This fall the United States Air Force marks fifty years of intercontinental ballistic missiles on nuclear alert. The first one attained alert status in October 1959 — an Atlas D at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The event began the service's commitment to the highest standards of performance in maintaining, securing and operating a series of the most powerful land-based missiles; namely, Atlas, Titan, Minuteman and Peacekeeper.
Atlas flight testing began at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in June 1957. Standing on the launch pad, it was 82 feet tall and weighed 267,000 pounds when fueled. After several spectacular failures, in November 1958 an Atlas logged its first successful test flight — 6,350 miles.
Depending on the model and payload, the operational Atlas had a range of 6,400 miles to 9,400 miles. It was armed with a one-megaton thermonuclear warhead and guided to a target by either a radio-inertial or all-inertial guidance system accurate to within 1.5 miles.
Atlas was powered by two booster engines and a smaller sustainer engine that worked together to form what was referred to as a "stage-and-a-half" propulsion system. Engineers would have preferred to design Atlas with a two- or three-stage propulsion system because with that arrangement, as each stage burned out and the engine and fuel tanks dropped away, the missile would have become progressively smaller, lighter and faster. The problem was that at the drawing board in 1954 no one knew if a rocket engine would start in the vacuum of space.
In addition to major engineering problems, the unforgiving arena showed other formidable obstacles, such as the Soviets' head start in missile development, interservice rivalries, financial constraints and administrative complications. Advancing from design to alert in just five years, Atlas set the stage for the contemporary U.S. nuclear arsenal, which revolutionized military strategy and foreign policy, and which remains poised to prevent apocalyptic destruction.
Minuteman continues to guard America thanks to a dedicated team of professionals, including "Hillfielders." Coincidentally, it was also in 1959 that this base began to support intercontinental ballistic missiles; namely Minuteman. Boeing assembled more than 1,000 of them here, while the original and ranking Air Force command, Ogden Air Logistics Center, deployed the force and continues to sustain it. For some of the last fifty years, "Hillfielders" also sustained the Titan and, later, Peacekeeper weapon systems.
For more information on Air Force ICBMs see "50th Golden Legacy, Enduring Deterrent" at http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-090731-063.pdf.