Retrotechtacular: History Of The U.S. Antiballistic Missile Systems


On this installment of Retrotechtacular we’re taking a look at the history of the United States Antiballistic Missile System. The cold war was a huge driver of technological development, and this missile defense is a good example. At its most basic this is a radar system capable of tracking objects in three dimensions. It utilizes separate transmitters and receivers which are synchronized to rotate at the same time.

The movie, which is about forty-five minutes, came to our attention because of [Dammitd’s] interest in the Luneburg Lens used by the system. At about 11:10 into the video after the break this component is discussed. Inside a dome like the one seen above is a reflector made of blocks of polystyrene foam which has been laced with bits of metal. This lens is stationary, with the receiver rotating around it to collect the transmitter’s waves as the echos bouncing off an object in the sky are focused by the lens.

43 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: History Of The U.S. Antiballistic Missile Systems

        1. According to extensive research, the likelihood that the US Congress is going to approve funding for a Death Star in the current year can be defined as:

          f(x) = (n-(u2/w)*((b2+(c-y)^4)+d^8))/n

          n = national budget
          u = the Department of De(athstar)fense budget
          w = global military spending by all nations
          b = NASA’s budget
          c = popular support defined by the number of people attending StarWars conventions
          y = the previous year’s popular support number
          d = money spent by the Deathstar Lobby

          Feasibility study forthcoming…

  1. Land based surface to air missile development in the US has been the poster child for interservice rivalries since the beginning.
    The Air Force was in charge of interceptors and fighters to defend US airspace and the Army was in charge of SAM sites to defend the US, you can imagine how well that worked out.

        1. Y”ou learn far more from failures than from successes” I always figured that adage was created by someone who couldn’t engineer something while using common knowledge that would work correctly at the first try. :)

    1. Just curious, who were you working for? I’d love to work for a DoD contractor assigned to a large project like this at some point in my career. Aside from the bureaucracy that comes with working for a huge corporation it seems incredibly rewarding.

  2. “Ultimately the multiprocessor approach would deliver a computing speed of over 21 million instructions per second.” Acquisition,tracking, and guidance out of a beast slower than a bog standard ARM processor. Is it just me or have we gotten a bit lazy when it comes to computing efficiency in the decades since?

    1. I can’t say for everything, but for networks, processor and memory management, we are still using the same algorithms or have slightly improved them. There is just way more stuff to do.

      I like to remember that it takes more processing power and memory just to display a basic browser window than it takes to calculate dozens of complex ballistic trajectories without the overhead of prettiness and usability.

  3. “The cold war was a huge driver of technological development”

    This statement kind of makes me laugh…….The cold war was the ONLY driver of these technologies, the private sector on its own could never have funded the internet, the development of the microprocessor, integrated circuits, commercial aviation advancements……. Just putting a dozen men on the moon cost trillions in today’s dollars….

    It would take two hundred years for the private sector to do the same thing……

      1. Sure…..right……..OK. But that Kenyan farmer wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for MURICA. Descended from someone who was saved from malaria, starvation, or a half dozen other maladies that MURICA has eradicated or eliminated….

        1. I detect a lot of retardation from you. You sound as though you’ve given up wanting to function normally in society without any assistance with wiping your own ass.

          1. Play nice! This is a nerd site. We don’t need a Tea party vs. flea party discussion here. A lot of technical innovation came through DOD and NASA spending. But most went directly to private contractors, though many government labs also play a role (I was stationed at Griffiss AFB, which had the Rome Air Development Center). Also keep in mind that bell labs created the transistor, that more or less paved the technical path we took since then. I had a high school teacher that was a technician for NASA, brought in a Apollo 11 countdown checklist where his steps were highlighted (he operated data recorders). It helps me decide my future career (Air Force followed by an Engineering college). Until recently it wasn’t so much us vs. them (private vs. public), it seems we become so polarized.

  4. Interestingly, the Safeguard Program was discontinued just *4* months after installation(!). What a waste all around of resources, prob some of the knowledge&skills kept going in the individuals involved but the infrastructure…

    1. My father was deeply involved in all of this stuff. I remember him working on Safeguard when i was a kid. He actually helped choose some of these sites. He was Deputy Director of BMDSCMD (“bimdsCom”) back in the 80’s or so. We were almost stationed at Kwajalein. Supposed to have some of the best SCUBA diving around.
      Interestingly, had it not been for him working on this stuff, and having access to some of the best engineers, I wouldn’t have gotten my start in electronics. I had access to some of the best junk in the world!
      Most people just don’t realize how much innovation they get from the military. From medical procedures and equipment, to portable food, to electronics…. So much of your daily life depends on something that came from the military one way or another.

    2. It was called a “Bargining chip”. Brought them to the table. Ironically the treaty that followed allowed the Soviets to maintain a limited ABM system for Moscow. Not sure how it well it would of worked.

  5. steven-x says:
    May 4, 2013 at 10:37 am

    “But most went directly to private contractors”

    As in, DEFENSE contractors. As in, funded by the government. As in PUBLIC sector spending. Not the private sector. No such thing when the government funds you ….

    1. That more or less was my point. The government can print money (so can I, but that is frowned upon). The private sector can build impressive stuff with that money. To be fair, the Soviet Union had an impressive space program, and it had no private sector. But you also stood in line to buy toilet paper.

      1. Both countries technologies were funded by the government. Both are state run capitalist economies in this regard. Ours just has the facade of a private sector.

        They stood in line for toilet paper…..

        We have millions of brand spanking new shiny homes that are vacant, with no one living in them. And millions of homeless people, with 1/3 of the country receiving food stamps. So pick your poison, I guess.

        In the eighties, Reagan printed a shit ton of money, reversing a three decade decline in defense spending, to the point of bankrupting the Soviet Union….

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