Back in 1953, however, it was a darker story. The Cold War had taken a decidedly hotter turn with the shocking and unexpected news of Russia’s successful hydrogen-bomb test only nine months after America’s pioneering H-blast. To make matters worse, U.S. intelligence reported in 1952 that the Soviets had developed a 265,000 pound/thrust rocket that doubled the output of America’s most powerful engine. The sobering reality of Soviet thermonuclear capability, the emergence of smaller, lighter warheads, cutting edge rocket engines and other advances, had led Dr. John von Neumann’s “Teapot Committee” of top U.S. scientists and technologists to urge that America accelerate its own ICBM deterrent with all possible haste. In 1955 the top secret Project MX-1593, now named Project Atlas, was elevated by President Eisenhower to the highest of all national-defense priorities.
Based on the “Teapot Committee’s” recommendations, the Western Development Division was created under the command of General Schriever, whose bold reorganization of the Air Force’s R&D program structure was very controversial at the time. With the Air Force as “prime contractor,” Ramo-Woolridge Corporation was named overall “integrator” to provide systems engineering and technical direction for all military and civilian elements of the WS107A-1 Atlas weapon system program, including the outside suppliers of the warhead, guidance, propulsion and other systems and subsystems that would be bundled by the airframe manufacturer, General Dynamics/Convair, into the final product.
With the tentative approval of the Atlas design in 1955, fabrication of the first test missile quickly followed. For GD/C, it was a time of rapid expansion of facilities and personnel to implement the ICBM’s “crash” development program. In 1955-56, GD/C formed Convair Astronautics, a separate operating division dedicated to building Atlas. $20M was appropriated by corporate management to buy land and construct a new facility on Kearny Mesa, about 10 miles north of downtown San Diego. Matching funds were earmarked by the Air Force for equipment, and in May 1958, the Convair Astronautics Division opened for business in its new digs.
When “Aerospace was King” in San Diego: looking east at the Convair Astronautics plant where the Atlas, Centaur and early Tomahawk cruise missiles were built. In the wake of new priorities, GD’s Space Systems Division was sold to Martin Marietta in 1994. The Kearny Mesa facility was closed in 1995, the year that Martin merged with Lockheed. The facilities shown here were razed and the land sold for commercial redevelopment. Today, little remains of one of America’s most important defense plants. (Catalog: 10_0006250)
As the program evolved, the facility’s original 12-building, 252-acre site expanded to 34 buildings with more than two million square feet of floor space. By the spring of 1962, the original 9,618-employee roster had ballooned to more than 25,000 and would continue to expand as the program’s military and civilian space ventures moved forward, ultimately employing some 100,000 people in various functions and locations around the country.