Deployment of the German V-2, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, introduced a potential “game changer” in the waning days of the Second World War. Although its early guidance sys-tem was incapable of pinpoint target accuracy, it was, as the saying goes, “close enough for government work.” As an offensive weapon, the V-2’s re-entry speed rendered it impossible to intercept in flight and virtually undetectable before impact. All told, up to 3,600 V-2 missiles crashed down on Britain and Western Europe, killing and injuring tens of thousands. Fortunately, the V-2 “terror weapon,” along with its baby brother the V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” appeared too late in the war to alter the outcome. However, the V-2’s ground-breaking technology literally capital-G “Globalized” the face of warfare and set the stage for later generations of highly sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and launch vehicles for space exploration.
One of the V-2’s many lineal descendants was America’s pioneering Atlas missile family. Produced by the Convair Astronautics Division of General Dynamics, the rapid development and deployment of Atlas in both of these crucial roles – nuclear deterrence and space exploration – remain after more than 50 years one of the pinnacle achievements of American science and technology.
The remarkable story of Atlas began shortly after V-J Day when, in October 1945, the USAAF let a contract for a paper study of long range, surface-to-air missiles of various types and ranges under the general category of “Missile, Experimental.” Designated Project MX-774, three design approaches were identified: Design A, nicknamed “Teetotaler” because it did not use alcohol, was based on the German V-1 “Buzz Bomb” cruise missile concept and ushered in two separately funded studies: Projects MX-771 and -775, that led, respectively, to the Martin MGM-1 Matador and Northrop SM-62 Snark.
Grandaddy of the Atlas missile family, the MX-774B Hiroc lifts off at White Sands, New Mex-ico, 1948. The MX-774B was nicknamed “Old Fashioned” because it closely resembled the WW2 German V-2. (File: SDASM 08_01674)
Designs B and C were rockets. MX-774B, named Hiroc for High-altitude rocket by the Air Force, was whimsically nicknamed “Old Fashioned” by Convair because its design was inspired by the German V-2. Design MX-774C, “Manhattan,” may have evoked yet another popular cocktail of the day, but its double entendre nickname more specifically referred to the wartime project that produced the missile’s intended nuclear payload. The most ambitious design of all, Project MX-774C would, after various fits and starts, morph into Project MX-1593, which in turn would lead to the development of Atlas, America and the free world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile.
The MX-774 contract was awarded to Consolidated Vultee’s Downey, California Field Division on 22 April 1946. The following April, Convair was awarded an extended contract to produce ten Hiroc test vehicles, the first of which would be due only two months later in June 1947. However on July first, the very day that the decision was made to move Vultee operations to Convair/San Diego, defense cutbacks, exacerbated by influential “manned bomber” advocates in high places, caused the Hiroc program to be abruptly cancelled. Because the first rocket was nearly ready, the USAAF allowed the remaining MX-774 funds to be supplemented by private Convair capital to complete and fly three Hiroc test rockets.
The MX-774B Hiroc was designed as a proof-of-concept vehicle to develop the stabilization, guidance and power plant systems that the MX-774C “Manhattan” would use to deliver its four-ton nuclear payload 5,000 nautical miles to a CEP (circular error probability) strike zone of only 2,500 feet in diameter. Designated RTV-A-2 by the Air Force, the first Hiroc test rocket was static-fired at Convair’s Pt. Loma test site on 17 November 1947. The three promised test rockets were launched at New Mexico’s
White Sands Proving Ground in July, September and December of 1948. The tests were considered only parti-ally successful, however the third and final MX-774B test rocket (right) achieved an altitude (apogee) of 30 miles and proved the viability of several innovations of far-reaching significance and import to future Atlas designs, including: