66.

A VICTORY DESPITE THE BUGS

There was a hiatus of a year after that first symbolic deployment of Atlas D missiles at Vandenberg in September 1959, during which the test-launching continued at Cape Canaveral on the more advanced E and F Series models. They were equipped with an inertial guidance system, again designed by Charles Stark Draper of MIT, that was self-contained and immune to interference. The long pause was not voluntary. The same haste in deployment that had caused such havoc with Thor was now wreaking its pain on the Atlas program. The SAC launch crews in training at Vandenberg were having a difficult time learning how to handle the Atlas’s complex LOX and RP-1 fueling system. One rocket blew up during fueling exercises there. No one was hurt, apparently because, in contrast to the R-16 incident in the Soviet Union, safety precautions were followed, but there was extensive damage to the pad and other launch facilities. Major Benjamin Bellis, the formidable young engineer who had worked a cure for Thor, was brought back to do the same for Atlas. “Mr. Configuration Control,” as the wags on Schriever’s staff referred to him, formed another committee, the Atlas Configuration Control Board, and once more, naturally, designated himself its chairman. He discovered maddening confusion between missile parts being turned out by Convair’s assembly line and those altered on site by the engineers to get the weapons to fly. There was no procedure to note down the changes in order to replicate them in missiles still being manufactured or completed and awaiting launch. When an Atlas functioned properly, “we didn’t have a record of how we made it successful,” Bellis recalled. “So we were having random success, the worst thing that can happen to you because you know you got it right but you can’t repeat it. It drives you wild.”

To halt the chaos and stop the Convair and Ramo-Wooldridge engineers from tinkering, he had seals put on the doors of the missile compartments and on the electronic cabinets of the launch equipment. In a repeat of the decree he had issued for Thor, no one was allowed to make a single change until it had been cleared by the board and incorporated into the manufacturing system and the instruction manuals. Yet these complicated first-generation ICBMs had so many bugs in them that attempting to eliminate their flaws in a hurry was a truly challenging task. On September 2, 1960, at the end of the one-year pause, a second deployment, a squadron of six Atlas D models, was declared operational at Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Then there was another six-month pause while another round of fixes took place. At the beginning of March 1961 the deployments resumed with the installation of a second squadron, this time of nine D model Atlases, at Warren, and then at the end of the month a third squadron of nine at Offutt Air Force Base, SAC headquarters, in Nebraska. Troubles, however, were not at an end. That June a $20 million retrofit program was started to try to bring average reliability to between 50 and 75 percent. Schriever conceded to staff members of the Senate’s Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee the same month that several more years of testing would be required before the missiles achieved an 80 percent reliability rate. Nonetheless, after a third halt of nearly six months, the deployments resumed in the fall of 1961 when three nine-missile squadrons of the more advanced E models went operational at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington State, Forbes in Kansas, and again at Warren.

Once more, there was a halt for the better part of a year while everything possible was done to ready six twelve-missile squadrons of the last and most sophisticated of the Atlas series, the F models, the first to be emplaced in the protective underground silos that would house ICBMs of the future. With Schriever’s organization, assisted by the Army Corps of Engineers, supervising construction of the silos and turning silos and missiles over to SAC to operate, the six deployments unfolded one after another through the fall of 1962—Schilling Air Force Base in Kansas, Lincoln in Nebraska, Altus in Oklahoma, Dyess in Texas, Walker in New Mexico, and Plattsburgh in northernmost New York State. Except for Plattsburgh, the sites were all in the middle and western half of the continent, chosen for a trajectory that would take the missiles over the northern Pacific, Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic. By December 20, 1962, when the twelve F model missiles became operational at Plattsburgh, the force was complete. A total of 132 Atlas ICBMs had been arrayed against the Soviet Union.

While all of this was happening, Titan, which had begun its existence as a fallback to Atlas, had gone on to become a second ICBM. It went through the same roller-coaster testing pattern at Cape Canaveral in 1959 and 1960, successful flights ultimately eclipsing failures. Although still a first-generation liquid-fueled rocket like Atlas, Titan was taller, at ninety feet, and a more sophisticated ICBM with two stages. A pair of 150,000-pound-thrust booster engines, produced by Aerojet General, powered the rocket through the first stage of flight until, as their flames died and they fell away, an 80,000-pound sustainer engine ignited in the air and propelled the rocket to near-warhead-release speed, when four vernier engines took over for the final burst.

The two-stage technique enabled Titan to lift a much heavier warhead and it was soon designated Titan I, as a second version, Titan II, was on the drawing boards. Titan II would unleash a warhead containing a hydrogen bomb of a terrifying nine megatons. On April 18, 1962, deployment began for six squadrons of nine Titan I missiles each at Air Force bases in California, Colorado, Idaho, South Dakota, and Washington State. The Titans were housed, as the Atlas Fs were, in underground concrete silos. By September 28, 1962, when the last of the six squadrons was declared operational, the Soviet Union was looking at another fifty-four American ICBMs.

How many of these Titan and Atlas missiles would fly if doomsday arrived and the command to launch was given, no one really knew. But Nikita Khrushchev and the other leaders of the Soviet Union could not afford to bet on percentages of reliability. All they could do was to count missiles. It was nearly nine years since, in March 1953, the vision of an ICBM had lit Bennie Schriever’s mind while he listened to John von Neumann and Edward Teller brief the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board meeting at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The goal of fielding the first generation of intercontinental rockets had just been achieved. As Schriever was to say years later to a reunion of those who had participated in the race against the Soviets: “We beat them to the draw.” And the consummation of the victory, the fielding of the ultimate in ICBMs to emerge from the insight of Schriever and the creative genius of Edward Hall, had begun. The new missile was called Minuteman.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!