Atlas Takes Flight and Evens the SCORE

At the front end of the program, operational development of the XB-65 (for experimental bomber), as Atlas was originally designated, had seen the construction of captive test and launch facilities in Southern California, Edwards AFB, and at the Air Force Missile Test Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Redesignated SM-65 (for strategic missile), Atlas 1A was accepted by the Air Force on 29 August 1956 and delivered to Sycamore Canyon near San Diego where, during static tests on 21 December 1956, it caught fire and severely damaged the test stand.

 The first flight missile, Atlas 4A, was erected at Complex 14 of the Atlantic Missile Range (Cape Canaveral) and launched on 11 June 1957. Shortly after leaving the pad, 4A lurched out of control and was detonated in flight by the range safety officer (RSO) at T+50 seconds. However, despite such disappointing results, it was noted that, up until its destruction, the missile’s innovative pressurized structure – only half the thickness of a dime – had re mained intact. On 25 September 1957 the second launch, Atlas 6A, experienced the same failure and was detonated at T+74 seconds.

When good rockets go bad. First Atlas flight on 11 June 1957 ends in disaster as Missile 4A begins to roll. Over-heating and high vibration led to propulsion-system failure of the first two Atlases flown. Objects below missile are separating fragments of the target pad cover. The basic structure remained intact. A-Series missiles were also known as the X-11. (Piction ID: 53813959; Image 14_031330)

The old proverb, “third time’s the charm,” rang spectacularly true 54 years to the day after the Wright Brothers’ epic first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina – when, on 17 December 1957, Atlas 12A  achieved the program’s first completely successful flight. It was a soothing salve for the country’s wounded pride and loss of face following two earlier Atlas failures, the Vanguard launch bust and Russia’s galling Sputnik I and II successes – achievements that clearly eclipsed anything America had to brag about. The resulting national embarrassment gave rise to intense American resolve, and the Cold War “space race” of the 1950s and 60s was off and running. It was a race that the U.S. would ultimately win – due in no small measure to the pioneering technology and integrated systems approach developed and brought to fruition in the Atlas program.

Lift off of Atlas 12A, the program’s first completely successful flight, on 17 December 1957. The plume to the right of the two boosters is from the gas turbine pipe. (Piction ID: 44582911; Catalog: Atlas Collection 14_012406) 

With a few wins finally under its belt, the Atlas program launched into high gear with the dawning of 1958. The last of eight A-series flights, a success, occurred on 3 June but left a disappointing record of only three complete successes. In almost too many ways to list, Atlas was “bleeding-edge” technology and each new series “block” was substantially more complex and sophisticated than its predecessor.  For example, B-series missiles (also known as the X-12) added a “sustainer” engine to augment the two main boosters. In flight, the dual-booster section would be jettisoned 135 seconds after launch (missile velocity about 4,570 mph), leaving the sustainer engine (shutdown at 300 seconds, 10,900 mph) and Verniers (shutdown at 312 seconds, 16,000 mph) to accurately guide the payload to its intended destination. This unique “stage and a half” design, introduced in the B-series, remained a hallmark of all subsequent (Convair-designed) Atlas variants. Other system improvements and refinements would also have to be wrung out and, in the process, new failures would unfortunately occur as the “bugs” were worked out of the developing technology.

Against a dramatic sky, Atlas10A, the second success-ful flight, lifts off from Cape Canaveral Complex 12A on 10 January 1958. Clearly seen are the missile’s dual Vernier thrust chambers for fine-tuning flight characteristics after shut down of the two booster engines. In early series birds, all rockets were fired at launch because air-start technology had not been developed yet. 

So it was on 19 July 1958 that Atlas 3B, the first B-series flight, failed, but after several successes and failures that summer and fall, the first full-range, fully instrumented flight took place on 28 November 1958. When Atlas 12B splashed down some 6,343 statute miles from Cape Canaveral, it was heralded as proof of the operational viability of the Atlas ICBM concept. The last SM-65B, also successful, flew on 4 February 1959, closing out the B-series with a greatly improved “box score” of six and four.

The most notable test period event occurred toward the end of the B-series program. With Russia’s high-profile successes of the late 1950s, it was painfully obvious that the space race was not going well for the United States. In a bold stroke during the developing role of Atlas as ICBM, it was decided to use a booster, Atlas 10B, to launch a massive communications satellite, the world’s first, into low earth orbit. Called Project SCORE for Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment, it was a very gutsy move at a time when courageous action was desperately needed. Understandably loath to risk further damage to U.S. prestige from another missile failure, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself no stranger to bold command decisions, was convinced that SCORE could succeed and gave it the green light. At 8,660 lbs, the SCORE satellite was for many years the heaviest man-made object inserted into space and the first one visible to the naked eye from earth. For some 34 days SCORE broadcast Eisenhower’s holiday goodwill message from space, and it was obvious to all, especially the Soviet Union, that the U.S. was not only still in the game but had taken the lead.

Yay, we did it!” Blockhouse 11, Cape Canaveral, 18 December 1958: exuberant GD/Astronautics personnel cheer the successful flight of Atlas 10B carrying SCORE, the world’s first communications satellite. Weighing over four tons, it was for many years the heaviest payload inserted into earth orbit and the first man-made object in space visible to the naked eye. With SCORE’s big win, the U.S. achieved parity with the Soviets in the hotly contested space race of the 1950s. (Piction: ID: 54053710 – Catalog: 14_032752.tif)

Meanwhile, the final Atlas prototype version, the SM-65C, had already successfully flown in December 1958, overlapping the final flights of the B-series. With major rocket engine improvements, lighter-weight materials and other enhancements, the C-series was the most promising yet. However, a 130-ton bird with over 40,000 parts was bound to experience a “technical hiccup” now and then, and the SM-65C had its own successes and failures – three of each – by the end of its flight test program in late August 1959.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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