The 6555th, Chapter IV, Section 1

Taking the High Ground: The 6555th's Role in Space through 1970

U. S. Military Space Efforts Through 1960

As we indicated in Chapter I, the Air Force's interest in artificial satellites -- and hence, space operations -- was sparked by discussions with the Navy shortly after the end of World War II. At Major General Curtis E. LeMay's request, the Douglas Aircraft Company's RAND group provided the Pentagon with a 321-page study in May 1946 on the feasibility of satellites for military reconnaissance, weather surveillance, communications and missile navigation. RAND considered the artificial satellite feasible, and the group predicted that the satellite would yield benefits in gravitational research, astronomy and bioastronautics as well as purely military operations. Though the Research and Development Board blocked the development of artificial satellites initially, RAND's research into the satellite's military usefulness continued from 1947 into the early 1950s. By November 1951, the Air Force had asked the Atomic Energy Commission to investigate the possibility of using small nuclear reactors as power sources for satellites, and the preliminary results of that investigation were favorable. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) signed a contract with the RAND group in June 1952 to study optical systems, recording devices and imagery presentation techniques that might be used on reconnaissance satellites in the future. In July 1953, North American Aviation signed a contract with Wright Field's Communication and Navigation Laboratory to study a pre-orbital guidance system for satellites.1

The work up to that time had been concentrated on technological studies and analyses, but the Air Force's Air Research and Development Command redirected the satellite effort toward actual demonstrations of the satellite's major components as part of the Weapon System 117L program in the mid-1950s. Given the Air Force's commitment to the ATLAS program, the ATLAS missile was proposed as a suitable booster for the satellite, but the satellite program was kept on a separate track from the ATLAS so as not to delay the scheduled delivery of the ATLAS as a ballistic missile weapon system. Unfortunately, the Weapon System 117L program was funded in 1956 at only 10 percent of the level needed to meet its requirements in 1957 (e.g., $3 million versus $39.1 million). Thus, despite a sound technical foundation, the Air Force satellite effort suffered from inadequate funding through 1957.2

The Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 came as a shock to the American public, but the military implications of that capability came into even sharper focus as much heavier payloads were orbited from the Soviet Union in the months and years that followed. Galvanized into action by the Soviet Union's achievements, the U.S. Department of Defense set high priorities on the development of military satellite systems. It also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) on 7 February 1958 to supervise all U.S. military space efforts. The Air Force drew up a manned military space system development plan in April 1958, and it also volunteered to carry out the U.S. man-in-space mission. Though much of the plan was incorporated in later manned space efforts (e.g., MERCURY, GEMINI and APOLLO), President Eisenhower rejected the Air Force's offer to lead the effort. Instead, he called on Congress to establish a civilian space agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed by Congress in July 1958. Under Executive Order Number 10783, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became the controlling agency for non-military scientific space projects on 1 October 1958. The Navy's VANGUARD satellite project and ARPA's lunar probe project were transferred to NASA on October 1st, but ARPA retained its military satellites, high energy rocket upper stages and its military space exploration programs. The Advanced Research Projects Agency also expected to participate in the early stages of the manned space program along with NASA and the individual military branches.3

Under ARPA, the Weapon System 117L satellite program was divided into three R&D packages:

During 1959, the Air Force supported all three programs, as well as ARPA's TRANSIT program, which used satellites to investigate the earth's cloud cover from orbit, and the COURIER program, which orbited experimental communications repeater systems.4

Since the Air Research and Development Command was destined to serve the Air Force and two non-Air Force clients in space (i.e., ARPA and NASA), effective coordination among the three agencies was crucial to the early success of the space mission. At first, the ARDC Commander assigned ARPA point-of-contact duties to his executive officer, but the scope and nature of the job suggested its placement elsewhere, and it was assigned to ARDC's Weapon Systems Analysis Division Chief, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph J. Hicks, on 25 August 1958. (Lieutenant Colonel Hicks also served as the ARDC point-of-contact for NASA, and he played an important role in coordinating discussions of mutual concern with ARPA and NASA.) After Lieutenant General Schriever assumed command of ARDC in April 1959, he elevated the point-of-contact position and changed its title to Special Assistant to the Commander for ARPA and NASA Affairs on 20 July 1959. As such, the Special Assistant's actions were to be treated as if they came from Lieutenant General Schriever himself. Space activities became increasing important to the ARDC mission, and the Command's effective management of space boosters and interagency space support requirements in the late 1950s and 1960 had much to do with Secretary McNamara's decision to give the Air Force responsibility for the Department of Defense's portion of the national space program on 6 March 1961. As a result of those management actions and decisions, the 6555th and its contractors were placed on the cutting edge of space operations at Cape Canaveral in the 1960s. The 6595th Aerospace Test Wing and its contractors were in a similar position at Vandenberg.5

Before the 6555th absorbed the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division's resources at the Cape in December 1959, most of the Air Force's participation in the Cape's space launch operations was managed by the WS- 315A (THOR) Project Division under the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division's Assistant Commander for Missile Tests. The WS-315A Project Division was redesignated the Space Project Division on 16 November 1959, and it became the Space Projects Division under the 6555th Test Wing on 15 February 1960. Both actions were prompted by the demise of THOR ballistic missile testing at the Cape, not a fundamental change in the Division's space support operations. Though the Division consisted of less than a dozen officers and clerical personnel, it was charged with monitoring the Douglas Aircraft Company's booster preparations and launch operations, and it coordinated range support for space missions. The Division had jurisdiction over Complex 17 and three missile assembly buildings (e.g. hangars M, L and AA). Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Morgan served as the Division's chief from 2 April 1958 onward, and the Division supported a total of 10 Air Force-sponsored THOR-ABLE, THOR-ABLE I and THOR-ABLE II space launches from Pad 17A before the end of 1959. The Division also supported NASA's PIONEER I and II missions, which were launched by Douglas from Pad 17A on 11 October and 8 November 1958, and NASA's EXPLORER VI mission, which was launched by Douglas from Pad 17A on 7 August 1959. Under the 6555th Test Wing (Development), the Space Projects Division managed five THOR-ABLE-STAR missions for the Army, the Navy and ARPA in 1960. It also monitored Douglas' preparation and launch of two THOR-ABLE boosters for NASA's PIONEER V deep space mission to Venus in March 1960 and its TIROS I weather satellite mission in April 1960.6


1 April 1960

28 March 1960

13 April 1960

30 November 1960

30 November 1960

The 6555th used several other divisions to handle other parts of its space support mission in 1959 and 1960. Though the Cape's role in the MIDAS satellite R&D project was relatively short-lived, the 6555th assigned a handful of its personnel to its MIDAS Project Division to monitor Lockheed Aircraft Corporation's activities at Complex 14 and Hangar E at the end of 1959. The TS 609A Project Division was activated under the Assistant Commander for Missile Tests in August 1959 to monitor Aeroneutronic's solid rocket operations on Complex 18, and the TS 609A Operations Division was added under the 6555th Test Wing in December 1959 to develop a blue suit capability to assemble, maintain, checkout and launch TS 609A launch vehicles. Under the 6555th's Directorate of Support, the Facilities Division monitored all new Air Force Ballistic Missile Division construction at the Cape, including Space Launch Complex 36, which was being built for the CENTAUR program in 1960 and 1961. In the spring of 1960, the Space Projects Division's responsibilities were broadened to include program planning for NASA's ATLAS/AGENA-B program at Cape Canaveral. Hangar E, which had been associated with the MIDAS project, was assigned to Lockheed Aircraft Corporation for NASA's RANGER project in the summer of 1960. The 6555th faced more responsibilities in 1961 as the space program continued to grow.7

The 6555th: Missile and Space Launches Through 1970
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925