Atlas ICBM

The SM-65 Atlas was the first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) developed by the United States and the first member of the Atlas rocket family. It was built for the U.S. Air Force by the Convair Division of General Dynamics at an assembly plant located in Kearny Mesa (north of San Diego). Atlas became operational as an ICBM in October 1959 and was quickly obsoleted by new development, being retired as a missile by 1965. However, Atlas-derived launch vehicles have a long history as space launchers.

Atlas ICBMEven before its ICBM use ended in 1965, Atlas had placed four Project Mercury astronauts in orbit and was becoming the foundation for a family of successful space launch vehicles, most notably Atlas Agena and Atlas Centaur. Mergers led to the acquisition of the Atlas Centaur line by the United Launch Alliance. Today ULA supports the larger Atlas V, which combines the unique and highly efficient Centaur upper stage with a new booster. Until 2001, many of the retired Atlas ICBMs were refurbished and combined with upper stages to launch satellites.

The Atlas's complicated, unconventional design proved difficult to debug compared with rocket families such as Thor and Titan which used conventional aircraft-style structures and two stage setups and there were dozens of failed launches during the early years. After watching an Atlas ICBM explode shortly after launch, Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom remarked "Are we really going to get on top of one of those things?" The numerous failures led to Atlas being dubbed an "Inter County Ballistic Missile" by missile technicians, but by 1965 most of the problems had been worked out and it was a reliable launch vehicle.

Nearly every component in the Atlas managed to fail at some point during test flights, from the engine combustion chambers to the tank pressurization system to the flight control system, but Convair engineers noted with some pride that there had never been a repeat of the same failure more than three times, and every component malfunction on an Atlas flight was figured out and resolved. The last major design hurdle to overcome was unstable engine thrust, which caused three Atlas missiles to explode on their launching stands. It was solved with the use of baffled injectors and other modifications which would prove vital to the Saturn V program, as it used a first stage engine that was loosely derived from the Atlas booster engines. More details