With tons of different fish to fry, General Dynamics decided to exit the increasingly competitive space business and in 1994 sold its Space Systems Division, once its most profitable business unit, to Martin Marietta. The following year Martin itself was acquired by Lockheed and, from that point forward, the venerable Atlas brand was owned and operated by Lockheed Martin. The last San Diego-built Atlas Centaur (AC-126) came off the production line in late September 1995, after which Lockheed moved manufacturing to Littleton, Colorado.
The Atlas V (as in Roman numeral five) was developed by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services under the guidance of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Atlas V first flew in 2002 and still launches from both Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB. In addition to the Russian first-stage booster engine, many changes make Atlas V a completely new bird compared to the classic Convair balloon-tank design. In fact, other than the Atlas name, they share little in common other than the Centaur upper stage used by both, although now in newer variants.
In a classic “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” scenario, the two leading commercial space-launch ventures teamed up in 2006. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems brought its tried-and-true Delta launch platforms to the party, joined by Lockheed Martin’s Atlas Centaur. Forming an equal partnership under the name of United Launch Alliance, ULA essentially has a lock on the space-launch business for NASA, DoD and other agencies, including commercial customers around the world. Interestingly, ULA has a website where potential customers can view a price list for space launches, based on a number of criteria. Launches vary from $110M to $160M based on the platform selected and the needs of the mission. Prices, of course, may vary and are subject to change without notice.
What’s Next for Atlas, if Anything? What might the future hold for the legendary Atlas brand? Lacking a definitive answer, it is now more a question of when rather than if it will be assigned to the round file of history. Next-generation rockets have been on the drawing boards for several years now. ULA is pursuing futuristic concepts that will merge current technologies into Vulcan and other new platforms. It is, or at least was, still very much up in the air. The de facto ULA monopoly on space launches has been successfully challenged by up-and-comer SpaceX, which may reshuffle the cards in unexpected ways.
Looking back some 65 years to the frightening early days of the Cold War with our formidable Soviet adversary, it is a good thing to remember how American science and technology, and just as importantly our national resolve, met the challenge and prevailed, producing in a relatively short period of time a superior defensive ICBM program that, when no longer needed, rose Phoenix-like from the ashes of obsolescence and opened the door to the stars.
Of the millions of people over the years who worked to make that happen, none were more critical to its success than the General Dynamics folks who transformed Atlas from the paper scribblings of a few visionary engineers to reality.
Author Mike Gerow is a volunteer in the Museum's Library & Archives