dragged its heels in the development of the Centaur upper stage, designed along the same structural principles as Atlas. Frustrated, NASA headquarters transferred the project to its Cleveland center, Lewis Laboratory, where Abe Sil- verman provided the strong leadership needed for the

program.

With time, I came to realize that there were two cultures within NASA. There was the I-beam culture at the manned space centers that developed the Redstone, Jupiter, and Saturn series, rugged and wasteful of performance. Then there was the spacecraft-oriented culture at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories and Lewis Labs, whose missions demanded maximum performance for their remarkable explorations of the moon and the inner and outer planets. For them, Atlas, and the subsequently developed Centaur hydro-gen-fueled upper stage, were the ideal space launch vehicles. In contrast, the manned space centers, Johnson and Marshall, followed up the Saturn rockets with the prodigiously wasteful space shuttle. The space shuttle, in its 117 flights, orbited in excess of 35 million pounds — and returned most of it to Earth! Only a tiny percentage remains in orbit, including parts of the International Space Station.


On launch day the blockhouse control room was crowded with visitors. About a mile south of the launch pad we stood with a larger crowd that had gathered to watch the show. Loaded with propellants, the upper half of the rocket turned pure white as a coating of frost formed on the liquid oxygen tank. Wisps of gas were visible from the open vent valve at the top. The range safety officer, ready to destroy the missile if it went errant, was put on alert. John Harrison stepped confidently through the countdown as though he had done it a hundred times. He read from a sequential printout to verify from his engineers that their systems were ready.

“Guidance!” “Go!” “Telemetry!” “Go!” “Propulsion!” “Go!” “Hydraulics!” “Go!” “Pneumatics!”

“Go!”

“Range Safety!”

“Go!”

Harrison raised the protective cover from the start switch, counted down from ten to one, and flipped the toggle.

“Engine start,” he said calmly.

An automatic sequence aboard the missile churned through the next 30 seconds to pressurize the engine starting system, ending finally with an engine start signal that would first fire pyrotechnic igniters inside each thruster and then open the propellant valves. A puff of smoke appeared at the base of the rocket. Then nothing. The

missile stood dumb on the launcher, inert, its tanks still pressurized. We did not know whether Atlas was safe or had plans to blow up at any second.

At that time McNabb, locked into some odd, panicked plane of thought, possibly brought on by pressure from his bosses to get the Atlas launched, motioned to Jeremiah to come with him, then slipped unnoticed through the blockhouse door.

Minutes later, Harrison, who was preparing to take the Atlas through a backout procedure, was informed by the range safety officer that an automobile had drawn up to the launch pad and two men were peering under the missile. In the meantime, McNabb had repaired to a telephone at the launch site and reported to the block house,“We have a good bird here.”

Harrison, adequately armed with four-letter words, wasted no time in directing the two to depart the site immediately.

McNabb and Jeremiah walked sheepishly into the blockhouse, ready for the shellacking they knew they were going to receive from all quarters. That marked the beginning of a new order around the launch pads, when safety in operations was moved to the front burner.

We found the trouble, a malfunction in the sensing equipment below the engines that allowed the rocket engines to start following the firing of the igniters. The next day we attempted the launch again.

Atlas rose majestically, flame and smoke spouting below. It is hard to describe the feeling, watching a rocket come alive for the first time. Shock diamonds stood out in the engine exhausts. A flock of egrets took to the air from a marsh that lay between us and the launch site. Where we stood, a mile from Pad 13, we watched the missile rise slowly and silently off the launch pad. Then the sound hit us. The deep rumble of rocket engines gets you in the gut. The sharp crackle in the ears. Atlas was beautiful, shedding its frosty coat, ascending into a cloud- less sky.

Then smoke appeared where smoke shouldn’t have been. Fire spouted where fire shouldn’t have been, and the missile began to cartwheel end over end. The range safety officer flipped a switch that activated a “destruct” package aboard Atlas, result- ing in a huge explosion, bal- looning orange flames and black smoke. A thousand missile parts rained down into the Atlantic Ocean.

We learned in this test that the rear face of the engine compartment was poorly designed, allowing fuel-rich exhaust gas from the rocket engine gas generators to enter the engine compartment. The gas was subsequently ignited by a combination of radiant heat from the rocket engine exhausts and hot tur- bine parts inside the compartment.

That was the early missile experience. Try to fly, fix when a failure occurs, and try again. We made rapid progress, but not without chalking up several flight failures.

The first flight though, provided a remarkable demonstration of Charlie Bossart’s inspiration for the proper way to build a rocket propellant tank. No one imagined that it would be capable of going through the cartwheel contortions experienced in the first flight. Bossart’s tank design remains the most efficient structure for containment of rocket propellants ever devised.

* Sometimes a simple state- ment can have enormous consequences. Late one after- noon, I was seated at my desk on the fifth floor of Building 3 in Kearny Mesa when Cary Coughlin, the head of Operations Analysis stopped by. He described how a decision had been made to place ICBMs in underground silos, as the above-ground sites, containing Atlas D and E Models, were considered too vulnerable.

“Martin-Marietta,” he said, “is proposing to put their Titan I into twin silos, one of which will contain the propellants and other support equipment for their missile.” He paused, looking from me to Bob Anderson, who stood nearby. “You guys have any ideas?”

“Sure,” I said. “Stuff everything in one hole. That’s the way they build submarines.”

“Yeah,” Anderson inserted. “Two holes don’t make sense.”

Cary went away, his light bulb lit. In the weeks that followed, a proposal was made to the Air Force for an Atlas silo configuration, which was accepted.


I watched many missile launches, but nothing stands in my mind as starkly as an early dawn experience at Vandenberg Air Force base near Lompoc, California. It was on a Sunday. Our team stood on a hummock facing the Pacific, gazing expectantly across empty, rolling fields of dried grasses. There was not a sound, not even birds singing. The air was still. Then, in the distance, about a mile away, an Atlas ICBM rose slowly out of the ground, like a time-lapse video of the growth of a giant, weird fungus. It was coated with frost, lit blazing white by the sun which had just peeked over the horizon. Terrifying. Hypnotizing. A staggering view of what the shooting end of a nuclear war would look like. Fully emerged, the missile paused for a minute on its launch platform, then lifted quietly away on a pillar of fire. Five seconds later, the crackle and thunder of the rocket engines swept over us. We watched in silence as the missile rapidly escaped into a cloudless sky, arced over the Pacific toward its target 5000 miles away, and disappeared.

I am not a prayerful person, but I wondered then, and imagined that my companions wondered with me, how it had happened that humans, so capable of settling their differences amicably, had come to doing things like this.

The Atlas ICBM program culminated in a total of 72 “F” series missiles emplaced in underground silos, scattered around California, New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, and New York. In addition, 30 above-ground sites with the earlier model “D” and “E” Atlas were in several states, including Washington and Wyoming.

It was the Cuban Missile Crisis that removed any doubt that the Atlas weapon system was ever needed. In fact, that period in October 1962 was arguably the closest the United States has ever come to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had installed missiles in Cuba that could reach any city on the East Coast of the United States. During the standoff, which ended in the missiles being withdrawn from Cuba, every available Atlas site was placed on alert, even though some had not yet completed their validation tests. Contract personnel were conscripted to perform duties where the sites had not yet been staffed by the Strategic Air Command. It was a somber time for General Dynamics people who were close to the emerging crisis. The Atlas weapon system was soon obsolete. Before it was even operational, General Schriever had Titan II and Minuteman under development, which better suited the Defense Department’s needs, and had strong sup- port from the Senate Armed Services Committee. By early 1965, all Atlas missiles had been removed from the launch sites. At the same time, Atlas was beginning to be applied to launching satellites into space.

Sputnik rang the alarm bell. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched an instrumented satellite, the first to orbit Earth. This caused great consternation in the military, congress, and the general public. The Russians had beaten us to space.

Until then, President Eisenhower had only a passive interest in space and small concern about Russian capabilities as revealed by the U-2 surveillance overflights. He had authorized development of the Vanguard rocket only for scientific research purposes. The embarrassment of the U-2 experience had tempered his interest in spy satellites.

Vanguard was capable of orbiting a payload weighing only nine kilograms. It failed eight out of nine flight attempts. Meantime, medium-range ballistic missiles were already available that could have been modified to carry much heftier payloads.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviets accomplished the first manned orbital flight with Yuri Gagarin tucked inside a tiny capsule. That feat put urgency into the American space program. On February 2, 1962, astronaut John Glenn orbited Earth in a Mercury capsule which had been propelled into space by an Atlas rocket. Three more Mercury flights followed. The space race was on.

Atlas rocket raised into firing position, Convair, 1959

Atlas went on to become America’s premier space launch rocket. Together with its advanced upper stage, Centaur, hundreds of spacecraft were launched into Earth orbit and out into the solar system in exploration of the planets and space itself.

General Dynamics sold its Astronautics Division to Lockheed Martin in 1993. There, Atlas performed an unbroken string of 66 missions in the years up to 2003. At that time Lockheed Mar- tin introduced a more powerful version of the space launch rocket and named it Atlas V.

So Atlas lives on, replaced by a more conventional design which Lockheed Mar- tin had previously used in its Titan II ICBM. But Charlie Bossart’s remarkably efficient and elegant missile structure continues in the Centaur upper stage, and it is still being made in the old Convair Building 19, alongside Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego.

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