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Karel Jan Bossart (February 9, 1904 in Antwerp – August 3, 1975, San Diego, California) was a pioneering rocket designer and creator of the Atlas ICBM. His achievements rank alongside those of Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev but as most of his work was for the United States Air Force and therefore was classified he remains relatively little known.
After winning a scholarship - under the Belgian American Education Foundation - to M.I.T. to study aeronautical engineering he remained in the US working for various aircraft companies. In 1945 he was chief of structures at Convair and proposed to the USAF that a missile could be developed with an 8000km range. The Air Force was skeptical of Bossart's proposal partly to preserve the priority of Strategic Bombers but he was granted a limited contract to develop the proposal. Bossart's major innovation was the use of a monocoque design in which structural support was maintained by pressure within the inelastic fuel tanks. After a series of tests in 1947 the Air Force lost interest and Bossart was instructed to abandon the research but by 1951 the escalation of the cold war enabled Bossart to revive the project that became known as 'Atlas'. In 1955 the CIA reported that the Soviets had swiftly progressed their own ICBM programme and Atlas became a crash project of the highest national importance. Bossart used this opportunity to advance work with high energy cryogenic fuels that resulted in the Centaur upper stage.
Atlas was first launched in 1958 but was never fully effective as an ICBM. As a launch vehicle it has formed the basis of the most successful and reliable expendable rockets in service. As a result Bossart's achievements include:
- Launch of first communications satellite
- Launch of first US orbital manned missions
- Launch of Mariner probes to Mars and Venus
- Launch of Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 to Jupiter and Saturn.
In 1955 Bossart became chief engineer of the Atlas project and in 1957 he was promoted to Technical Director of Aeronautics at General Dynamics. On December 17, 1957, eleven years of Bossart's work was climaxed by the successful first flight of the Atlas. On December 22, 1957, he appeared on What's My Line? as a guest credited as "Rocket Designer U.S.A.F. Atlas Missile".
In 1958 he received the Air Force's Exceptional Civilian Award for his work in developing America's first ICBM.
His co-workers called Bossart one of the finest technical men in the country. They credit him with having spearheaded a major phase in the art of rocketry.
- "What's My Line?: Episode #394". TV.com.
- "Karel Jan Bossart". Florida International University.