SM-65 Atlas

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.

Even 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.

B-65/SM-65/CGM-16/HGM-16 Atlas
Atlas 2E Ballistic Missile
Atlas 2E missile, San Diego Aerospace Museum
FunctionIntercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM)
Country of originUnited States
Height75 ft 10 in (23.11 m)
85 ft 6 in (26.06 m) in ICBM configuration
Diameter10 ft (3.0 m)
Width16 ft (4.9 m)
Mass260,000 lb (117,900 kg)
Associated rockets
Launch history
StatusRetired April 1965
Total launches24
First flight6 June 1957
Last flight24 August 1959
No. boosters1
Thrust300,000 lbf (1,300 kN)
Atlas D
Total thrust360,000 lbf (1,600 kN)
Atlas D
First stage
Thrust60,000 lbf (270 kN)
Atlas D
Convair X-11 / SM-65 Atlas
Place of originUnited States
Service history
In service1959–1964
Used byUnited States Air Force
WarsCold War
Production history
Mass255,950 lb (116,100 kg) for Atlas D w/o payload, 260,000 lb (117,900 kg) for Atlas D with Mk 2/3 RV and W49 warhead, 268,000 lb (121,560 kg) for Atlas E&F with Mk 4 RV and W38 warhead
Length75 ft 1 in (22.89 m) with Mk 2 re-entry vehicle, 82 ft 6 in (25.15 m) with Mk 3
Width16 ft 1 in (4.90 m) with Mk 2 re-entry vehicle, 82 ft 6 in (25.15 m) with Mk 3
Diameter10 ft 0 in (3.05 m)

Engine1 × Rocketdyne LR105 rocket engine, 1 × Rocketdyne XLR89 rocket engine with two 150,000 lbf (670 kN) thrust chambers (Atlas D), 2 × Rocketdyne LR101 vernier rocket engines with 1,000 lbf (4.4 kN) of thrust (propellant feed from LR105 sustainer engine turbopumps); 2 × LR89 booster engines (independent turbopumps) with 165,000 lbf (730 kN) (Atlas E&F)
57,000 lbf (250,000 N) thrust
AccuracyCEP 4,600 ft (1,400 m)
SM-65 Atlas
Service history
In service1959–1964
Production history
Designed1953 (XB-65)
No. built350 (all versions)
Peak deployment level of 129
(30 D, 27 E, 72 F).
VariantsAtlas A, B/C, D, E/F (ICBMs)
SLV-3/3A/3C (NASA use)


Atlas was the first US ICBM and one of the first large liquid-fueled rockets. As such, its early development was quite chaotic, with plans changing rapidly as flight tests revealed issues.

Atlas got its start in 1946 with the award of an Army Air Forces research contract to Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (later Convair) for the study of a 1,500-to-5,000-mile (2,400 to 8,000 km) range missile that might at some future date carry a nuclear warhead. This MX-774 project was named for the Atlas of Greek mythology and the contractor's parent Atlas Corporation. At the time, the smallest atomic warheads were all larger than the maximum theoretical payloads of the planned long range missiles, so the contract was canceled in 1947, but the Army Air Forces allowed Convair to launch the three almost-completed research vehicles using the remaining contract funds. The three flights were only partially successful, but did show that balloon tanks and gimbaled rocket engines were valid concepts.[1]

A second development contract was awarded to Convair on 16 January 1951 for what was then called MX-1593, with a relatively low priority. The initial design completed by Convair in 1953 was larger than the missile that eventually entered service. Estimated warhead weight was lowered from 8,000 lb (3,630 kg) to 3,000 lb (1,360 kg) based on highly favorable U.S. nuclear warhead tests in early 1954. This, in addition to the Soviet Union's 1953 Joe 4 dry fuel thermonuclear weapon test and the CIA learning that the Soviet ICBM program was making progress, led to the project being dramatically accelerated. Atlas became a crash program of the highest national importance on 14 May 1954.

A major development and test contract was awarded to Convair on 14 January 1955 for a 10-foot (3 m) diameter missile to weigh about 250,000 lb (113,400 kg).[2] Atlas development was tightly controlled by the Air Force's Western Development Division, WDD, later part of the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division. Contracts for warhead, guidance and propulsion were handled separately by WDD. The first successful flight of a highly instrumented Atlas missile to full range occurred 28 November 1958. Atlas ICBMs were deployed operationally from 31 October 1959 to 12 April 1965.[3]

The missile was originally designated as the XB-65 experimental bomber; in 1955 it was redesignated SM-65 ("Strategic Missile 65") and, from 1962, it became CGM-16. This letter "C" stood for "coffin" or "Container", the rocket being stored in a semi-hardened container; it was prepared for launch by being raised and fueled in the open. The Atlas-F (HGM-16) was stored vertically underground, but launched after being lifted to the surface.

By 1965, with the second-generation Titan II having reached operational status, the Atlas was obsolete as a missile system and had been phased out of military use. Many of the retired Atlas D, E, and F missiles were used for space launches into the 1990s.

The penetrating lubricant WD-40 found its first use as a corrosion-inhibiting coating for the outer skin of the Atlas missile.[4]

Missile details

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.

Pressure stabilized tanks

Atlas was unusual in its use of balloon tanks for fuel, made of very thin stainless steel with minimal or no rigid support structures. Pressure in the tanks provides the structural rigidity required for flight. An Atlas rocket would collapse under its own weight if not kept pressurized, and had to have 5 psi (34 kPa) nitrogen in the tank even when not fueled.[5] The only other known use of balloon tanks at the time of writing is the Centaur high-energy upper stage, although some rockets (such as the Falcon series) use partially pressure-supported tanks. The rocket had two small thrust chambers on the sides of the tank called vernier rockets. These provided fine adjustment of velocity and steering after the sustainer engine shut down.


Atlas was informally classified as a "stage-and-a-half" rocket, with a central sustainer engine and set of two booster engines that were all started at launch, each drawing from a single set of propellant tanks. Most multistage rockets drop both engines and fuel tanks simultaneously before firing the next stage's engines. However, when the Atlas missile was being developed, there was doubt as to whether a rocket engine could be air-started. Therefore, the decision was made to ignite all of the Atlas' engines at launch; the booster engines would be discarded, while the sustainer continued to burn. A "stage" of a liquid propellant rocket normally consists of both propellant tanks and engines, so jettisoning one or more engines only is equivalent to "half a stage". At staging, the booster engines would be shut off and a series of mechanical and hydraulic mechanisms would close the plumbing lines to them. The booster section would then be released by a series of hydraulic clamps (aside from the early test model Atlas B, which used explosive bolts) and slide off the missile. From there on, the sustainer and verniers would operate by themselves. Booster staging took place at roughly two minutes into launch, although the exact timing could vary considerably depending on the model of Atlas as well as the particular mission being flown. This "stage-and-a-half" design was made possible by the extremely light weight of the balloon tanks. The tanks made up such a small percentage of the total booster weight that the mass penalty of lifting them to orbit was less than the technical and mass penalty required to throw half of them away mid-flight. However, technology advanced quickly and not long after design work on Atlas was completed, Convair rival Martin proposed a solution to the air-starting problem. Their Titan I missile, developed as an Atlas backup, had a conventional two stage design.

Comparison with R-7

The R-7 Semyorka was the first Soviet ICBM and similarly started all engines before launch to avoid igniting a large liquid fuel engine at high altitudes. However, the R-7 had a central sustainer section, with four boosters attached to its sides. The large side boosters required use of an expensive launch pad and prevented launching the rocket from a silo. Like the Atlas, the use of cryogenic liquid oxygen meant that the missile could not be kept in the state of flight readiness indefinitely and was largely useless for its intended purpose.

The R-7 was similarly developed into a space launch vehicle, initially delivering Sputnik and Vostok into orbit. The Soyuz rocket is descended from the R-7 and remains in use today.


The booster engine consisted of two large thrust chambers. On the Atlas A/B/C, one turbopump assembly powered both booster engines. On the Atlas D, the booster engines had separate pump assemblies. On the Atlas E/F, each booster turbopump also got its own gas generator. Later space launcher variants of the Atlas used the MA-5 propulsion system with twin turbopumps on each booster engine, driven by a common gas generator. The boosters were more powerful than the sustainer engine and did most of the lifting for the first two minutes of flight. In addition to pitch and yaw control, they could also perform roll control in the event of a vernier failure. The sustainer engine on all Atlas variants consisted of a single thrust chamber with its own turbopump and gas generator, and two small pressure-fed vernier engines. The verniers provided roll control and final velocity trim. The total sea level thrust of all five thrust chambers was 360,000 lbf (1,600 kN) for a standard Atlas D. Atlas E/F had 375,000 pounds of thrust. Total sea level thrust for these three-engine Atlas Es and Fs was 389,000 lbf (1,730 kN). Space launcher variants of the Atlas often had performance enhancements to the engines.


The Atlas missiles A through D used radio guidance: the missile sent information from its inertial system to a ground station by radio, and received course correction information in return. The Atlas E and F had completely autonomous inertial guidance systems.


The warhead of the Atlas D was originally the G.E. Mk 2 "heat sink" re-entry vehicle (RV) with a W49 thermonuclear weapon, combined weight 3,700 lb (1,680 kg) and yield of 1.44 megatons (Mt). The W49 was later placed in a Mk 3 ablative RV, combined weight 2,420 lb (1,100 kg). The Atlas E and F had an AVCO Mk 4 RV containing a W38 thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 3.75 Mt which was fuzed for either air burst or contact burst. The Mk 4 RV also deployed penetration aids in the form of mylar balloons which replicated the radar signature of the Mk 4 RV. The Mk 4 plus W-38 had a combined weight of 4,050 lb (1,840 kg). The Atlas missile's warhead was over 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945.

Missile versions

SM-65A Atlas

The Convair X-11/SM-65A Atlas/Atlas A was the first full-scale prototype of the Atlas missile, first flying on 11 June 1957.[6] It was a test model designed to verify the structure and propulsion system, and had no sustainer engine or separable stages. The first three Atlas A launches used an early Rocketdyne engine design with conical thrust chambers and only 135,000 pounds of thrust. By the fourth Atlas test, they were replaced by an improved engine design that had bell-shaped thrust chambers and 150,000 pounds of thrust.

The Atlas A conducted eight test flights in 1957–1958, of which four were successful. All test flights were conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at either Launch Complex 12 or Launch Complex 14.[6] Atlas A flights were powered by a single engine consisting of two large thrust chambers fed by a single set of turbopumps.

SM-65B Atlas

Atlas-B ICBM
Launch of an Atlas B ICBM

The Convair X-12/SM-65B was the second, more advanced testbed for the Atlas rocket program. The SM-65B pioneered the use of the stage and a half rocket engines that became a hallmark of the Atlas rocket program and was also the first rocket to achieve a flight distance that could be considered intercontinental when it flew 6,325 miles (10,180 km).

This was followed by the Atlas B and C in 1958–1959. The B had full engines and booster engine staging capability. The MA-1 engine system, used on both the Atlas B and Atlas C, consisted of the booster engine used on the predecessor X-11 plus a sustainer engine. MA-1 was the direct predecessor of the MA-2 engine system of Atlas D which in turn was the direct predecessor of the MA-5 engine system used in Atlas Agena and Atlas Centaur launch vehicles.

The Atlas B was first flown on 19 July 1958, with ten total flights. Nine of these were sub-orbital test flights of the Atlas as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, with five successful missions and four failures. All launches were conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at Launch Complexes 11, 13 and 14.[6]

SM-65C Atlas

The SM-65C Atlas, or Atlas C was a prototype of the Atlas missile.

The C was a more refined model with improved, lighter-weight components and a bigger LOX tank and smaller fuel tank. First flown on 24 December 1958, it was the final development version of the Atlas rocket, prior to the operational Atlas D. It was originally planned to be used as the first stage of the Atlas-Able rocket, but following an explosion during a static test on 24 September 1959, this was abandoned in favor of the Atlas D. Six flights were made, all sub-orbital test flights of the Atlas as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, with three tests succeeding, and three failing. All launches were conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at Launch Complex 12.

SM-65D Atlas

The SM-65D Atlas, or Atlas D, was the first operational version of the Atlas missile and the basis for all Atlas space launchers, debuting in 1959.[7] Atlas D weighed 255,950 lb (116,100 kg) (without payload) and had an empty weight of only 11,894 lb (5,395 kg), the other 95.35% was propellant. Dropping the 6,720 lb (3,048 kg) booster engine and fairing reduced the dry weight to 5,174 lb (2,347 kg), a mere 2.02% of the initial gross weight of the vehicle (still excluding payload). This very low dry weight allowed Atlas D to send its thermonuclear warhead to ranges as great as 9,000 miles (14,500 km) or orbit payloads without an upper stage.[8]

It first flew on 14 April 1959. To provide the United States with an interim or emergency ICBM capability, in September 1959 the Air Force deployed three SM-65D Atlas missiles on open launch pads at Vandenberg AFB, California, under the operational control of the 576th Strategic Missile Squadron, 704th Strategic Missile Wing. Completely exposed to the elements, the three missiles were serviced by a gantry crane. One missile was on operational alert at all times. They remained on alert until 1 May 1964.

SM-65E Atlas

The SM-65E Atlas, or Atlas-E, was the first 3-engine operational variant of the Atlas missile, the third engine resulting from splitting the two booster thrust chambers into separate engines with independent sets of turbopumps. It first flew on 11 October 1960, and was deployed as an operational ICBM from September 1961 until March 1965.[9]

The final variants of the Atlas ICBM were the E and F, introduced in 1960–61. E and F had fully self-contained inertial navigation systems (INS) and were nearly identical to each other except for interfaces associated with their different basing modes (underground silo for F) and the fuel management system.[10]

A major enhancement in the Atlas E was the new all-inertial system that obviated the need for ground control facilities. Since the missiles were no longer tied to a central guidance control facility, the launchers could be dispersed more widely in what was called a 1 × 9 configuration, with one missile silo located at one launch site each for the 9 missiles assigned to the squadron.

Atlas-E launches were conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at Launch Complexes 11 and 13, and Vandenberg Air Force Base at Vandenberg AFB Operational Silo Test Facility, Vandenberg AFB Launch Complex 576 and Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 3.[6]

SM-65F Atlas

The SM-65F Atlas, or Atlas-F, was the final operational variant of the Atlas missile. It first flew on 8 August 1961, and was deployed as an operational ICBM between September 1962 and April 1965.

The Atlas F was the final and most advanced version of the Atlas ICBM and was essentially a quick-firing version of the Atlas E, modified to be stored in a vertical position inside underground concrete and steel silos. When stored, the Atlas F sat atop an elevator. If a missile was placed on alert, it was fueled with RP-1 (kerosene) liquid fuel, which could be stored inside the missile for extended periods. If a decision was made to launch the missile, it was fueled with liquid oxygen. Once the liquid oxygen fueling was complete, the elevator raised the missile to the surface for launching.

This method of storage allowed the Atlas F to be launched in about ten minutes, a saving of about five minutes over the Atlas D and Atlas E, both of which were stored horizontally and had to be raised to a vertical position before being fueled.

Atlas-F launches were conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at Launch Complexes 11 and 13, and Vandenberg Air Force Base at OSTF-2, Vandenberg AFB Launch Complex 576 and Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 3.[6]

Operational deployment

SM-65 Atlas Missile Sites
SM-65 Atlas deployment sites:  SM-65D (Red), SM-65E (Purple), SM-65F (Black)

Strategic Air Command deployed 11 operational Atlas ICBM squadrons between 1959 and 1962. Each of the three missile variants, the Atlas D, E, and F series, were deployed and based in progressively more secure launchers.

Service history

The number of Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles in service, by year: CGM-16D Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles assigned:

  • 1959: 6
  • 1960: 12
  • 1961: 32
  • 1962: 32
  • 1963: 28
  • 1964: 13

CGM-16E Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles assigned:

  • 1961: 32
  • 1962: 32
  • 1963: 33
  • 1964: 30

HGM-16F Atlas Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles assigned:

  • 1961: 1
  • 1962: 80
  • 1963: 79
  • 1964: 75

Atlas-D deployment

Atlas-D ICBM launching from semi-hardened "coffin" bunker at Vandenberg AFB, California.

In September 1959 the first operational Atlas ICBM squadron went on operational alert at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming equipped with six SM-65D Atlas missiles based in above-ground launchers. Three additional Atlas D squadrons, two near F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming, and one at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, were based in above-ground launchers that provided blast protection against over-pressures of only 5 pounds per square inch (34 kPa). These units were:

Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming (2 September 1960 – 1 July 1964)
564th Strategic Missile Squadron (6 missiles)
565th Strategic Missile Squadron (9 missiles)
Offutt AFB, Nebraska (30 March 1961 – 1 October 1964)
549th Strategic Missile Squadron (9 missiles)

The first site at Warren for the 564th SMS consisted of six launchers grouped together, controlled by two launch operations buildings, and clustered around a central guidance control facility. This was called the 3 × 2 configuration: two launch complexes of three missiles each constituted a squadron.

At the second Warren site for the 565th SMS and at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, for the 549th SMS, the missiles were based in a 3 x 3 configuration: three launchers and one combined guidance control/launch facility constituted a launch complex, and three complexes comprised a squadron. At these later sites the combined guidance and control facility measured 107 by 121 ft (33 by 37 m) with a partial basement. A dispersal technique of spreading the launch complexes were 20 to 30 miles (30 to 50 km) apart was also employed to reduce the risk that one powerful nuclear warhead could destroy multiple launch sites.

Atlas-E deployment

The SM-65E Atlas were based in horizontal "semi-hard" or "coffin" facilities that protected the missile against over-pressures up to 25 psi (170 kPa). In this arrangement the missile, its support facilities, and the launch operations building were housed in reinforced concrete structures that were buried underground; only the roofs protruded above ground level. These units were:

Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington (28 September 1961 – 17 February 1965)
567th Strategic Missile Squadron, (9 missiles)
Forbes AFB, Kansas (10 October 1961 – 4 January 1965)
548th Strategic Missile Squadron, (9 missiles)
Francis E. Warren AFB, Wyoming (20 November 1961 – 4 January 1965)
566th Strategic Missile Squadron (9 missiles)

Atlas-F deployment

The six SM-65F Atlas squadrons were the first ICBMs to be stored vertically in underground silos. Built of heavily reinforced concrete, the huge silos were designed to protect the missiles from over-pressures of up to 100 psi (690 kPa).

Schilling AFB, Kansas (9 September 1962 – 1 February 1965)
550th Strategic Missile Squadron (12 missiles)
Lincoln AFB, Nebraska (15 September 1962 – 10 March 1965)
551st Strategic Missile Squadron (12 missiles)
Altus AFB, Oklahoma (9 October 1962 – 30 December 1964)
577th Strategic Missile Squadron (12 missiles)
Dyess AFB, Texas (15 November 1962 – 1 December 1964)
578th Strategic Missile Squadron (12 missiles)
Walker AFB, New Mexico (30 November 1962 – 5 January 1965)
579th Strategic Missile Squadron (12 missiles)
Plattsburgh AFB, New York (20 December 1962 – 12 March 1965)
556th Strategic Missile Squadron (12 missiles)

Retirement as an ICBM

After the solid-fuel LGM-30 Minuteman had become operational in early 1963, the Atlas became rapidly obsolete. By October 1964, all Atlas D missiles had been phased out, followed by the Atlas E/F in April 1965. About 350 Atlas ICBMs of all versions were built, with a peak deployment level of 129 (30 D, 27 E, 72 F). Despite its relatively short life span, Atlas served as the proving ground for many new missile technologies. Perhaps more importantly, its development spawned the organization, policies, and procedures that paved the way for all of the later ICBM programs.

After its retirement from operational ICBM service in 1965, the ICBMs were refurbished and used for close to forty years as space launch vehicle boosters.

Atlas-A to -C launch history

USAF ICBM and NASA Launch Vehicle Flight Test Successes and Failures (highlighted)
1965 graph of Atlas launches, cumulative by month with failures highlighted (pink) along with USAF Titan II and NASA use of ICBM boosters for Projects Mercury and Gemini (blue). Apollo–Saturn history and projections shown as well.
Pad Serial Apogee Outcome
1957-06-11 19:37 LC-14 4A 2 km (1.2 mi) Failure
1957-09-25 19:57 LC-14 6A 3 km (1.9 mi) Failure
1957-12-17 17:39 LC-14 12A 120 km (75 mi) Success
1958-01-10 15:48 LC-12 10A 120 km (75 mi) Success
1958-02-07 19:37 LC-14 13A 120 km (75 mi) Failure
1958-02-20 17:46 LC-12 11A 90 km (56 mi) Failure
1958-04-05 17:01 LC-14 15A 100 km (62 mi) Success
1958-06-03 21:28 LC-12 16A 120 km (75 mi) Success
Pad Serial Apogee Outcome Remarks
1958-07-19 17:36 LC-11 3B 10 km (6.2 mi) Failure
1958-08-02 22:16 LC-13 4B 900 km (560 mi) Success
1958-08-29 04:30 LC-11 5B 900 km (560 mi) Success
1958-09-14 05:24 LC-14 8B 900 km (560 mi) Success
1958-09-18 21:27 LC-13 6B 100 km (62 mi) Failure
1958-11-18 04:00 LC-11 9B 800 km (500 mi) Failure
1958-11-29 02:27 LC-14 12B 900 km (560 mi) Success First full-range test flight
1958-12-18 22:02 LC-11 10B N/A Success Placed SCORE satellite
into 185 km (115 mi) x
1,484 km (922 mi) x 32.3° orbit
1959-01-16 04:00 LC-14 13B 100 km (62 mi) Failure
1959-02-04 08:01 LC-11 11B 900 km (560 mi) Success
Serial Apogee Outcome
1958-12-24 04:45 3C 900 km (560 mi) Success
1959-01-27 23:34 4C 900 km (560 mi) Failure
1959-02-20 05:38 5C 100 km (62 mi) Failure
1959-03-19 00:59 7C 200 km (120 mi) Failure
1959-07-21 05:22 8C 900 km (560 mi) Success
1959-08-24 15:53 11C 900 km (560 mi) Success


  • HGM-16F Atlas is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. For years the missile was displayed outside the museum. In 1998 it was removed from display. It was restored by the museum's restoration staff and returned to display in the museum's new Missile Silo Gallery in 2007. The white nose cone atop the museum's Atlas is an AVCO IV re-entry vehicle built to contain a nuclear warhead. This nose cone actually stood alert in defense of the United States, as it was initially installed on an Atlas on 2 October 1962 at a Denton Valley launch site near Clyde, Texas.
  • Atlas 8A is displayed in front of the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Nebraska; reconfigured as an Atlas D.
  • Atlas 2E is on display in front of the San Diego Air & Space Museum at Gillespie Field, El Cajon, California.
  • Atlas 2D mounted with a Mercury capsule is on display in the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Merritt Island, Florida.

Former survivor:


Convair XSM-65A launch
Convair XSM-65A being launched
Convair XSM-65B launch
Convair XSM-65B being launched
Atlas C
Atlas C missile sitting on its launch pad, 1957/58
Launch of an SM-65E Atlas
Launch of an SM-65F Atlas

See also

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Air Force Historical Research Agency website

  1. ^ RTV-A-2 Hiroc[1][2]
  2. ^ Dennis R. Jenkins, "Stage-and-a-Half, The Atlas Launch Vehicle", To Reach the High Frontier (University Press of Kentucky, 2002) pp. 74–85
  3. ^ Mike Gruntman, Blazing the Trail, pp. 221–245, AIAA, Reston Virginia, 2004
  4. ^ "Our History". WD-40. Archived from the original on 23 June 2014.
  5. ^ John Pike. "SM-65 Atlas – United States Nuclear Forces". Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Encyclopedia Astronautica – Atlas A". Archived from the original on 22 May 2013. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  7. ^ Andreas Parsch, "Atlas D, Historical Essay", Encyclopedia Astronautica, 2003
  8. ^ M. D. Black, The Evolution of ROCKET TECHNOLOGY, p. 54, Native Planter, SLC, 2012, under ebook/History
  9. ^ James N. Gibson, Nuclear Weapons of the United States, An Illustrated History, pp. 11–14, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA, 1996
  10. ^ Atlas ICBM Geared to Total Deployment, Aviation Week and Space Technology, 25 September 1961, pgs 143–149
  11. ^ "Atlas Rocket at Science and Technology Museum dismantled". 25 February 2015. Archived from the original on 10 August 2015. Retrieved 2 May 2018.

Further reading

  • Gunston, Bill (1979). Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World's Rockets & Missiles. London: Salamander Books. ISBN 0-517-26870-1.
  • Walker, Chuck, & Powell, Joel (2005). Atlas The Ultimate Weapon. Burlington, Ontario, Canada: Apogee Books. ISBN 1-894959-18-3.
  • Maurer, Maurer, ed. (1982) [1969]. Combat Squadrons of the Air Force, World War II (PDF) (reprint ed.). Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-405-12194-6. LCCN 70605402. OCLC 72556.

External links

11th Wing

The 11th Wing (11 WG) is a United States Air Force unit assigned to the Air Force District of Washington. It is stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland where it is the host unit. The 11th Wing is one of the largest wings in the Air Force. It is known as “The Chief’s Own,” an honorific originally intended to reflect that the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force personally created the organization.

The 11th Wing traces its roots back to the 11th Observation Group which was established on 1 October 1933, but not activated. The group was redesignated as the 11 Bombardment Group (Medium) on 1 January 1938, although not activated until 1 February 1940. Later that year it became a heavy bombardment unit. The group fought in combat in the Pacific Theater of Operations with Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators. The 11th Bombardment Group earned a Navy Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in the South Pacific from 31 July to 30 November 1942. It participated in the Central Pacific; Air Offensive, Japan; Guadalcanal; Northern Solomons; Eastern Mandates; Western Pacific; Ryukyus and the China Offensive before its inactivation in 1948.

In 1978 the group was reactivated as the 11th Strategic Group, managing forward deployed Strategic Air Command (SAC) aircraft at RAF Fairford, England until 1990.

The 11th Bombardment Wing served with Strategic Air Command (SAC) during the Cold War, flying Convair B-36 Peacemakers, Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses Boeing KC-97 Stratotankers and Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. It also had SM-65 Atlas missiles assigned during the early 1960s. In 1968 the wing became the 11th Air Refueling Wing, retaining only its tankers until it was inactivated in 1969. In 1982 the wing was consolidated with the 11th Strategic Group.

The consolidated unit has served in its current mission since 1994, first as the 11th Support Wing and then as the 11th Wing

The commander of the 11th Wing is Colonel E. John Teichert. Its Command Chief Master Sergeant is Chief Master Sergeant Nathaniel M. Perry, Jr..

385th Air Expeditionary Group

The 385th Air Expeditionary Group is a provisional United States Air Force unit assigned to Air Mobility Command to activate or inactivate as needed. It was last known to be stationed at Incirlik AB, Turkey. It is currently a tenant unit of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

During World War II, it was active as the 385th Bombardment Group (Heavy), an Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress unit, stationed at RAF Great Ashfield, England. The group led the famous attack on the Focke-Wulf Assembly Plant at Marienburg in East Prussia on 9 October 1943.

During the Cold War, the 385th Strategic Aerospace Wing was a Strategic Air Command (SAC) wing assigned to the 818th Strategic Aerospace Division at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. It conducted strategic air refueling operations and maintained ICBM readiness to meet SAC commitments. The wing served as a deterrent force and also supported SAC's global air refueling mission until inactivated in 1964 as part of the phaseout of the SM-65 Atlas ICBM from the USAF inventory. It was inactivated on 15 December 1964.

816th Strategic Aerospace Division

The 816th Strategic Aerospace Division is an inactive United States Air Force organization. Its last assignment was with Second Air Force at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, where it was inactivated on 1 July 1965.

The division was activated in 1958 as the 816th Air Division, an operational headquarters for three dispersed wings flying Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft from bases in Texas and Oklahoma. In 1961 it added a squadron of SM-65 Atlas missiles and a year later was renamed the 816th Strategic Aerospace Division to reflect its control of missile and bomber forces. The division continued this role until inactivation in 1965, when Strategic Air Command realigned its command structure.

819th Strategic Aerospace Division

The 819th Strategic Aerospace Division is an inactive United States Air Force organization. Its last assignment was with Second Air Force of Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, where it was inactivated on 2 July 1966.

The division was activated as the 819th Air Division in 1956 to command two Boeing B-47 Stratojet wings that SAC was organizing at Dyess. "The division emphasized flying operations, flying training, and aircraft maintenance. In fulfilling its duties, the 819th participated in numerous tactical training exercises throughout its existence." Until April 1961, the division also provided supporting services at Dyess through its 819th Air Base Group.

After 1961, the wing became an operational headquarters for wings located at bases in the southwestern United States. It added SM-65 Atlas ICBMs, Boeing B-52 Stratofortresss and Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers in 1962, and its B-47s were phased out by the middle of the following year. The missile mission brought with it a new name, 819th Strategic Aerospace Division.

The division was inactivated in 1966 and its component wings were assigned to other SAC divisions.

820th Strategic Aerospace Division

The 820th Strategic Aerospace Division is an inactive United States Air Force organization. Its last assignment was with Strategic Air Command (SAC)'s Eighth Air Force at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York, where it was inactivated on 25 June 1965.

The division was activated as the 820th Air Division in 1956 to command the two Boeing B-47 Stratojet wings planned for Plattsburgh. However, the arrival of the second wing was delayed, and in 1959 the 820th was assigned two SAC Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic wings and air refueling wings at bases in New York and Maine. Although the second bombardment wing finally arrived at Plattsburgh, it remained a paper unit until it was inactivated.

By 1961, the division had returned to commanding the bombardment and refueling wings at Plattsburgh and managing support units there. It added SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missiles and EB-47 Stratojets of the Post Attack Command and Control System within the next year. The missiles brought with them a new name for the division, the 820th Strategic Aerospace Division.

However, by 1964 the division was reduced to commanding a single wing at Plattsburgh and an air refueling squadron in Delaware. When the Delaware squadron moved to Oklahoma and was reassigned in June 1965, the division was inactivated.


The Atlas-Able was an American expendable launch system derived from the SM-65 Atlas missile. It was a member of the Atlas family of rockets, and was used to launch several Pioneer spacecraft towards the Moon. Of the five Atlas-Able rockets built, two failed during static firings, and the other three failed to reach orbit.The Atlas-Able was a three-and-a-half-stage rocket, with a stage-and-a-half Atlas missile as the first stage, an Able second stage, and an Altair third stage. The first Atlas-Able used an Atlas C as the first stage, but this exploded during a static fire test on 24 September 1959.The remaining launches used Atlas D missiles. Launches were conducted from Launch Complexes 12 and 14 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. One launch was planned from Launch Complex 13; this became the second Atlas-Able to be destroyed during a static firing, and hence never launched.


The Atlas-Agena was an American expendable launch system derived from the SM-65 Atlas missile. It was a member of the Atlas family of rockets, and was launched 109 times between 1960 and 1978. It was used to launch the first five Mariner uncrewed probes to the planets Venus and Mars, and the Ranger and Lunar Orbiter uncrewed probes to the Moon. The upper stage was also used as an uncrewed orbital target vehicle for the Gemini crewed spacecraft to practice rendezvous and docking. However, the launch vehicle family was originally developed for the Air Force and most of its launches were classified DoD payloads.

The Atlas-Agena was a two-and-a-half-stage rocket, with a stage-and-a-half Atlas missile as the first stage, and an RM-81 Agena second stage. Initially, Atlas D missiles, redesignated as the LV-3, were used as the first stage. These were later replaced by the standardized Atlas SLV-3, and its derivatives, the SLV-3A and B. The final Atlas-Agena launch used an Atlas E/F.

The earliest Agena variant was the Agena A in 1959-60, which did not have restart capability. Most of these were flown on Thor-Agena boosters for the Discoverer program and only four used Atlases (Midas 1, Midas 2, Samos 1, and Samos 2), two of which failed.

Late in 1960, Lockheed introduced the uprated Agena B stage which was restartable and had longer propellant tanks for more burn time. It first flew on the Thor and did not make its maiden voyage on an Atlas for months, when Midas 3 launched on July 12, 1961. Atlas-Agenas were then used for DoD and NASA programs, but proved a reliability nightmare as one failure after another happened. In late 1962, after Ranger 5 suffered another booster malfunction (albeit a minor one that ground controllers were able to work around), NASA convened a review board which undertook a wholesale reevaluation of the Atlas-Agena as a launch vehicle. The board found that quality control and checkout procedures were poor, and that this situation was exacerbated by the several dozen configurations of the booster, as each individual DoD and NASA program necessitated custom modifications to the Atlas and Agena, and the latter also differed in its Atlas and Thor variants. The board recommended improved quality control, better hardware, and also establishing one standardized launch vehicle for all space programs.

The end result was the Atlas SLV-3 and Agena D, standardized versions of the Atlas D core and Agena B which would be the same on every launch (at least as far as the Atlas was concerned, Agena Ds often still had customized setups, especially for DoD payloads). The Agena D first flew in July 1963 for DoD launches, but NASA continued using Agena Bs for the remaining Ranger missions. The Atlas SLV-3 meanwhile first flew in August 1964. Dozens of Atlas SLV-3/Agena D boosters were flown over the following years, mostly for the KH-7 Gambit program, also for a few NASA missions. The last Atlas-Agena was flown in 1978 to launch SEASAT, but on a repurposed Atlas F missile rather than the SLV-3.

Launches were conducted from Launch Complexes 12, 13 and 14 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and Launch Complexes 1 and 2 at Point Arguello (now SLC-3 and 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base).


The Atlas-Centaur was a US expendable launch vehicle derived from the SM-65 Atlas D missile. Launches were conducted from Launch Complex 36 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Atlas (film)

Atlas is a 1961 action-adventure Peplum film directed by Roger Corman, filmed in Greece. Corman's regular screenwriter Charles B. Griffith wanted to title the film Atlas, the Guided Muscle based on the first American intercontinental ballistic missile the SM-65 Atlas.

Atlas (rocket family)

Atlas is a family of US missiles and space launch vehicles that originated with the SM-65 Atlas. The Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program was initiated in the late 1950s under the Convair Division of General Dynamics. Atlas was a liquid propellant rocket burning RP-1 fuel with liquid oxygen in three engines configured in an unusual "stage-and-a-half" or "parallel staging" design: two outboard booster engines were jettisoned along with supporting structures during ascent, while the center sustainer engine, propellant tanks and other structural elements remained connected through propellant depletion and engine shutdown.

The Atlas name was originally proposed by Karel Bossart and his design team working at Convair on project MX-1593. Using the name of a mighty titan from Greek mythology reflected the missile's place as the biggest and most powerful at the time. It also reflected the parent company of Convair, the Atlas Corporation.The missiles saw only brief ICBM service, and the last squadron was taken off operational alert in 1965. However, from 1962 to 1963 Atlas boosters launched the first four US astronauts to orbit the Earth (in contrast to the preceding two Redstone suborbital launches). The Atlas-Agena and Atlas-Centaur satellite launch vehicles were also derived directly from the original Atlas. The Atlas-Centaur was evolved into the Atlas II, various models of which were launched 63 times between 1991 and 2004. There were only six launches of the succeeding Atlas III, all between 2000 and 2005. The Atlas V is still in service, with launches planned into the 2020s.

More than 300 Atlas launches have been conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and 285 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Atlas E/F

The Atlas E/F (or SB-1A) was an American expendable launch system and sounding rocket built using parts of decommissioned SM-65 Atlas missiles. It was a member of the Atlas family of rockets.

The first stage was built using parts taken from decommissioned Atlas-E and Atlas-F missiles, with various solid propellant upper stages used depending on the requirements of the payload. The Atlas E/F was also used without an upper stage for a series of re-entry vehicle tests. On a single launch, an RM-81 Agena liquid-propellant upper stage was used.

Atlas G

The Atlas G, also known as Atlas G Centaur-D1AR was an American expendable launch system derived from the Atlas-Centaur. It was a member of the Atlas family of rockets, and was used to launch seven communication satellites during the mid to late 1980s. Atlas G consisted of an improved Atlas core with modernized avionics and stretched propellant tanks. The Centaur stage also had several updated components and other technical improvements. It was replaced by the Atlas I, which had an improved guidance system.

The maiden voyage of Atlas G was the launch of Intelsat 5 on June 9, 1984. Atlas performance was normal as was Centaur orbital injection, but during the coasting phase prior to the second Centaur burn, the stage's LOX tank split open. The Centaur and Intelsat tumbled end-over-end and were left in a useless orbit where they remained until reentering the atmosphere four months later.

Investigation into the failure found that a minor fatigue crack developed in the Centaur LOX tank during staging and orbital injection, which eventually led to complete tank failure and loss of the mission. The uprated Centaur flown on Atlas G, among other changes, deleted the propellant boost pumps in the interest of greater simplicity and weight-saving. To compensate for this, LOX tank pressure was increased 25%. Although the tank had been designed to accommodate higher pressure, technicians at Convair inexplicably failed to test Centaur 5402 for leaks before shipping it to Cape Canaveral. In addition, engineers had not tested the Centaur G stages to verify if they could handle the shock from the explosive bolts on the booster firing during staging, but this test was performed later and the stage passed it.

Finally, the leak testing program and tools used at Convair were outdated and less reliable than newer methods and the tech personnel in charge of fabricating the Centaur's balloon tanks were badly inexperienced. Ultimately, this was a symptom of the entire US space program in the 1980s as plans to entirely replace expendable launch vehicles with the Space Shuttle had resulted in large-scale budget cutbacks and layoffs of experienced technicians.

Six more Atlas G/Centaur launches took place through 1989. These were:

Intelsat 5A F-10, March 22, 1985

Intelsat 5A F-11, June 30, 1985

Intelsat 5A F-12, September 28, 1985

FLTSATCOM 7, December 5, 1986

FLTSATCOM 6, March 26, 1987 (launch failed after the booster was struck by lightning)

FLTSATCOM 8, September 25, 1989The first stage was derived from the SM-65 Atlas missile, and a Centaur was used as the second stage. The first stage was also flown without the Centaur, as the Atlas H.

Atlas H

The Atlas H was an American expendable launch system derived from the SM-65 Atlas missile. It was a member of the Atlas family of rockets, and was used to launch five clusters of NOSS satellites for the US National Reconnaissance Office. Two flights also carried LiPS satellites, as secondary payloads for the United States Naval Research Laboratory.

The Atlas H was a stage and a half rocket, using the enhanced Atlas rocket designed for use as the first stage of the Atlas G rocket, which differed from the Atlas H in having a Centaur upper stage. This stage was later reused as the first stage of the Atlas I. In practice, an MSD upper stage was flown on all five launches.Atlas H could put a payload of 3,630 kg (8,000 lb) into low Earth orbit, or a payload of 2,255 kg (4,971 lb) into a geostationary transfer orbit.

Atlas SLV-3

The Atlas SLV-3, or SLV-3 Atlas was an American expendable launch system derived from the SM-65 Atlas / SM-65D Atlas missile. It was a member of the Atlas family of rockets.

The Atlas SLV-3 was a stage and a half rocket, built as a standardized replacement for earlier Atlas launch systems, which had been derived from the various Atlas missiles.Most space launcher variants of the Atlas up to 1965 were derived from the D-series Atlas ICBM with custom modifications for the needs of the particular mission. The SLV-3 would use a standardized configuration based on the Atlas D missile for all launches with the exception of different widths for the top of the rocket depending on the upper stage being flown.

The SLV-3 had thicker gauge tank walls to support the weight of upper stages as well as upgraded engines and removal of unneeded ICBM hardware such as retrorockets. Although the main engines had greater thrust, the verniers were detuned slightly in the interest of improved ISP (vacuum specific impulse).

Variants of the SLV-3 flew until 2005 when the legacy Atlas was retired from service and replaced by the Atlas V, a completely new vehicle with conventional aircraft-style construction and different engines.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 13

Launch Complex 13 (LC-13) was a launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the third-most southerly of the original launch complexes known as Missile Row, lying between LC-12 and LC-14. The LC-13 site is currently leased by SpaceX and has been renovated for use as Landing Zone 1 and Landing Zone 2, their east coast landing location for returning Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicle booster stages.

LC-13 was originally used for test launches of the SM-65 Atlas and subsequently for operational Atlas launches from 1958 to 1978. It was the most-used and longest-serving of the original four Atlas pads. It was inactive between 1980 and 2015.

On 16 April 1984, it was added to the US National Register of Historic Places; however it was not maintained and gradually deteriorated. On 6 August 2005 the mobile service tower was demolished as a safety precaution due to structural damage by corrosion. The blockhouse was demolished in 2012.LC-13 was on land owned by the US government and was originally controlled by the United States Air Force. It was transferred to NASA in 1964 and back to the Air Force in 1970. In January 2015, the land and remaining facilities at LC-13 were leased to SpaceX for a five-year lease.

List of Atlas launches

This is a list of launches made by the Atlas rocket family, derived from the SM-65 Atlas ICBM. The currently operational variant, Atlas V, has flown 68 consecutive missions without failure between October 2007 and May 2018.

Due to the size of the list, it has been split by decade:

List of Atlas launches (1957–1959)

List of Atlas launches (1960–1969)

List of Atlas launches (1970–1979)

List of Atlas launches (1980–1989)

List of Atlas launches (1990–1999)

List of Atlas launches (2000–2009)

List of Atlas launches (2010–2019)

List of Atlas launches (2020–2029)

List of USAF Strategic Missile Wings assigned to Strategic Air Command

This is a list of the three generations of ICBMs produced and deployed by the United States during the Cold War, with a fourth generation ICBM being deployed in small numbers at the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Development of Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology as an outgrowth of the World War II V-2 rocket technology developed by Germany, and the mating of nuclear weapon technology developed by the United States created an entire new method of warfare. Due to their great range and firepower, in an all-out nuclear war, land-based ICBMs would carry most of the destructive force, with long-range, nuclear-armed bombers and Submarine-launched ballistic missiles carrying the remainder. These three components were collectivity referred to as the United States nuclear triad. The United States Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) was the US military command and control organization for ICBMs and nuclear-armed bombers. Over a million men and women served in SAC, on daily alert 24 hours a day, with a mission to preserve the peace and deter any aggressor nation from attacking the United States and its allies.

Note: The PGM-17 Thor and PGM-19 Jupiter Medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), or the SM-62 Snark intercontinental cruise missile developed by the US Air Force in the 1950s are not included on this list.

SM-68 Titan

The SM-68 Titan (individual variants later designated HGM-25 Titan I and LGM-25 Titan II) was the designation of two intercontinental ballistic missiles developed for the United States Air Force. The Titan I and Titan II missiles were operational between 1962 and 1987 during the Cold War. These missiles, particularly the Titan II, were the basis of the Titan family of space launch vehicles.

Titan was originally built as a backup to the SM-65 Atlas. The Titan I used RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellants and required around fifteen minutes to load the rocket and raise it to a launch position. The more powerful Titan II used nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine, allowing it to be stored with propellant loaded, giving it a much shorter response time.

Vandenberg AFB Launch Complex 576

Launch Complex 576 is a group of rocket launch pads at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The pads were used from 1959 until 1971 to launch SM-65 Atlas missiles. The site was also known as Complex ABRES. Pads in Area 576 include 576-A-1,2,3, 576-B-1,2,3, 576-C, 576-D, 576-E, OSTF-1 and OSTF-2.The first operational launch of an Atlas missile by the Strategic Air Command was conducted from 576-A-2 by the 576th Strategic Missile Squadron on September 9, 1959. It impacted 4,480 nautical miles (8,300 km) away, near Wake Island.The first Atlas F launch at Vandenberg took place from 576-E on August 1, 1962. Orbital Sciences Corporation now launches their Taurus rockets from 576-E. 576-E is also a candidate site for launches of Kinetic Energy Interceptor boosters. The USAF and Missile Defense Agency anticipate a minimum of three KEI launches per year from 2009 to at least 2012.

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