Image of the Air Force wings with the museum name underneath

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America's Multi-Mission Rocket
Atlas rockets lifted some of the first US astronauts and satellites into Earth orbit in the 1960s. Atlas also was the first American nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. Atlas and its US Air Force managers and technicians played vital roles in both the space race with the Soviet Union and in early nuclear deterrence. The Atlas booster family continues to launch space missions in the 21st century.

Atlas for Astronauts
After the Soviet Union launched the first human into space in April 1961, the US scrambled to catch up in the “space race.” To put US astronauts into orbit, NASA used modified Atlas-D missiles as launch vehicles for four manned flights in its 1962-1963 Mercury program. The two earlier Mercury sub-orbital flights used US Army Redstone rockets.
In early 1962, a previous Atlas rocket launched John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. After Mercury, the Gemini program transitioned to carrying two astronauts aboard larger Titan II rockets.
The rocket on display represents the launch vehicle for USAF Maj Gordon Cooper’s Mercury-Atlas 9 mission on May 15-16, 1963. His was the final and longest Mercury mission, lasting more than 34 hours. In his spacecraft Faith 7, Cooper orbited the Earth 22 times. He experienced six times the force of gravity during launch and orbited the Earth at more than 17,000 mph.
Engineers designed Atlas as a nuclear missile and later modified it to carry NASA astronauts. An adapter section near the top of the missile held the Mercury spacecraft and its tall, red-painted escape tower. This tower had a rocket that would pull the astronaut and spacecraft to safety in case of a problem during launch. The adapter section, spacecraft, and escape tower (reproductions in this exhibit) replaced the missile’s nuclear warhead.

Mercury Partners: USAF and NASA
Air Force and NASA cooperation in the Mercury program marked the beginning of a long partnership that continues today. Air Force missile experts launched NASA astronauts into orbit aboard adapted USAF missiles from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, now a US Space Force Station.
The USAF and other services contributed greatly to the success of NASA’s Mercury missions. They provided astronauts, launch vehicles, and facilities. They also assigned hundreds of people, aircraft, and ships to launch and recovery operations. The Air Force also supported aeromedical and aerospace vehicle research, worldwide communications, and NASA public relations.

The First American ICBM
Atlas was the first American intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM—a land-based weapon capable of delivering an atomic warhead over 5,000 miles. Operational in late 1959, Atlas was an important landmark in strategic nuclear deterrence during the Cold War.
American military focus on long-range missiles began with Germany’s use of the V-2 rocket in World War II. Later, with the advent of nuclear weapons, researchers studied the possibility of delivering them with missiles. Research was slow, however, with bomber aircraft being the highest priority for nuclear deterrence because atomic weapons were far too large and heavy for early US rockets.
By 1953, technological developments made it possible to make smaller, lighter nuclear warheads. At the same time, better rocket engines and guidance made long-range missiles possible. Concerned that the Soviet Union was quickly building nuclear missiles, the US government made ICBM development its highest national priority in 1955. Project Atlas became the premier US missile program, with Titan (on display nearby) a parallel effort.
The US Air Force and industry worked together to develop Atlas, with the first successful test launch in late 1957. Operational Atlas D nuclear-armed missiles went on alert at Vandenberg AFB, California, in October 1959.
The rocket’s revolutionary design, combining the latest in propulsion, guidance, and warhead technology, enabled it to carry a thermonuclear weapon 6,500 miles.
The rocket was essentially a huge “balloon” propellant tank. Its stainless steel skin was about the thickness of a coin. The Atlas could not support its own weight unless filled with kerosene and liquid oxygen, making it rigid and strong.
Atlas ICBMs underwent continuous upgrades. Models D, E, and F all served on nuclear alert until solid-fueled Minuteman missiles replaced them by 1965. Convair built about 350 Atlas ICBMs.
Early Atlas missiles were stored outdoors or in lightly built, horizontal above-ground “coffin” shelters, with later models housed vertically underground on elevators. Missile crews could raise, fuel, and launch an Atlas in about fifteen minutes, with the more modern Atlas F taking about ten minutes. Today’s solid-fuel missiles can be launched instantly.

Earth, Moon. and Planets
Atlas rockets have played an important role in space exploration and satellite launches for many decades. Payloads have included DoD missile warning satellites, reconnaissance satellites, and missile re-entry test vehicles, as well as NASA communications satellites, weather satellites, and planetary probes.
A notable event was the launch of the world’s first purpose-built communication satellite, called SCORE (Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment), in 1958. SCORE featured the first broadcast of a pre-recorded human voice from space, a goodwill message from President Eisenhower.
With the addition of upper stages called Agena and Centaur in the 1960s, Atlas launched ambitious, complex scientific missions. Some of these included NASA’s Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter moon probes that paved the way for the Apollo moon landings. Planetary probes included the Mariner series, the first spacecraft to fly by Venus and Mars.
In national security missions, Atlas vehicles launched many KH-7 Gambit reconnaissance satellites through the 1960s. An Atlas rocket also carried an Agena docking vehicle in NASA’s Gemini program, an important step in training astronauts to dock with other spacecraft in orbit.
In the 1970s and beyond, Atlas launched NASA’s Pioneer probes to Jupiter and Saturn from Air Force facilities. Atlas rockets also launched the first Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites between 1978 and 1985. In addition, Atlas carried many weather and communications satellites.
With numerous improvements over time, the Atlas family of space boosters continues to serve the Department of Defense, NASA, and commercial launch customers. In 2010, an Atlas V launched the USAF’s X-37B, the first of a series of experimental space flights using winged space planes.
Newer Atlas vehicles have also carried commercial payloads and NASA probes to study Mars, Jupiter, and Pluto.
The 1960s-era Atlas D rocket on display was restored and placed on exhibit on April 29 2024.

Technical Notes: Mercury Atlas LV-3B
Height: 95.4 ft
Engines: Rocketdyne MA-2 system consisting of two XLR89-5 booster engines of 309,000 lbs thrust combined, one Rocketdyne LR105-5 sustainer engine of 57,000 lbs thrust, and two LR101 vernier engines of 1,000 lbs thrust each
Propellants: RP-1 kerosene fuel, liquid oxygen oxidizer
Payload: Mercury spacecraft including one astronaut (2,990 lbs) to an orbital altitude of 100-165 miles (Mercury Atlas 9 mission)