National Security Space History: Minuteman ICBM

Fifty years ago today — February 1, 1961 — an SM-80 Minuteman-IA intercontinental ballistic missile was successfully launched, marking the first test flight of the full-up solid-fueled ICBM.


(Minuteman-I missile. USAF image.)

Of more interest to me, this Air Force fact sheet notes that in April 1959 “Boeing launched the first Minuteman mockup at Edwards AFB, California. Test flights of mockup missiles continued into May 1960, all of which were successful.”

Why does that historical tidbit interest me so? Because many years later my first assignment was to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards, where those test flights had taken place. What made them remarkable was that those test flights at the Rock were tethered, meaning that after the missile left the silo* it was still shackled to the ground. I wish I had one of the images to post, of the missile trying to get away while sturdy lines held it fast.

Many of my friends spent tours of duty as missileers and missile maintainers, on later versions of the Minuteman as well as other ICBM systems. To each of them, and others whom I don’t know, I say: I’m grateful for your quiet diligence and your deterrent power which kept (and keeps) us secure. I salute you all.

___
*Which I visited many times, at Area 1-100.

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Last Titan Launch

Five years ago today — October 19, 2005 — the last Titan-IV rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB. (The next-to-last Titan rocket had been launched successfully about six months earlier, on April 29th, from Cape Canaveral.)


(Final Titan-IV launch, Space Launch Complex 4, Vandenberg AFB. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The rocket carried a classified DoD payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

This last Titan launch was a milestone of sorts for me, for two reasons.

First, I’d worked on Titan twice in my Air Force career — at Edwards AFB, supporting Titan-34D and Titan-IV test firings, and in the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg, managing the engineering and contracting for the facility that stored and processed Titan-IV solid rocket motor upgrade segments. (If you ever come to my office, ask me about the piece of a failed Titan-IV that sits on my desk.)

Second, I’d written a speech for the Under Secretary of the Air Force to honor the final launch. It’s not often that the speeches we write for others have to do with things that are so special to us.

Each Titan was a huge, complex machine built to carry out a difficult task. It was an honor to be associated with the program.

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First Titan Launches on Solid Rocket Motors: Titan-IIIC

Forty-five years ago today — June 18, 1965 — the first Titan-IIIC (“three C”) launched from Cape Canaveral on a test flight.


(A 1978 Titan-IIIC launch. USAF image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The IIIC was the first Titan variant to use strap-on solid rocket motors for additional lift capacity. The Air Force flew a large number of SRM-augmented Titans through the years. This Aerospace Corporation article has a little of the Titan vehicle history.

The SRMs were built up in segments, with each full-size segment being ten feet in diameter and ten feet tall. The Titan-IIIC and IIID models used two five-segment SRMs each; the later Titan-34D used a pair of five-and-a-half-segment SRMs, while the Titan-IVA used two seven-segment SRMs. The last Titan model, the Titan-IVB, used the SRMU — solid rocket motor upgrade — which consisted of fewer, but larger, motor segments.

And why do I care about the SRM and SRMU details? Because I had the privilege of working on parts of the Titan program — primarily dealing with the solid rockets — during my assignments at Edwards (Titan-34D and Titan-IVA test firings, Titan-34D launches) and Vandenberg (Titan-IVA and -IVB launch processing facilities).

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Another Space Shuttle Precursor Flies

Forty years ago today — June 2, 1970 — NASA test pilot William H. “Bill” Dana flew the Northrop M2-F3 lifting body on its first flight.


(M2-F3 lifting body on the dry lakebed at Edwards AFB. NASA image.)

The M2-F3 was one of a series of lifting bodies flown by NASA and the USAF to test spacecraft reentry. On this flight, it was dropped from its B-52 mothership and Dana glided it to an unpowered landing on the dry lake bed at Edwards AFB, much the way Shuttle pilots glide their vehicle back to Earth.

The M2-F3 was rebuilt from the crashed M2-F2, with a center stabilizer added to reduce the pilot-induced oscillations that had caused the M2-F2 landing mishap. Powered flights of the rocket-equipped M2-F3 eventually took it up to Mach 1.6 and over 70,000 feet of altitude.

On a personal note, I wish I had known more of this history back in the late 1980s, so I could have asked Mr. Dana some pertinent questions when I met him at Edwards.

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Infrared Space Surveillance, a Half Century Ago

Fifty years ago today — May 24, 1960 — the Midas-2 spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas booster.


(The “launch cover” for Midas-2. Click to enlarge. Image from http://rammb.cira.colostate.edu/dev/hillger/military-wx.htm. Note the price of the postage.)

Midas-2 was the first satellite to carry an experimental IR surveillance payload into orbit. (The Midas-1 launch attempt in February 1960 failed because of a problem with the booster.)

The Air Force’s “Missile Defense Alarm System” proceeded through a series of launches to test gradually more powerful detectors, but did not produce workable missile warning satellite coverage. However, the technical lessons from Midas launches were applied to the Defense Support Program series of missile warning spacecraft: the very same DSP satellites that provide launch detection today.

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Bell X-1, Chuck Yeager, and Salad

This is more “air and space” than “space” history, and it’s as much of a curiosity as anything, but 60 years ago today — May 12, 1950 — Chuck Yeager flew the first Bell X-1 rocket plane (serial number 46-062, or X-1-1) on its final flight.


(Bell X-1 in flight. USAF photo from NASA image collection.)

The aircraft, the first to be flown faster than the speed of sound, was retired and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is on display at the National Air and Space Museum. If you’ve never been, you should go. (And the new Udvar-Hazy annex to the museum is very nice, too.)

Semi-related personal recollection to explain the title: I remember seeing General Yeager in the Officers Club at Edwards AFB when we were stationed there. I didn’t talk to him — what’s a brand-new second lieutenant non-pilot going to say to someone like that, especially standing next to him at the salad bar? But it seemed pretty cool at the time … and pretty okay even now.

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Rocket Sleds and Murphy's Law — and a Couple of Rocket Launches, Too

Fifty-five years ago today — December 10, 1954 — U.S. Air Force Colonel John P. Stapp rode a rocket sled at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, to over 600 mph. Stapp set a record for the greatest recorded g-forces endured by man when the sled decelerated. From his obituary in the New York Times,

Dr. Stapp was known as the ”fastest man on earth” for his 1954 ride, though the speed has since been surpassed and was never accepted by auto racing officials as an official land speed record. The speed was impressive, at any rate. Dr. Stapp accelerated in 5 seconds from a standstill to 632 miles an hour. The sled then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, subjecting Dr. Stapp to pressures 40 times the pull of gravity.

Stapp’s early rocket sled tests were done at Edwards AFB, and I remember seeing the old tracks and trenches out on South Base. It was during those early tests that Stapp fell victim to what became known as Murphy’s Law:

Dr. Stapp . . . suffered an injury in the experiment that inspired Murphy’s Law after a somewhat less rapid sled ride in 1949.

An assistant, Capt. Edward A. Murphy Jr., had designed a harness to strap in the rider. The harness held 16 sensors to measure the acceleration, or G-force, on different body parts. There were exactly two ways each sensor could be installed. Captain Murphy did each one the wrong way.

The result was that when Dr. Stapp staggered off the rocket sled with bloodshot eyes and bleeding sores, all the sensors registered zero. He had been strained in vain.

A distraught Captain Murphy proclaimed the original version of the famous maxim: ”If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those results in a catastrophe, then someone will do it that way.”

If rocket sleds don’t quite qualify as “space history” for you, there were two December 10th rocket launches that fit the bill. First, 35 years ago today, a Titan III-E rocket launched the Helios-1 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Helios-1 was a joint effort by the U.S. and West Germany to measure the solar wind and examine the surface of the sun. And on December 10, 1999, the European Space Agency launched an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, carrying their X-ray Multimirror Mission (XMM) telescope. XMM-Newton was the ESA’s equivalent of NASA’s Chandra space observatory.

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World Speed Record: 7,000 MPH

Five years ago today — November 16, 2004 — the X-43A hypersonic test vehicle broke the world speed record.


(X-43A initial velocity was provided by a Pegasus rocket. NASA image.)

Its scramjet engine accelerated it to mach 9.6, nearly 7,000 miles per hour. The record it broke was its own, of mach 6.8 (nearly 5,000 mph), set on a March 2004 flight.

Of personal interest to me, a Pegasus rocket dropped from NASA’s B-52 provided the initial thrust to get the X-43A up to the flight regime where the scramjet engine would work.


(X-43A, Pegasus, and B-52 mothership. The X-43A is the small dark vehicle covering the words “U.S. Air Force.” NASA image.)

That gives me a personal, though indirect, connection to the flight: I was on the Flight Readiness Review Committee for the very first Pegasus launch when I was stationed at Edwards AFB.

Yes, I had a most fascinating Air Force career. (Fascinating to me, anyway.)

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On Veterans' Day, Thank You

Last year I posted a bit about why Veterans’ Day embarrasses me, and also about the National Veterans Freedom Park that’s to be built in Cary, NC.

As much as I still feel that Veterans’ Day is for those other veterans, those “real” veterans who endured hardships and battle, in contrast to veterans like me whose brushes with danger were few and brief and who endured more inconveniences than hardships, I confess that I’ve gotten to the point that it annoys me when I hear casual disregard and even disdain for our country and our freedoms from those who never served, never considered serving, and never supported anyone who served.

Not everyone is suited to military service, or to the rigors that go along with being in a military family, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice to pursue some other calling than the military. But I think it’s easier for those with no military connections, and especially those who, in their heart of hearts, would do anything other than don a uniform and shoulder a weapon, to take our nation and especially the liberties we enjoy for granted.

I don’t go so far as science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote in Time Enough for Love (specifically, in the “Notebooks of Lazarus Long”),

Those who refuse to support and defend a state have no claim to protection by that state. Killing an anarchist or a pacifist should not be defined as ‘murder’ in a legalistic sense. The offense against the state, if any, should be ‘Using deadly weapons inside city limits,’ or ‘Creating a traffic hazard,’ or ‘Endangering bystanders,’ or other misdemeanor.

But I do maintain that those of us who are quick to assert the rights guaranteed to us under the Constitution, and even “rights” the Founding Fathers never considered, should express some measure of gratitude to those who have sworn to defend that Constitution, and to “secure the blessings of liberty” at any cost, up to and including their lives.

So, to all who wore the uniform, those who would have worn the uniform if they could, and those who supported a uniformed Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, or Coastguardsman — and especially to those who are serving today, at home or abroad — thank you, and may God guide and protect you.

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Strategic Space Symposium, Day Two

(Abbreviated from the full entry in the Space Warfare Forum.)

The second day of the 2009 Strategic Space Symposium was just as good as the first, and in some ways better. Highlights:

  • NGA Director VADM Robert Murrett, discussed NGA’s partial reliance on commercial satellites like GeoEye
  • I found myself slowly becoming an ORS convert, as the vision explained was different from the old “rapid space reconstruction” idea
  • I was pleased to learn that the ORS program will probably call for launching stored spacecraft before they become obsolete, which will be important for developing and sustaining a viable industrial base
  • I began to think that ORS might better be called ODS: “operationally deployable space” instead of “operationally responsive space”
  • The “Industry Perspectives” panel discussed how disruptive unstable funding can be to the aerospace supply chain, and how changing a system’s requirements usually dooms all efforts to complete acquisition programs on time and under budget
  • I was pleasantly surprised by the mild industry response to an ITAR question: maybe industry’s usual negative reaction is not to the idea behind the ITAR but rather to specific items on the USML and the MCTL (some items could probably be removed from the lists, if doing so doesn’t jeopardize national security)
  • The luncheon speakers gave excellent presentations on the warfighters’ perspective on space systems and space support, but I was surprised that neither of them mentioned the recent Chinese statement about developing offensive and defensive space capabilities

As on day one, I had some great conversations with company representatives and old Air Force colleagues, so for me the symposium ended as well as it began. Well done!

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