Hitching a Ride on a Missile

Before the Saturn V rocket carried men to the moon, a number of smaller rockets carried men on suborbital and orbital flights around the Earth. These rockets weren’t purpose-built for this task, though. In fact, the first rockets that carried people into outer space were repurposed ballistic missiles, originally designed to carry weapons.

While it might seem like an arduous task to make a ballistic missile safe enough to carry a human, the path from a weapons delivery system to passenger vehicle was remarkably quick. Although there was enough safety engineering and redundancy to disqualify the space program as a hack, it certainly was a clever repurposing of the available technology. Read on for the full story.

The first ballistic missiles were used by Germany in World War II in the early- and mid-1940s. The United States was able to capture a large amount of these missiles at the end of the war, and additionally over 100 of the missiles’ creators (including the famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun) surrendered to the Americans and began working on similar weapons systems for the United States.

It wasn’t long after the end of World War II that the American military became involved in the Korean War. As part of the war effort, the German and American scientists were tasked with building a ballistic missile with a 500 mile range. This missile would become the Redstone missile which was first flown in August 1953, one month after the end of the military conflict in Korea.

Although the hostilities in Korea had ended, the US military was keen to continue using the Redstone rocket. It was deployed in West Germany from 1958 to 1964 as part of NATO defenses, and was also the first missile to carry a live nuclear warhead. Its utility was the reason that NASA chose the rocket as the platform for the first manned missions, and a modified Redstone/Jupiter rocket would ultimately put the first American into space only 16 years after the end of World War II.

People as Payload

The modifications made to the rocket itself were modest. Most notably, the rocket body was lengthened to allow for a larger fuel capacity, even though it would only utilize a single stage. And, obviously, the weapons payload was replaced with a capsule that could carry one person. The more intricate, demanding changes came as safety improvements for this occupant. For starters, the missile needed to be fueled with a less toxic fuel and then needed an automatic abort system that could react faster than its human operators if a catastrophic failure was imminent.

The abort system went through rigorous testing, and even then caused one of the test flights to shut down after traveling only four inches off of the launch pad. The problem turned out to be electrical, and after a new rocket was delivered (the four-inch fall damaged the rocket itself) the capsule flew a successful test a few days later.

The practice of retrofitting ballistic missiles to carry humans continued through the Mercury program that initially used these Redstone rockets. In order to achieve orbital flight, however, a more powerful rocket than the Redstone was needed. NASA’s only option at the time was to begin preparing an Atlas missile, known to be unreliable, for human flight. In fact, the Mercury astronauts were flown in to watch a test launch, and the rocket exploded minutes into its flight.

With an unreliable rocket, NASA spent a lot of engineering effort on getting the capsule back to earth safely in event of an emergency. In this video, you can watch a Mercury capsule flying away to safety as the Atlas rocket underneath it fails. The capsule, and its mechanical test pilot, survived to fly again. Indeed, there were many learning experiences between the Redstone launches and the completion of the Mercury program, which did eventually see successful Atlas launches, all of which improved the reliability of the rockets and ensured that the astronauts would be as safe as possible.

Practice Makes Perfect

Before the Apollo missions were flown, however, a second spaceflight program was needed. Known as Project Gemini, astronauts in this program would be lifted into orbit on the back of a Titan II missile. The Titan II proved to be extremely reliabile, especially compared to the Atlas platform. That being said, the Air Force and NASA did have many disagreements about the missile platform, since the Titan II missile was originally supposed to be just that: a weapons platform. Since it was not originally intended for manned flight, there was not consensus on exactly what the rocket should be built for. Eventually, though, the Titan platform flew 12 Gemini missions (all except the first two test flights were manned by a pair of astronauts each), and continued flying unmanned missions until its final flight in 2003.

In fact, the first American spaceflights that didn’t repurpose a recognizable existing ballistic missile technology were the Apollo missions. The Saturn rockets flew all of the Apollo missions, including the ones that sent humans to the moon. They also launched Skylab, the first American space station. While all of the Saturn launches were peaceful, they were built on the lessons and technologies learned from having a ballistic missile program to exploit in the first place. After all, the accuracy needed to safely place a man at a specific location on the Moon certainly implies the ability to deliver a weapon to an even more precise location on the Earth.

70 thoughts on “Hitching a Ride on a Missile

    1. It would of been an interesting time to work for NASA. It is also too bad they didn’t keep developing versions after the Apollo program ended. The shuttle had it uses, but it would of been nice to had a one or two person vehicle for other missions.

      1. The early days of NASA, and pre-NASA days, seem pretty exciting. My father was working out there when the first test launch of the Polaris missile went wrong, and pieces of debris crushed several cars in the parking lot.

  1. I believe the Redstone and Titan missiles were also problematic in the g-forces felt by their occupants. They hadn’t been designed for human cargo.
    NASA really didn’t want to have to go to von Braun to design the Saturn V for the Apollo missions, there was a lot of political pressure to make it a wholly American design. But the US just didn’t have the know-how at that point, and didn’t have time to develop it with the tight schedule to place a man on the moon.

    NASA was good at documenting everything. I’d encourage anybody interested to google the Saturn V flight manual (SA 503).
    There are some pdf copies out there.

  2. We need a space race again. Then hopefully, funds allocated to bombs might be used in a way that is actually beneficial to humanity.

    And launches should be the main events that news outlets will cover, not some stupidities about the fake busts, “celebrity” gossip, and the “Russians did it” BS.

    1. Well unfortunately the space race was little more than a Cold War dick measuring contest, our tech it better than your tech, we can do more that you and when the Russians dropped out (Thank you N1) the U.S. lost interest. Shame really, I think if the commies had landed on the moon first we would be on Mars today.

        1. ehm… sure….
          you wouldnt hit anything even if it was only a few kilometers away from you, the muzzle velocity of powder weaponry is a few percent of orbital speed.

    2. But…..but…. it got to be teh Ruzzians!!!! The Teh Vey says so!!!!!

      Fun fact:
      it is Russia’s fault that our western anglosphere funny-handshake club “elitists” like to tweak the news a bit to include celebrity overload so we don’t notice the odd one-off bit of actual news on what’s happening in the world… that way the distracted people say nothing (majority).

      Russia is not too far down the press freedom index from us lot with the occasional presenter getting fired literally (mainly referring to USA+UK+a handful of other countries).

      Also another reason in the millions that I don’t bother with TV at all.

    3. Actually–and I’ve given this a lot of thought–it needs to become an International sport, perhaps with the Olympics. People who don’t want to put a dollar or ruble into a space program will queue up to spend $20 for a hot dog in a stadium built with their tax money. Why not? Ths space race as a sport with gold medals and drug and sex scandals. Rocket sponsors like NASCAR vehicles.

      Think about this: I own a company making PCs. I approach a large city and say, “Hey, would you build me a large factory, give me a pass on taxes, and then let me overcharge your citizens by a factor for 4 for a new computer?” The answer would be no. But if my company is a pro sports team… woo hoo… we can’t line up fast enough to hand over our money and attention.

      1. Good idea. I was also doing some calculations recently, and as we know huge rockets were needed to loft heavy satellites into orbit. But a rocket with several stages weighing less than 1000 kg should be able to lift a 100 gram payload into LEO. With modern electronics, several micro sats will be able to go.

        1000 kg rocket should not cost too much.

  3. It is really cool to go to Kennedy Space Center and see the tiny Redstone, and then drive to the Saturn V building to see that. It’s literally the difference between something the size of a semi trailer and something the length of a football field.

  4. The manned space flight was nothing more than very expensive technology demonstration, on both side. Simply showing the state of the ballistic missile technology. Launching and recovering human payload alive (a hero of the state) meant, reliable guidance and propulsion system. Message to the other side:” If we could launch such a fragile thing alive, we could drop some less finicky payload to your head, with a same reliability and precision.” And everybody jumped in this bandwagon. The stakes went higher, higher in this poker game, and we ended up in a technological dead-end. We lost more than 50 years, and still using potato throwing, instead building horizontal launch, single stage, only refuel required space planes. No, we still building pathetic, phallic symbols. Small pricks, instead of a real dicks (NASA Sea dragon).

    1. To be fair, we discovered that the space plane idea isn’t exactly easy to pull off. There are actually quite a few advantages to columnar rocket design that make it inherently less expensive and more robust. Space planes may tickle your fantasized dreams, but columnar rockets are just a lot easier to do. Now when we (finally) start building ships in orbit like we ought to, well, then you can have your Starship Enterprise.

          1. Ah. I hope they will succeed. But from your link: “If all goes to plan, the first ground-based engine tests could happen in 2019, and Skylon could be performing unmanned test flights by 2025.”

            My paper concepts are already at Alpha Centauri :)

          2. They’ve run a demonstration prototype already and are working on a full sized version. All of this has been done on the kind of budget that NASA can find down the back of their sofa.

          3. It will be so nice if everything works out. If Brits or Russians had the kind of money NASA has, we would be on Mars already. OTOH if NASA had 10% of the money used on US military misadventures …

          4. if nasa had 10% of the budget that the military had, they would just waste it. It would not be nearly as big an increase as you think (a little over doubling the current NASA budget)

            NASA has become an organization of bureaucrats and academics, not engineers who build things or even scientists that do R&D to invent things.

            by the way, I’ll also point out that entitlements dwarf the military budget, and if something doesn’t happen, will eat up all the tax revenue before you even start talking about the military.

    2. I’m not quite sure of the point you’re trying to make.
      The space shuttle was an awkward ship that was flown far longer than it should have been. There are a number of reasons it wasn’t more successful; I think one of the biggest was the lack of a specific goal. Placing someone one the moon was easily understandable by non-technical people, and captured the imagination of virtually the entire world. The shuttle’s mission was kind of vague – help build skylab and be re-usable.
      Unfortunately, you can’t separate NASA projects from politics. They’re expensive, and the money has to be allocated by politicians.

        1. Do we really want corporations be that powerful? Then they could circumvent “the political problem” also in other parts of our daily life, like “buying” laws.
          Partially this problem exists already today, we call it “lobbyism” – or more adequate – corruption. I think we have to reduce it, not accept or hope for its increase.

          1. Mine was a tongue in cheek response, with an eye towards all the literature, and media depicting corporations as the new (dystopian) government. Notice in Aliens it’s a corporate ship doing the work. With that being said people like Elon Musk are proving that private industry can get the work done.

      1. The basic problem with the Shuttle’s been mentioned before, I think here as well as elsewhere. The Air Force were paying a big chunk of the costs, so their demands were important. They wanted a shuttle that could drop stuff off, of a particularly large size and heavy weight, in Polar orbits. To spy on / threaten the USSR, who had a lot of territory thereabouts.

        The original shuttle plans were for a much lighter ship, that would do LEO and I think Equatorial orbits. Something like that.

        Anyway, the Air Force’s demands were made far too late in the programme, so they hacked in the SRBs, and more than a few other bodges, to meet them. The originally intended Shuttle would’ve been able to turnaround much more quickly, be cheaper to run, and all that sort of stuff. Look it up properly if you’re interested.

        1. Sadly, the Air Force only has funds taken from the taxpayers. Just like all government agencies.
          It’s true the Mint can print as much as needed, but that’s just a patch. “Kicking the can down the road”.
          City, county, state, and federal agencies seem to be the largest PONZI scheme around.

  5. “Although there was enough safety engineering and redundancy to disqualify the space program as a hack”.

    INCORRECT! I always put a rocket escape tower and spare parachutes on my Arduino projects and they are all carried out in a %100 oxygen environment.

      1. When did that happen? You say “at least once” implying it’s not regular, and from what I remember, only the Lunar Module was supposed to touch the moon. With the third stage dropping off to Earth, and the CSM’s main engine used to push the whole assembly to Lunar orbit.

        1. The third stage was used to transition from earth orbit to the lunar transfer orbit. The CSM main engine was used to decelerate into luner orbit with the lunar module and to accelerate the command/service modules into earth transfer orbit.

          The command/service module detached from the third stage and then flipped around to link up with the lunar module and pull it off of the third stage once they were in the lunar transfer orbit.

          So that left the third stage in an orbit that would go to/around/past the moon. I was not aware of the third stage impacting the moon, but thinking about it, I would expect them to plan that so that the various seismic sensors they had placed (with the unmanned and manned missions) could get readings from the impact and it’s echos through the interior of the moon.

      2. Always made me sad they never made more wet-labs between stage 3 of the Saturn-V and SS-ETs we could have had a pretty Battlestar Galactia sized space station in LEO and something smaller but substantialy useful source of material or hab in lunar orbit.

      1. That’s the ticket.

        When the first stage cutoff, it was “only” about 36 mile up, 50 miles downrange and traveling 5000 mph. But try going to the moon without it.

  6. it was more a matter of acceptance of risk than re-engineering the rockets to be safer.

    Yes, they did build the capsules with escape rockets and similar things, but those were part of the recognition that the rockets were dangerous and respecting that danger.

    The Shuttle was different, it was “designed to be safe from scratch” and so they did not have the ability to get the crew out (except under pretty narrow situations which required the craft being intact and flying). They fooled themselves into thinking that they could make the rockets failure proof.

    Part of the NASA opposition to SpaceX has been the requirement for ‘man rating’ the rockets, and holding them to a standard that NASA never met.

  7. Ah yes, the legendary Atlas rocket, which Von Braun himself called a piece of crap.
    The rocked had to be either fully fueled or have it’s fuel tanks pressurised with nitrogen when erected, otherwise it would collapse on itself. Heck, it wasn’t even painted, the original use of WD-40 was to keep it from turning into a pile of rust…

  8. The entire early Space Race was a “proof of concept” demonstration: If we can carry something as fragile as a human safely into space, and therefore over your territory, we can carry a nuclear weapon to the same place(they were remarkably fragile at the time)…

    In essence, the human “pilot” and his “spacecraft” were test weights for the missile system to determine just how big of a nuclear payload could be made for the system… plus the passive-aggressive statesmanship.

    1. you could try to make that argument about the early rockets that were converted missiles, but by the time we were building the Saturn series, it was very clear that the rockets being built for manned flight had little to do with the ones that would carry warheads. It just took too long to fuel and launch the manned rockets, missiles needed to be able to be launched on short notice.

      and given that the rockets that were the converted missiles needed to be thoroughly flight tested with much heavier payloads before being considered for manned flight, and that there was no lack of unmanned test flights (and satellite launches) taking place during that timeframe, there really wasn’t any need to have manned flights. If you could launch a satellite with vaccum tube electronics, or cameras and get the film back safely, you were doing far better than what was needed to launch a man.

  9. Of course the Soviet space program followed a similar path, of using ICBM technology in their space program. James Oberg wrote that one reason the Soviets had such early success was their nuclear weapons were significantly larger and heavier than US weapons, and thus required larger boosters.

    1. Soviets had no bases close to USA, so their rockets had to have a longer range to hit the USA from Soviet bases. US could launch missiles from many places around the USSR, like West Europe, Turkey, etc.

      North Korea now has a similar problem that the USSR had in the 1950s. I heard somewhere that they are developing submarines as launch platforms now.

      1. NK already successfully launched a missile from a submarine.
        And then there’s the classical torpedo of course.
        Issue is to make a nuke small enough, and the Chinese for instance only relatively recently managed to do that, before that they had 1 nuke per ICBM while the US could have a dozen. For that reason if NK manages to make small nukes I’ll just go ahead and assume they got help from China. (Or the CIA who basically handed them the nuke in the first place?).

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