Parallel Military and Civilian Roles

Back in February 1957, four months before the first Atlas took flight, General Bernard Schriever, Air Force head of the Atlas program, addressed a Space Flight Symposium in San Diego, California, in which he predicted the use of (non-deterrence) space applications based on Atlas technology, which at that time was still early in its development: “…We see that the ICBM program, through the technology it is fostering, the facilities that have been established, the industrial teams being developed and the vehicles themselves, is providing the key to the further development of space flight. Many fascinating new horizons are sure to open within the next decade as a direct result.”

The original Convair-designed Atlas platform was extensively modified for the needs of specific launch missions. The basic series were given various alphanumeric re-designations during the course of its post-ICBM career. As the chart shows, 321 missions were flown between 1959 and 2004, with an overall success rate of 88 percent. The Atlas II series, derived from the Atlas G, was considered the most reliable, with all 63 launches successful between 1991 and 2004 using the Centaur upper stage.

Less than two years later, in December 1958, General Schriever’s prophetic words came true with the highly successful SCORE satellite launch, a much-needed PR triumph that considerably brightened America’s tarnished leadership in the early days of the space race. Concurrent with its developing military role, the Atlas space missions following Project SCORE were conducted under the management of the newly created, civilian-run National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which opened for business in October 1958.

Once retired as an ICBM, the Atlas SM-65 was employed as a first-stage booster for another 40 years, proving itself adaptable to upgrades that continuously improved its performance and utility. In 1988 the Air Force approached General Dynamics to develop the next-generation missile, Atlas II. Greater thrust engines, longer fuel tanks, lower-cost electronics and better flight computing allowed Atlas II and its Centaur upper-stage rocket to insert three-ton payloads into geosynchronous transfer orbit 22,000 miles above the earth.

The Atlas II series was the final variant to use the traditional 1-1/2 stage “balloon tank” design, and it has been called the most reliable booster, with 63 successes out of 63 launches from 1991-2004. As an expendable launch system (ELS) that could be used only once, Atlas remained extremely cost-effective and competitive for decades against newer, costlier reusable technologies that were often prohibitively expensive to operate for many launch mission requirements.

San Diego Air & Space Museum

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