Atlas: The Ultimate Weapon

Article excerpt

Atlas: The Ultimate Weapon by Chuck Walker with Joel Powell. Apogee Books / Collectors Guide Publishing (, 1440 Graham's Lane, Unit no. 2, Burlington, Ontario L7S 1W3, Canada, 2005, 304 pages, $29.95 (softcover).

In Atlas: The Ultimate Weapon, Chuck Walker tells the story of the development of the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from an insider's perspective. The work captures well the importance of the Atlas rocket as bodi a ballistic missile and space-launch vehicle. One of three major launch systems developed in the 1950s by the Department of Defense (DOD) that found both military and commercial uses, Adas began with the US Army Air Corps' request for proposal in October 1945. By 10 January 1946, Consolidated-Vultee's (Convair) engineers, under the leadership of Belgian-born Karel Bossart, had submitted their proposal for a 6,000nautical-mile ballistic missile. New technologies proposed for the missile included extremely low structural weight through the use of steelmonocoque, single-wall construction tanks kept rigid by internal tank pressure; a state-of-the-art rocket motor with unique gimbals to help control attitude; a detachable payload or warhead section; and nearly single-stage-to-orbit performance through the "stage-and-a-half" approach of jettisoning the booster engines rather than a full stage during the ascent. On 19 April 1946, Convair received a contract in the amount of $1,893,000 for fabricating and testing 10 missiles to verify Bossart's innovative concepts. But the Atlas program was stillborn; DOD cutbacks forced termination of the contract in July 1947.

With renewed international tensions in 1951, die DOD gave Convair a new contract to design a ballistic missile incorporating the basic features already validated. In 1953 Convair presented a plan to the Air Force for a full-fledged development program, and in January 1955 it received the go-ahead to develop what was called at the time MX-774. At Convair the project was known as Model 7 (in Russia, Korolev was then working on the competing R-7 ICBM-evidently both sides wanted to use the lucky number). In September 1955, faced with intelligence reports of the Russians' progress on their ICBM, the DOD gave Atlas the highest national development priority. The project became one of the largest and most complex production, testing, and construction programs ever undertaken. Benefiting from the hard-driving management of Brig Gen Bernard A. Schriever, who managed the project for the Air Force, Atlas became the first ICBM in the US arsenal. It underwent its first test-fire on 11 June 1955, and a later-generation rocket became operational in 1959.

Although replaced as a ballistic missile in 1965, the Adas has enjoyed a significant career as a space launcher thereafter, with more than 440 launches to its credit. …