As the Cold War conflict expanded in the 1950s, the Soviet Union dry-tested a hydrogen bomb and defense tactics became a top priority for the United States. Seeking to create a long-range nuclear missile option, the Air Force contracted Convair Astronautics to deliver SM-65 Atlas, the first in series of ICBMs. In the spotlight this week is a sort of video progress report which shows the first launch from Cape Canaveral’s LC-14 on June 11, 1957.
After the angle of attack probe is unsheathed, everyone moves out of the way. The launch is being monitored by base central control, but the swingin’ spot to spectate is the blockhouse. They have a periscope and everything. As the countdown continues, liquid oxygen pipelines whistle and wail into the idyllic Florida afternoon with the urgency of a thousand teakettles. Cameras and tracking equipment are readied, and the blockhouse’s blast door is sealed up tight.
Around T-3 minutes, it’s time to run down the go/no-go checklist in the blockhouse. It is at this point that we find out this launch was under a 10-hour countdown, which has gone exactly as planned. Some top-secret things are bleeped out on the soundtrack, but we are allowed to know the objectives of this test, which are to prove the basic elements. These include the durability of the airframe, the launching mechanics, autopilot fallback, propulsion, and overall flight stability. There’s another checklist at the two-minute warning, and the angle is set to [redacted]. At long last, it’s time to launch the [redacted] thing.
Atlas launched successfully and was stable for a little while. Shortly after launch, one engine failed and then another. Because of this, the Range Safety Officer remotely destroyed it. Debris fell all over the base and in the sea, but most of the major components were recovered for their precious data. All in all, many things went well or at least satisfactorily, and the Convair Astronautics division of General Dynamics didn’t lose their contract.
Atlas models were only in the ICBM business for a short time. Most notably, they launched the first American astronauts into orbit and enjoyed a long, illustrious career launching satellites.
Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.
[Thanks for sending this in, James. Happy Space Week!]