ASME-Landmark:Atlas Launch Vehicle


In October 1945, Convair signed a contract with the Air Force to come up with ideas for missiles in four ranges, from 20 to 5,000 miles. The assignment went to a group of engineers, headed by Charlie Bossart, at Convair's Vultee Field Division, near Downey, California. When Vultee closed, the engineers moved to San Diego. Almost from the start, they decided to concentrate on the toughest, but potentially most powerful, of the four missiles the study contract specified: a 5,000-mile ballistic missile.

Their initial assignment was to develop the Atlas forerunner, called the MX-774 research rocket. Bossart improved on the design of the German V-2 of World War II, drastically reducing its weight by developing the separable nose cone and the single, pressure-stabilized fuel tank that needed no internal bracing.

Following test firings in San Diego, the three MX-774s were launched in 1948, at White Sands in New Mexico. In the early 1950s, further improvements on the MX-774's design included a special cold-rolled stainless steel that could be welded, a unique one-and-one-half-stage propulsion system, and the radio-inertial guidance system.

The basic concept of the Atlas system was proven in its first flight on June 11, 1957, followed over the years by the launching more than five hundred vehicles including the Pioneer, Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor. Many payloads were sent into orbit as detachable sections of Atlas missiles. The E-2 launched the world's first communications satellite in 1958, put the first American into orbit in 1962, and was responsible for sending many other notable payloads into space. See ASME website for more information