KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — On Nov. 6, an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile was launched from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., down the Western Test Range over the Pacific Ocean.
The launch was supported by members of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center, especially the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Systems Directorate, who provided technological and logistical assistance to the launch and maintenance crews for the test.
The operational test launch continued a 60-year legacy of ballistic missile testing from the launch facilities at Vandenberg.
Construction of Cooke AFB, soon to be renamed Vandenberg AFB, began in May 1957. Five months later, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik. The ability of the Soviets to launch an artificial object into space not only had a profound effect on the United States’ efforts in space, it also revealed a capability for the communist nation to produce an armed missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Sputnik, in part, prompted the United States to accelerate its fledgling missile program.
As a result, Strategic Air Command and Air Research and Development Command pushed forward with a program to produce and deploy a nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic missile.
On Dec. 16, 1958, the first ballistic missile test launch, designated Operation TUNE-UP, was carried out over the then Pacific Test Range by an Air Force crew assigned to the 392nd Missile Training Squadron. Their mission called for the firing of a Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile from the Thor complex 75-1 at Vandenberg.
The first operational Thor had arrived at the base in August 1958 and the launcher shelter and operational equipment were installed and checked out only three months before the planned launch.
Lieutenant Gen. David Wade, 1st Missile Division commander, insisted this first launch be a true operational test shot made from an operational launch position by a fully trained and qualified Air Force crew.
The Thor missile roared 1,500 miles over the test range from its newly finished launch pad at Vandenberg and met all required launch objectives. Nearly 200 members of the press watched the event that was described by the 392 MTS crew supervisor as a “…complete success in every way.”
The Thor was conceived as a product of the early Cold War race to field nuclear capable missiles before the Soviet Union. It was designed to be an interim nuclear deterrent while the Air Force developed long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile was deployed to England for only a short time from 1959 to 1963.
That first operational test launch of a ballistic missile from Vandenberg was certainly significant as the first of its kind over the Pacific Ocean and in honing the Air Force technological capabilities for future Air Force ballistic missile launches, but it also demonstrated the growing United States nuclear capability to the Soviets in the burgeoning Cold War.
Vandenberg AFB continues to serve as the center for intercontinental ballistic missile tests in a role crucial to maintaining the viability of a robust deterrent capability vital to the nation’s defense. The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center plays a key role in those operational test launches in pre-launch, launch, and post-launch phases.
The AFNWC Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Systems Directorate at Hill AFB, Utah, provides logistical and engineering support to Air Force Global Strike Command for current Minuteman III launches at Vandenberg. Those activities include pre-launch analysis for system readiness and identification of possible anomalies while reviewing the launch systems prior to launch. They assess system functions during the launch and complete an analysis after the launch to determine if the flight was within expected parameters for the final flight test report.