On Atlas’ Shoulders

On Atlas’ Shoulders
October 01, 2020

Thin-skinned, but incredibly powerful. Lightweight, but capable of carrying a payload to the stars.

The Atlas family of rockets began their life in 1957 as the first successful Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launched by the United States, created by Lockheed Martin legacy company Convair’s design team. Facing rocketry’s biggest challenge—create a launch vehicle light enough to fly yet sturdy enough to carry thousands of pounds of fuel and payload—Convair engineer Karl J. Bossart had a breakthrough. Atlas’s lightweight, stainless steel skin would keep its shape in part due to the highly-pressurized tanks filled with rocket fuel. Without that pressure, the rocket would collapse in on itself.

The era’s most recognized rocket designer, Wernher von Braun felt that the Atlas would not survive the stresses of launch, calling it no more than a blimp. But Von Braun would be proven wrong.

Atlas V production

Diverse Applications

Though initially designed to carry nuclear warheads, by 1958, an Atlas rocket successfully launched SCORE, the United States’ first communications satellite, which delivered President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Christmas greeting to the world. The Atlas legacy has gone on to include science and exploration missions that have been fundamental to the understanding of space and the Earth itself.

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn and the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft were launched on an Atlas-Agena rocket. Ten minutes later, Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Traveling more than 75,000 miles in just under five hours, he orbited the planet three times. By the time he splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean later that same afternoon, he was a worldwide celebrity and an icon of human spaceflight along with Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union.

By 1965, Atlas ICBMs were taken off alert status. But Atlas launch vehicles launched more than 100 scientific missions from 1960-1978, including Mariner 4’s flyby of Mars in 1964, which delivered the first up-close photographs of another planet. Atlas-Centaurs launched the Pioneer deep space probes in the early 1970s, which sent back information on Saturn, Jupiter and the farthest reaches of the solar system. Atlas launch vehicles have also placed national security, communications, Earth observation and weather monitoring satellites into orbit around the Earth, making it possible for our modern world to stay connected and protected through advancements in technology and communication.

Atlas II Launch

Outliving the Cold War

The legacy continues fifty-five years later. Though Atlas began as an ICBM to deter the Soviet Union, today’s Atlas V includes a powerful Russian-designed RD-180 booster rocket engine producing nearly one million pounds of thrust. In additional to vital national security, communications, science and exploration missions, future Atlas rockets may also support commercial space flights to Earth orbit, ensuring that Lockheed Martin’s commitment to the evolution of innovative space flight will continue for decades to come.

Sources and Additional Reading