Encyclopedia Astronautica
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Atlas A
Part of Atlas Family
Atlas A/B/D
Atlas A/B/D
Test missiles Atlas A and Atlas B; Atlas D-Mercury
Credit: © Mark Wade
American test vehicle. First test model of Atlas ICBM. Two booster engines, no sustainer, dummy warhead. 50% reliability in 8 flight tests.

AKA: B-65; PGM-16A; SM-65A; WS 107A-1; X-11. Status: Retired 1958. First Launch: 1957-06-11. Last Launch: 1958-06-03. Number: 8 . Thrust: 1,334.50 kN (300,008 lbf). Gross mass: 81,647 kg (180,000 lb). Height: 28.00 m (91.00 ft). Diameter: 3.05 m (10.00 ft). Apogee: 120 km (70 mi).

Maximum range: 900 km (550 mi).

Stage Data - Atlas A

  • Stage 1. 1 x Atlas A. Gross Mass: 81,647 kg (180,000 lb). Empty Mass: 7,230 kg (15,930 lb). Thrust (vac): 1,517.412 kN (341,128 lbf). Isp: 282 sec. Burn time: 133 sec. Isp(sl): 248 sec. Diameter: 3.05 m (10.00 ft). Span: 4.90 m (16.00 ft). Length: 23.17 m (76.01 ft). Propellants: Lox/Kerosene. No Engines: 2. Engine: XLR-89-1. Status: Out of Production.

Historical Essay © Andreas Parsch

Convair B-65-SM-65-CGM-16-HGM-16 Atlas

The Atlas was the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) deployed by the USA. Its descendents are still in use today as civilian and military space launch vehicles.

The Atlas development can be traced back to the days immediately after World War II, when captured German rocket and missile technology supported many new missile research studies. In April 1946, Consolidated-Vultee (later Convair) began project MX-774 to study long-range ballistic missiles. The studies led to a test rocket, designated RTV-A-2 Hiroc, which was to pioneer several new design techniques which would later be used in the Atlas. The Hiroc featured a gimballed rocket nozzle to steer the vehicle by thrust-vectoring instead of weight- and drag-increasing control fins, and had a separable nose cone for the payload. The most radical feature of the RTV-A-2 was its internal pressure stabilized flight structure. The missile's skin was very thin, and was inflated by internal pressure like a balloon. This significantly reduced the empty weight of the vehicle. However, it also made the missile rather fragile, because a single hole in the skin would lead to the collapse of the whole structure, just like a limp balloon. Because limited funding allowed only to pursue the most promising missile projects, and long-range ballistic missiles were deemed to be too far in the future, MX-774 was cancelled in June 1947. However, Convair was allowed to complete three Hiroc vehicles, and the first of these flew in July 1948. All three flights were only partially successful but helped a lot to validate the new design concepts.

After the cancellation of MX-774, Convair continued low-key internal studies on ballistic missiles, developing the idea of the "one and one half" stage rocket. In this type of design, both booster and sustainer engine(s) would ignite at lift-off, and the boosters would be dropped later in the flight. This circumvented the difficulty of having to ignite the sustainer at high altitude, which was then considered a potential problem. When military funding sharply increased after outbreak of the Korean War, Convair was awarded a contract for the long-range ballistic missile project MX-1593 in January 1951. Later in 1951, the USAF decided to assign aircraft-like designations to its guided missiles, and the designation B-65 was assigned to the MX-1593 missile (named Atlas by this time).

In 1953 Convair had completed the initial design studies. The Atlas was to be a huge 27 m (90 ft) long, 3.6 m (12 ft) wide rocket, with five engines producting 2700+ kN (600000+ lb) of total thrust. The size was deemed necessary to launch the expected very heavy (65 ton) thermonuclear warhead to intercontinental range. Because of the limited accuracy of then available intercontinental guidance systems, a megaton-class thermonuclear warhead was necessary for the Atlas to be effective against hardened targets. A ten-year development program was approved, with an initial operational deployment planned for 1963. To minimize risk, it was decided to develop a single-engine test vehicle first, designated X-11, followed by a three-engine X-12 test vehicle and an XB-65 five-engine strategic missile prototype.

In 1954, the H-bomb tests in the Pacific showed that the warhead for the Atlas could be made significantly smaller and lighter than expected. Therefore, the five-engine XB-65 design was cancelled and replaced by a much smaller three-engine design. The booster engines were North American (Rocketdyne) LR89, and the sustainer engine was a Rocketdyne LR105 enigne, both fueled with RP-1 (kerosene) and liquid oxygen. Two small Rocketdyne LR101 vernier engines were used for fine-tuning thrust and directional control. The whole Atlas propulsion system was known as MA-2. In 1955, in the light of discovering Russian ICBM activities, the Atlas development was accelerated, and it was approved to flight test preliminary prototype models which lacked some feartures of the planned production missile. The XB-65A Atlas A had only booster engines, and a dummy warhead. In August 1955, the USAF dropped all aircraft-like designations for guided missiles, and the Atlas became the SM-65.

On 11 June 1957 the first attempt to fly an XSM-65A was made, but due to a booster malfunction the missile had to be destroyed a few seconds after lift-off. The first successful Atlas A flight to the full range of 1100 km (600 nm) was the third one, on 17 December 1957. Atlas A testing was completed in June 1958.

Family: pad-launched, test vehicle. Country: USA. Engines: B-2C, XLR89-1. Launch Sites: Edwards, Cape Canaveral, Cape Canaveral LC14, Cape Canaveral LC12. Stages: Atlas A stage. Agency: Convair. More at: 8161.


Photo Gallery

WS-107WS-107
WS-107 Concept 2. First mock-up of the Atlas missile in the three-chamber configuration.
Credit: Ronald Wade



1950 October 1 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • RAND studies ICBM's. - . Nation: USA. Rand Corp. completed missile feasibility studies begun in 1949, which confirmed the military practicability of long-range rocket weapons..

1951 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas tracking system. - . Nation: USA. Azusa tracking system reaching advanced stage of development.

1951 January 16 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Project MX-1593 (Project Atlas) begins. - . Nation: USA.

    Air Force established Project MX-1593 (Project Atlas), study phase for an intercontinental missile. Requirements included 8000-pound warhead, 5000 nautical mile range, to hit within 1500 ft. CEP. $1.5 million study contract was awarded to Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft on January 23. This was the follow-on to Project MX-774 terminated in 1947. Several test vehicles had been fired using residual funds in 1948 and 1949, after which the Convair MX-774 (Atlas) missile project had been shelved. The company, however, had continued to fund a research program.


1951 August - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas XB-65 configuration. - . Nation: USA. MX-1593 named "Project Atlas" as XB-65; 120 feet long, 12-foot diameter, 7 engines, 8000-pound warhead, CEP 1 nautical mile.

1951 August - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas to be accelerated. - . Nation: USA. AF Gen. John Sessums proposes Atlas acceleration.

1951 September 1 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas project to concentrate on ballistic missile. - . Nation: USA. MX-1593 glide missile cancelled. USAF directed all work in Project MX-1593 (Atlas) be for development of a rocket-powered ballistic missile..

Late 1951/early 1952 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Reports of large Russian rocket engines - . Nation: USA.

During 1952 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Reduced thermonuclear warhead size will allow American ICBM's to be smaller. - . Nation: USA. Atlas 3000-pound warhead anticipated, 1500-foot CEP.

1952 March - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Gen. Joseph McNarney joins Convair - . Nation: USA.

1953 January - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Millikan Committee Report - . Nation: USA. Millikan Committee report issued, saying Atlas could be operational by 1963.

Spring 1953 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas size reduced. - . Nation: USA. Atlas 12-foot diameter, 110 feet long, 440,000 pounds, 3000-pound warhead, 5500 nautical mile range, 1500-foot CEP.

1953 June - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Defense Secretary Wilson institutes reviews of guided missiles' status - . Nation: USA.

1953 July - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • J.R. Dempsey joins Convair - . Nation: USA.

1953 September - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Von Neumann's "Teapot Committee" established - . Nation: USA.

1953 October - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Teapot Committee's first output - . Nation: USA. ICBM could use smaller warhead.

1953 December 3 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Convair leases test facility. - . Nation: USA. A five-year Pt. Loma lease was approved..

1954 February 10 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Teapot Report - . Nation: USA. The ICBM design feasible, as was acceleration of the program; Rand Corporation Report: Atlas ICBM could be operational by 1960-62 and should have crash project status.

1954 March - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Operation Castle thermonuclear tests confirm feasibility of small warheads - . Nation: USA.

1954 March - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • First Atlas hardware. - . Nation: USA. 12-foot diameter Atlas tank completed by Solar.

1954 March 1 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas propulsion system work begins. - . Nation: USA. Work on MA-2 propulsion system for Atlas by Rocketdyne was begun, drawing upon the experience in developing the regeneratively cooled chamber developed for the Navaho..

1954 March 8 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • First public indication that Project Atlas exists - . Nation: USA.

May 1954 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas receives high priority. - . Nation: USA. Highest AF development priority (and accelerated schedule) assigned Atlas.

1954 May 17 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Ramo-Woolridge to manage Atlas. - . Nation: USA. Ramo-Wooldridge given letter contract as Technical Director and Systems Integrator for Atlas program.

1954 June 21 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Schriever named head of Atlas program. - . Nation: USA. Brigadier-General Bernard A. Schriever, ARDC, assigned to head Atlas program.

1954 July 1 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Western Development Division (WDD) established by USAF - . Nation: USA. Western Development Division (WDD) established by AF under ARDC to manage Atlas development; Rocketdyne put on contract for propulsion system.

1954 July 1 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Rocketdyne put on contract for Atlas engines. - . Nation: USA. Western Development Division (WDD) established by AF under ARDC to manage Atlas development; .

1954 July - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Scientific Advisory Board recommendations rejected. - . Nation: USA. Scientific Advisory Board recommendations differing from Teapot Committee rejected.

1954 August - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • First USAF WDD Facility - . Nation: USA. Inglewood "Schoolhouse" WDD facility established.

Late 1954 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas further reduced in size - . Nation: USA. Atlas size reduced from 12-foot to 10-foot diameter, with 3 large engines.

1954 December - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas full-scale development - . Nation: USA. First major Atlas WS107A1 development and construction contract awarded Convair; CEP 2-3 NM, IOC by 1960-62.

1954 December 16 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas publicly announced. - . Nation: USA. USAF announced Atlas ICBM under construction by Convair..

Early 1955 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas fabrication begins - . Nation: USA.

1955 March 6 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas given top development priority. - . Nation: USA. USAF Chief of Staff, Nathan F. Twining, reported that ICBM's were receiving priority in the AF program because of known Soviet progress. Navaho, Snark, and Atlas programs accelerated..

1955 April - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • New WDD complex - . Nation: USA. New WDD complex activated on Arbor Vitae Blvd. in Los Angeles.

Late 1955 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas program assigned top priority in the nation - . Nation: USA. Atlas program assigned top priority in the nation (was highest priority only for AF).

1956 May - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas production plant at Kearney Mesa - . Nation: USA. New Astronautics plant announced—$20 million funding by General Dynamics, with the Air Force to match, for tooling and special equipment.

1956 May 3 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Convair announced as the prime contractorfor the Atlas - . Nation: USA. The Air Force disclosed that a $41 million guided missile production facility would be built at Sorrento, California, for the Atlas launch vehicle. Convair was announced as the prime contractor..

1956 June 21 - . Launch Site: Edwards. Launch Complex: Edwards. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas ICBM first test firing - . Nation: USA.

    First captive Atlas first test firing. The 'battleship' missile was installed at test stand 1-4, Edwards Air Force Base. The test was a failure due to inadvertant closure of the fuel prevalve, leading to duct collapse, and a turbine overspeed cutoff. No damage was sustained and the first successful firing came the next day. Atlas, First successful captive test firing, June 22, 1956, Edwards Rocket Base, duration - 4 seconds. Successful.


1956 June 22 - . Launch Site: Edwards. Launch Complex: Edwards. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas ICBM first successful test firing - . Nation: USA. First successful captive test firing of the Atlas ICBM at Edwards Air Force Base, duration - 4 seconds..

1956 June 23 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • First Atlas battleship tests - . Nation: USA. First system engine tests on ERB 1-4 battleship setup.

1956 September - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas 1A - . Nation: USA. Missile 1A delivered to Sycamore for captive tests.

1956 December - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • First Atlas firing, stand S-l, Sycamore - . Nation: USA.

1956 December - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Scheduled design complete (95%) for Atlas A-series missiles - . Nation: USA.

1956 December 21 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas 1A destroyed in test. - . Nation: USA. Missile 1A burned on second run at S-l with stand damage.

Spring 1957 - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • First flight Atlas missile, 4A, delivered, and shipped to AMR - . Nation: USA.

1957 March - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Atlas 4A erected on AMR LC-14 - . Nation: USA.

1957 June - . LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • WDD renamed Ballistic Missiles Division (BMD) - . Nation: USA.

1957 June 11 - . 19:37 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC14. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A. FAILURE: Failure in the booster fuel system.. Failed Stage: 1.
  • Research and development test - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 3.00 km (1.80 mi).

    The first Atlas Series A flight test missile (4A) had to be destroyed shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral due to a booster engine shutdown and loss of thrust. From a technical standpoint, however, this first booster-only launch successfully demonstrated the launching mechanism, structural integrity of the airframe, subsystems performance, and operating procedures for launch crew personnel. First test flight of prototype WS-107A Atlas was detonated by command signal at 10,000 feet following a failure in the booster fuel system. The 23-second flight was considered a partial success.


1957 September 25 - . 19:57 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC14. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A. FAILURE: Failure in the booster fuel system.. Failed Stage: 1.
  • Research and development test - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 4.00 km (2.40 mi).

    The second Atlas flight test missile (6A) was destroyed 32 seconds into the flight because of an engine shutdown. Atlas was again destroyed by command signal at three minutes into flight following a failure in the booster fuel system. The 50-second active flight was considered a partial success.


1957 December 17 - . 17:39 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC14. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Research and development test - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 120 km (70 mi).

    The third flight test missile (12A) became the first successful Atlas Series A missile flight. A short-range, booster-only flight was completed with the booster impacting 575 miles down range from Cape Canaveral. During the flight, all systems performed satisfactorily. First successful test firing of USAF Atlas ICBM, the missile landing in the target area after a flight of 600 miles.


1958 January 10 - . 15:48 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC12. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Research and development test - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 120 km (70 mi). A successful limited flight was made by the fourth Atlas fired from Cape Canaveral..

1958 February 7 - . 19:37 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC14. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A. FAILURE: Failure. Failed Stage: 1.
  • Research and development launch - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 120 km (70 mi).

1958 February 20 - . 17:46 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC12. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A. FAILURE: Failure. Failed Stage: 1.
  • Research and development launch - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF.

1958 April 5 - . 17:01 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC14. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A. FAILURE: Failure. Failed Stage: 1.
  • Research and development test - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 100 km (60 mi). USAF Atlas A ICBM was successfully flown from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to the impact area some 600 miles away..

1958 June 3 - . 21:28 GMT - . Launch Site: Cape Canaveral. Launch Complex: Cape Canaveral LC12. LV Family: Atlas. Launch Vehicle: Atlas A.
  • Research and development test - . Nation: USA. Agency: USAF. Apogee: 120 km (70 mi).

    The final Series A Atlas missile (16A) was launched from Cape Canaveral. Of the eight research and development launches, five had been failures, but each had provided vast quantities of important data. Last Atlas A flight, considered fully successful. Four of the eight flights were considered successful.



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