The Thor Agena A booster and upper stage combination. As an upper stage on Thor, Atlas and Titan rockets, Agena made early Air Force satellite operations possible by providing a reliable and versatile orbital platform.
This liquid-fueled rocket engine powered early Agena spacecraft that played a crucial role in putting the first reconnaissance and early warning satellites into orbit in the 1950s and 1960s. Used as a second stage to boost satellites into higher orbits, Agena upper stages transformed Air Force ballistic missiles into effective space launch vehicles.
The versatile Lockheed Agena upper stage had the unique ability to maneuver in orbit, carry a variety of heavy payloads, and eject reconnaissance film capsules for recovery on earth. Later Agenas carried probes to the moon and other planets, and one version served as a docking target in the Gemini manned space program. Different Agena models were carried as upper stages on Atlas, Thor and Titan rockets, and the Thor Agena A rocket on display in this gallery has an Agena upper stage. The Bell Model 8048 engine, also known as the XLR81, powered 20 Agena vehicles from 1959 to 1961.
The engine is the first of a family of similar engines that powered Agena A, Agena B and Agena D spacecraft. This engine was "gimbaled," that is, its thrust nozzle could be pivoted to steer the rocket. The Model 8048 was also known briefly as the "Hustler" because it was originally designed to power a stand-off nuclear weapon to be carried under the B-58 Hustler bomber. Bell Aerospace donated the engine on display to the museum in 1963.