A Trio of Atlas “Launch Pioneers”

In the wake of the premature end of Project MX-774, Convair, primarily at the urging of Program Manager Charlie Bossart and a few others, continued to privately fund minimal ballistic missile R&D as an investment in the future – a decision that would pay huge dividends in the following decade.

Karel Jan “Charlie” Bossart with 1/10 scale Atlas models at the Kearny Mesa plant, 2 July 1960. He named his rocket for the famed titan of Greek mythology and for Convair’s parent, the Atlas Corporation. Bossart was appointed Atlas chief engineer in 1955 and GD’s technical director of aeronautics in 1957. (Piction ID: 55957698 - Catalog: 14_038649)

If any single individual deserved the lion’s share of credit for launching Atlas from paper concept to reality, that man was Convair’s quiet genius, the much respected (and beloved) Karel Jan Bossart (1904-1975). Charlie, who had joined Vultee in 1941, was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and graduated in 1925 with a degree in mining engineering. A master’s degree scholarship to M.I.T. followed, with a caveat to learn English – which he did in only six weeks. Bossart’s new technical focus, aeronautics with an emphasis on structures, was put to good use in a succession of U.S. aviation jobs. One of the more inspired, relative to the future Atlas program, was probably Charlie’s stint as chief research engineer in the aviation division of the E. G. Budd Mfg. Co. of Philadelphia. Budd also manufactured railroad cars out of stainless steel – a material whose versatility and strength intrigued Bossart, who years later would brilliantly employ it in the innovative structural design of the Atlas missile.

Convair’s forward-looking investment in the future of ICBM technology was vindicated in the early 1950s with increased defense spending for the Korean War. The Air Force invited Convair, among many others, to study the merits of ballistic and glide rockets. In response, Convair submitted a ballistic missile proposal that drew heavily on the pioneering results of the earlier, Bossart-led MX-774 project. The Air Force liked what it saw and green-lighted Convair to move ahead with its proposed ICBM concept, under Project MX-1593, again with Bossart as technical lead. 

In July 1953, ex-Lt. Col. J. R. Dempsey, a decorated AAF Photo Recon squadron commander in WW2, was hired to assist Convair’s VP of long-range planning, a controversial ex-P-38 fighter ace named Tom Lanphier, Jr. As chief engineer, Charlie Bossart is justly regarded as the “father of the Atlas,” but James Raymon Dempsey (1921-2014) was, according to Atlas historian Chuck Walker, “its prime mover –motivator, decision maker, problem solver, catalyst and peacemaker…with the endurance of a Missouri mule and the patience of Job in keeping everything on track.” A brilliant program hire, Alabama-born Jim Dempsey, West Point Class of ‘43, had earned B.S and M.S engineering degrees while still in the military. Once at Convair he quickly rose to Atlas Program Manager and went on to become president of the Convair division of General Dynamics in the mid-1960s.

The brilliant and capable James Raymon Dempsey on 9/19/57 (Piction ID: 54661715 - Catalog: 14_034864). As General Manager, his technical acumen, energy and focus were instrumen-tal to the overall success of the Atlas program from development as an ICBM through its rebirth as a cost-effective, dependable space booster. He served as president of GD/Astronautics (1961-65) and president of GD/Convair (1965-66). Two weeks after the picture below was taken, the successful orbit of Russia’s Sputnik I launched the intensely competitive “space race” of the 1950s and 1960s. 

According to General B. A. Schriever, first Air Force project chief, “Though young in years, Jim’s superlative management got the job done ahead of schedule, and when we placed the first operational Atlas on its launch pad in 1959, we were definitely ahead of the Soviets in the ICBM race. I personally worked closely with Jim during those years and can’t say enough of his tireless work and outstanding leadership.”

In 1954, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board had recommended that the Department of De-fense develop an ICBM to be operational no later than 1960. The man chosen to head that program for the Air Force was the supremely capable “Benny” Schriever.

General Bernard Adolph Schriever (1910-2005) was a German-born, career U.S. Air Force officer who personified the dedicated talent that characterized the Atlas program from conception to deployment. Raised in Texas, Schriever (pronounced shreever) graduated from A&M in 1931 and two years later received his wings and 2nd Lt’s commission at Kelly Field. He earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Stanford in 1942 and, following deployment to the Pacific, flew B-17 combat missions with the 19th Bomb Group (H) in seven campaigns. Col. Schriever finished the war in high-profile technical staff positions under Curtis LeMay, and in July 1954, as a brigadier general, was assigned full authority, responsibility and accountability for Project Atlas as commander of the Air Force Research & Development Command’s Western Development Division (renamed Ballistic Missile Division in June 1957).  

  General Bernard “Benny” Schriever, an aeronautical engineer by training, was an outstanding administrator, supervisor and manager. Also known as “Bernie,” Schriever is remembered as the architect of America’s ballistic missile and military space programs. In 1998 he was uniquely honored as the only living individual for whom a U.S. Air Force base was named. (Wallace Collection 005).

During this period, Schriever’s office was dual-tasked with overseeing the development of new and future generation ballistic missiles – both intercontinental and intermediate range (IRBM) – and military communications satellites. Known as a man who “could stimulate action and get things done,” General Schriever, as chief of Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), was instrumental in restructuring and streamlining the USAF’s approach to R&D and production of the country’s high-tech weaponry of the 1950s and 1960s. With his hand picked military and industrial teams he shepherded the development and deployment of the Atlas, Thor, Titan and Minuteman ballistic missile systems, which directly led to the United States’ leadership in space.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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