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Rocket science, then and now
Engineers who developed the Atlas missile reflect on launching satellites, practical jokes, and wildlife on base

Date: 03/05/2008

It was 1957. Elvis was still king, John F. Kennedy Jr. had just won a Pulitzer Prize, the country was smack in the middle of the Cold War, and Tang had been introduced to the public.

In the midst of all of these highs and lows, a group of engineers managed to fire off the country's first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM. The Atlas 4A blew up--and not in a good way.

"Way back then, we didn't know a lot about missiles and space," said Val Brose, a retired Atlas engineer.

But through trial and error,loewe outlet new designs, and fresh ideas, those engineers eventually figured out how to get it right.

That first Atlas missile? Turns out, Brose explained, that all they had to do was move the engines to the outside where there was plenty of oxygen to burn. Problem solved.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that the solution seems to be a fairly simple one, but back then, the whole field was just developing. Each problem had to be figured out for the very first time. The men and women who worked on those first ICBMs paved the way for future generations of missiles and launch vehicles.

At the time, though, they didn't see it that way.

"We weren't looking forward so much," Brose said. "We were just trying to get it to work."

The Atlas of today

Over the years, they did get it to work, and the result was an Atlas program that continued to evolve through the last five decades. That progression ultimately produced the latest model, the Atlas V. It's the largest and fastest Atlas yet at 195 feet tall, it's capable of hauling the nation's largest spacecraft.

Previously launched from Cape Canaveral, the Atlas V is now launching from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 3, commonly known as SLC-3, where Brose and his co-workers used to test the early Atlas missiles.

An Atlas V launch date had been set for Feb. 29, but was delayed. The new launch date has yet to be determined. To prepare for the launch, SLC-3 was renovated over a period of 22 months to support the new, much larger launch vehicle.

"We're really excited--not just my squadron, but the 30th Space Wing as a whole," said Lt. Colonel Heather Knight, commander of the 4th Space Launch Squadron, which is responsible for the Delta IV and Atlas V vehicles.

Knight's squadron works in a team 145 people strong, mostly staff members of United Launch Alliance, the last in a string of companies that have worked on the Atlas program. The alliance referenced in the name is between Lockheed-Martin and Boeing.

Vandenberg's historic launch complex is now equipped with the latest technology, Knight said. That means computers and analysis machines that weren't available in the '50s and '60s. When you consider what the engineers back then were working with, she said, it becomes even more impressive that they accomplished so much.

In the beginning

The Atlas program got its start in 1946 when the United States Air Force awarded a research contract to Convair, a division of General Dynamics. The contract paid for the study of a nuclear missile with a range of 1,500 to 5,000 miles--plenty of distance to hit any target within Europe.

The Atlas wasn't ready to test until 1957, and it wasn't operational until 1959, just in time for the Cold War.

Brose started at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1958, the same year that the Atlas was available as a weapon, though it was never used as one.


"The Atlas was designed so it could hit a target as far away as Russia," Brose said. "It was a deterrent."

In light of that history, today's Atlas V is a gleaming example of irony. It runs off a Russian-made engine.

"We never could have predicted that," said Dick Hilden, a mechanical engineer who worked on the Atlas program from 1959 till 2006.

The Atlas was the United States' only ICBM during the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said. Security was tight at the facility on Vandenberg, especially during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

"You didn't want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or you'd end up with your face in the dirt and a rifle at your back," Hilden said.

During the crisis, about 85 Atlas missiles stood on alert at strategic points throughout the United States, according to information provided by United Launch Alliance. The facility at Vandenberg, however, was more concerned with research and development. In the early days, the success rate was about 50 percent, said retired engineer Jack Hamner, who spent 34 years with General Dynamics, the company that bought out Convair.

"You got it off the ground, you figured it was a success," Hamner said.

During his time at Vandenberg, Hamner estimated, about 300 Atlas rockets launched from SLC-3, both before and after the Atlas' change from missile to launch system. The number of launches and the success rate probably represent the biggest change in the Atlas program from the '60s to today, Knight said.

While the program was still in its research and development phase, the engineers needed lots of launches to iron out the kinks. Now, the Atlas is part of the family of Evolved Extendable Launch Vehicles (EELV), a series of rockets that can be used interchangeably to deliver satellites and other "payloads" into space.

The current launch record for Atlas Vs at Cape Canaveral is pristine: 12 for 12. Today's military expects nothing less, Knight explained, because the launch vehicles are carrying satellites worth billions of dollars.

The lighter side of missiles

The atmosphere out at the launch complex has also changed considerably. Back in the early '60s, Hilden said, the guys at SLC-3 decided that the launch pad needed a pool, so they filled the flame bucket--which was about the size of a tennis court and about 4 feet deep--with water from the Air Force's tank. The pool stood for a few weeks before the Air Force found out.

"When they found out where all the water was going," Hilden said, "well, we heard about it."

Knight laughed at that story, noting "that kind of thing wouldn't fly now."

Then there was the soup incident. According to Hamner, one of the engineers at the SLC-3 used to eat soup for lunch every day. His co-workers (Hamner won't name names) decided that it would be funny to use liquid nitrogen to freeze the soup can. One day, the guy heated up his soup as usual, opened the can, and discovered that the meal was still frozen solid.

Hamner hasn't been out to SLC-3 in a while, but it's pretty safe to assume that they don't leave the liquid nitrogen lying around so much like they used to, he said.

March of progress

Of all the changes at the launch complex, the advances in technology are most noticeable. Brose has his own "we used to walk 10 miles through the snow"-types of stories, but at the time, he was working with some of the most advanced machinery in the world.

Instead of computers, Brose said, the engineers at SLC-3 used to use recorders, machines that fed a long roll of paper through needles that made marks on the page, which churned out in roll after roll. Later, engineers had to analyze the marks.

"Say you're monitoring hydraulic pressure," he said. "Well, that looks like a squiggly line going down the paper."

Now, a computer can do all that analysis in seconds. The launch process is so reliant on computers these days that the last four minutes of the launch sequence are entirely controlled by a computer, Knight said. If they need to stop, however, there's still a button for a human to push.

Challenges and changes

The Atlas itself was a more volatile project in the early days. Brose remembered a few close calls, including one where an engine fell off the rocket during launch, causing the missile to go down into a field nearby. If the engine had fallen off on the other side, he said, the missile would have landed in a nearby parking lot.

Workers on SLC-3 used to have some other unusual problems. One was live ammunition littering the ground around the platform. Launches would stir up dirt and uncover old grenades and live ammunition left over from training exercises that preceded the Atlas program. Once, Brose said, a guy in the fallback area--a patch of dirt far enough from the Atlas to safely watch a launch--kicked at some rocks and revealed a hand grenade.

Usually the live litter wasn't a huge deal, Brose said they'd just call the bomb guys to come blow it up.

There were mountain lions out by SLC-3, Hilden said, as well as wild pigs, rattlesnakes, and more hawks than you could count. An owl used to live in one of the missile assembly buildings, he explained, until someone complained about the owl pellets and the bird was taken away.

"Mistake," Hilden said. "Big mistake. What happened then is they got a whole bunch of pigeons in the building, and they pooped all over the missile.

"We had to clean it up," he added. "Pigeon poo is caustic. It would have damaged the missile."

When he retired in 2006, there weren't nearly as many wild animals near the launch pad, Hilden said.

"There's been so much change going on out there since I started, it's not even recognizable," he said.

Change has always been a part of the Atlas program. The project started with a missile and went through an A series, B series, all the way up the alphabet to F. Along the way, it morphed from a weapon to a rocket designed to take satellites and people into space. The Atlas was the rocket that launched the Mariner 2, the first successful interplanetary spacecraft in 1962.

By 1965, the Atlas ICBMs were officially decommissioned, but with so many Atlas rockets already made, they continued to launch everything from satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office to weather probes for NASA. In 2006, an Atlas AV-010 launched the first spacecraft to Pluto.

The first Atlas was about 85 feet tall, a big steel balloon full of fuel and oxygen. It had to be pressurized at all times just so it would keep its shape. The Atlas V is a monster rocket, 195 feet tall, and can be equipped with one to five solid rocket boosters depending on the weight of the payload.

When it does launch from Vandenberg, most likely sometime in the next month, Brose, Hamner, Hilden and all of their friends who used to work on the Atlas with them will no doubt be following its progress.

Working on those rockets was their life work, after all, and they're still proud of their efforts.

Contact Staff Writer Sarah E. Thien at

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