SM-65B Atlas

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Atlas B (SM-65B)
Atlas-B with Score payload.jpg
Atlas B before the launch of SCORE (USAF)
Function Prototype ICBM
Expendable launch system
Manufacturer Convair
Country of origin United States
Launch history
Status Retired
Launch sites LC-11, LC-13 & LC-14, CCAFS
Total launches 10
Successes 6
Failures 4
First flight 19 July 1958
Last flight 4 February 1959

The Convair SM-65B Atlas, or Atlas B, also designated X-12[1] was a prototype of the Atlas missile. First flown on 19 July 1958, the Atlas B was the first version of the Atlas rocket to use the stage and a half design with an operational sustainer engine and jettisonable booster section, in addition to an operational guidance computer.

Ten flights were made. Nine of these were sub-orbital test flights of the Atlas as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, with five successful missions and four failures. The seventh flight, launched on 18 December 1958, was used to place the SCORE satellite into low Earth orbit, the first orbital launch conducted by an Atlas rocket.

The B-series test program began on July 19, 1958 with the launch of Missile 3B from LC-11. Trouble began shortly after liftoff when the missile started an abnormal pitching motion at T+15 seconds, the point where when the pitch and roll program was supposed to begin. The Atlas began tumbling uncontrollably and at T+56 seconds, the Range Safety destruct command was sent. Even before the flight was terminated, technicians had determined the cause of the failure - the rate gyros had mistakenly been launched with the motors powered off, rendering the Atlas's flight control system inoperable. To prevent a recurrence of this, Convair began equipping the gyroscope packages with motion sensors to ensure proper operation, something that would eventually become a standard part of guided missile control systems. Atlas 3B was considered "partially successful" because the sustainer engine had functioned normally until missile destruction.

On August 2, Missile 4B, identical to 3B aside from minor venting changes, was successfully launched from LC-13 on a 2500-mile flight. All systems functioned normally and booster section separation, which was tested for the first time, occurred on schedule.

Missile 5B was launched successfully from LC-11 on August 29 and traveled 550 miles downrange, followed by 8B on September 14. Missile 6B broke the streak of successful flights on September 18 when it exploded 80 seconds after liftoff. The cause of the failure was traced to a seized LOX turbopump, which resulted in abrupt termination of thrust at T+78 seconds, followed two seconds later by missile pitchdown and structural breakup.

The turbopump failure was a persistent problem that had plagued Thor, Jupiter, and Atlas launches, all of which used a variant of the same Rocketdyne engine and which had an extremely marginal turbopump design that resulted in the lubricant oil foaming at high altitude and causing the bearings in the pump to come loose, resulting in instant pump shutdown. The Army Ballistic Missile Division had replaced all of the turbopumps in their stock of Jupiter missiles and did not experience any turbopump failures after January 1958, but the Air Force resisted doing the same with Thor and Atlas missiles so as to not delay the test program. The result was that several pump-related failures occurred in the Thor and Atlas programs during 1958 and only after Atlas 6B did they finally give in and agree to replace the pumps.

Missile 9B, the first Atlas with upgraded turbopumps, was launched on November 18. Excessive fuel consumption led to premature sustainer shutdown and so the missile did not achieve its planned range. The malfunction was due to the turbopumps not being properly matched to the engines in the Atlas. Due to the need to test out the turbopumps, there had not been any time to perform this step.

On November 29, Missile 12B was successfully launched from LC-14 and made a 6325-mile lob, the first full-range flight of an Atlas missile.

On December 18, Missile 10B performed the first use of an Atlas for a space launch when it orbited SCORE, a prototype communications satellite. This Atlas was specially modified for the flight and equipped with longer propellant tanks for increased burn time. The missile was also stripped down to save weight, with only a minimal number of telemetry probes carried, and Rocketdyne made several performance enhancements to the engines. SCORE transmitted a tape-recorded Christmas greeting from President Eisenhower and operated for 13 days until the batteries ran down. The satellite, which remained attached to the spent Atlas, decayed from orbit on January 21, 1959. With a combined weight of 8660 pounds (3928 kg), it held the record for largest manmade object in space for a number of years.

On January 16, 1959, Missile 13B, which also had stretched propellant tanks, was launched from LC-14 but lost thrust at T+100 seconds and fell into the Atlantic Ocean. The exact cause of the failure could not be determined because 13B was not carrying a telemetry package due to the intended mission of flying an Atlas to its maximum range, which required stripping the missile down to as light a weight as possible. Shortly before engine shutdown, the Atlas started experiencing control problems as the engines began gimbaling in all three axes, which caused a rolling motion of the vehicle. It was believed that overheating in the thrust section was the most likely cause of the failure.

The Atlas B test program concluded with the fully successful flight of Missile 11B on February 4, which traveled 610 miles downrange.[2]

All Atlas-B launches were conducted from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, at Launch Complexes 11, 13 and 14.[1]

Launch history[edit]

Date Time (GMT) Pad Serial Apogee Outcome Remarks
1958-07-19 17:36 LC-11 3B 10 km (6.2 mi) Failure.[citation needed] Flight control failure due to the launch crews forgetting to power on the gyroscope package. RSO T+56 seconds. Flight considered a "partial success" because the propulsion system functioned normally until vehicle breakup.
1958-08-02 22:16 LC-13 4B 900 km (560 mi) Success
1958-08-29 04:30 LC-11 5B 900 km (560 mi) Success
1958-09-14 05:24 LC-14 8B 900 km (560 mi) Success
1958-09-18 21:27 LC-13 6B 100 km (62 mi) Failure. Turbopump failure followed by missile self-destruction at T+80 seconds.[citation needed]
1958-11-18 04:00 LC-11 9B 800 km (500 mi) Partial failure. Excessive fuel consumption by the sustainer engine led to premature cutoff. This vehicle was equipped with redesigned turbopumps following the failure of Missile 6B.[citation needed]
1958-11-29 02:27 LC-14 12B 900 km (560 mi) Success First full-range test flight
1958-12-18 22:02 LC-11 10B N/A Success Placed SCORE satellite into 185 km x 1,484 km x 32.3° orbit. First use of an Atlas for space launches. Vehicle 10B was modified for this purpose with special elongated propellant tanks.
1959-01-16 04:00 LC-14 13B 100 km (62 mi) Failure. Loss of thrust at T+100 seconds due to suspected overheating in the boattail section (there was no telemetry system on this missile). Also used elongated propellant tanks.
1959-02-04 08:01 LC-11 11B 900 km (560 mi) Success[citation needed]

See also[edit]