Retrotechtacular: The First Atlas Launch

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.

trackerAround 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.

launchedAtlas 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!]

31 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The First Atlas Launch

      1. It was called a balloon tank. The really interesting part of the Atlas is that it was a 1 1/2 stage rocket. After enough fuel has been used two of the three engines will drop off. When they where working on the Atlas they where unsure about igniting large thrust chambers at very high altitude.

      1. Damn those bureaucrats for turning down my idea of just strapping someone to the top of a really big firework! I’m sure they’d have accepted it if it created jobs in their home state.

        1. Actually that’s a pretty good description of the Atlas – a really big firework. The same launch pad was used less than five years later to launch John Glenn into orbit on an extremely similar Atlas. The Atlas before Glenn blew up. The Atlas after Glenn blew up. The Atlas Glenn flew on (granted one which was inspect much more carefully) – didn’t blow up. As one old time Cape pad rat put it “John Glenn had the biggest pair of brass balls.”

      2. @Dax
        Lol, red tape isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom. Bureaucracy is wielded as a weapon by politicians, applied selectively to burden things they don’t like or would benefit from the failure of.

        “It’s all that damn red tape” is just a goofy talking point from the very people trying to destroy America’s capacity to be a world leader in scientific research.

  1. this is the bloody awful thing that brought us bloody awful WD-40. Thanks Convair. Only things WD-40 good for is starting fires and killing ants.

    It should have been called lubricant displacer or lubricant remover

    1. Um … it’s not meant to be a lube: it’s a penetrating oil. It was never designed to act as a lubricant. Originally it was created to protect nuclear missles from corrosion (the “WD” stands for “water displacing”). It’s *supposed* to be used to protect against rust, but it’s also good at helping to break free stuck joints/fasteners.

      Complaining it destroys bearings, or is a shitty cutting oil is like complaing that a screwdriver sucks at driving nails. People misuse it all the time — but it’s not a fault of the product.

  2. No wonder the damn thing blew up, there wasn’t a single arduino in sight! Anyway I can see why the Atlas didn’t last very long as an ICBM, a 10 HOUR countdown? You could have 3 nuclear wars in that time! But, like the R-7 it did go on to bigger and much better things.

    1. They got the countdown to 30 minutes and a lot of that was in silo. At the time ICBMs were not accurate enough to hit a silo so to take out a silo you needed a bomber. By the time a bomber got to Kansas, New Mexico, or even Maine the ICBMs would have launched. Of course things changed very quickly.

  3. The Atlas rocket is probably one of my favorite machines ever built. The design was extremely efficient (neglecting the fact that it was single-use) especially compared to the Soviet equivalent Vostok K, the latter which was ~25 feet longer (101′ vs 75′) and a whopping 360,300 pounds heavier (620,325lb vs 260,000lb) fully fueled, the latter which had a mere empty weight of 5,200lb! The “stage and a half” was brilliant, the integral balloon tank design was brilliant, it was just a wonderful piece of engineering.

    1. Slight quibble, the Vostok K was a derivative of the R7 ICBM, so that would be a better comparison to Atlas (R7 and Atlas both being both the original member, and family name of each series of rockets). It too had a sort of 1.5 stage setup, whereby the outer four sets of engines and their associated fuel tanks are detached once they’re empty, while the central engine burns all the way up.
      And of course, the R7 eventually became the Soyuz launcher which is still in use today.

      1. I should have been more clear. My figures were based off the Vostok K derivatives and the Atlas rockets used in Project Mercury (as that’s where my interest lies). The figures would have been slightly different for the ICBM variants.

        While the R7 may be considered a 1.5 stage rocket as you say, it certainly wasn’t as efficient as the Atlas, though the latter was pretty much paper mache compared to the R7.

        1. What always amused me is the last versions of the classic Atlas (IIAR, IIAS, III) use Russian RD-180 engines. The descendants of the American ICBM used the engines which were descendants of the engines used on the Soviet Union’s R-7 ICBMs!

  4. It didn’t blow up… much! It is nice to think that things we design to kill everyone can someday be used to start humankind’s greatest journey or bring bad satellite television to people.

    1. Yeah, it’s one of those darkly-amusing ironies that some of our greatest accomplishment and most horrifying follies are powered by the exact same technology. Like how a huge amount of recent progress in prosthetic limbs and treating severe injuries (eg better data on exactly how long a tourniquet can stay on before it starts causing harm) is the result of all the men and women that have gotten mangled fighting overseas.

  5. I forwarded this video to my dad, and I thought some of you might be interested in his reply:

    That sure rang a lot of bells with me. That first launch
    was in June of 1957. I went to work there with Convair-
    Astronautics in August. I was at Complex 14 for a while.
    I sure remember the blockhouse and launch pad and all the

    I also observed two or three of the Atlas missiles blow up.
    One blew up shortly after liftoff, and pieces of it fell into the
    parking lot where all our cars were parked. Several cars were
    severely damaged, but mine escaped. Kind of a wild era.

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