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The Cape, Chapter I, Section 1

USAF Space Organizations and Programs

Air Force Systems Command and Subordinate Space Agencies at Cape Canaveral

Any examination of military space operations at Cape Canaveral should include at least a brief review of the original initiatives, institutions and programs that promoted those efforts from the 1940s onward. In that regard, the Air Force's early interest in 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's research into the satellite's military usefulness continued into the early 1950s, and 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

Military space activities up to that time had been concentrated on technological studies and analyses, but the Air Force's Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) 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. The Weapon System 117L program was funded at only 10 percent of the level needed to meet its requirements in 1957 (e.g., $3 million versus $39.1 million), but the Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957 soon forced the U.S. Department of Defense to set higher priorities for the development of military satellite systems. The Department of Defense also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) on 7 February 1958 to supervise all U.S. military space efforts. Though the Navy's VANGUARD satellite project and ARPA's lunar probe project were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 1 October 1958, ARPA retained its military satellites, high energy rocket upper stages and its military space exploration programs.2

As a spin-off from its Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) development program, most of the Air Force's participation in the Cape's space launch operations in the late 1950s 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. The Division supported a total of 10 Air Force-sponsored THOR-ABLE, THOR-ABLE I and THOR-ABLE II space launches at the Cape before the end of 1959. It also supported five THOR-ABLE-STAR missions for the Army, Navy and ARPA in 1960. In the spring of 1960, the Space Projects Division's responsibilities were broadened to include planning for NASA's ATLAS/AGENA-B program at Cape Canaveral.3

Following the establishment of Air Force Systems Command (i.e., ARDC's successor) on 1 April 1961, the Air Force's space and missile activities were assigned under two separate intermediate headquarters: the Space Systems Division and the Ballistic Systems Division. The 6555th Test Wing served both intermediate headquarters as their onsite representative at the Cape. Under the 6555th Test Wing's new table of organization, the old Space Projects Division became the Space Projects Branch under the Space Programs Office on 17 April 1961. Under Lieutenant Colonel Harold A. Myers, the 6555th Test Wing's Space Projects Branch focused its attention on satellites and spacecraft being prepared by contractors at Missile Assembly Hangar AA for the TRANSIT, ANNA, RANGER, SAINT and VELA HOTEL projects. Space boosters were monitored by the Space Program Office's other three branches (i.e., ATLAS Boosters, THOR Boosters and BLUE SCOUT) until 25 September 1961, when the THOR Boosters Branch and the Space Projects Branch were combined to form the THOR/TITAN Space Branch. Some of the Space Projects Branch's ATLAS-related functions were transferred to the new ATLAS Space Branch as a result of this reorganization, but the BLUE SCOUT Branch remained intact. After September 25th, the 6555th Test Wing's Deputy for Space Systems accomplished his space mission through the THOR/TITAN Space Branch, the ATLAS Space Branch and the BLUE SCOUT Branch.4

Figure 1: THOR-ABLE launch from Pad 17A
7 August 1959

Figure 2 Figure 2: Map of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Figure 3 Figure 3: Vicinity Location Map

Two agreements of enormous significance to the 6555th Test Wing's role in the U.S. space program were signed in 1961: 1) the AGENA B Launch Vehicle Program Agreement and 2) the Memorandum of Agreement on Participation of the 6555th Test Wing in the CENTAUR R&D Test Program. The first agreement was signed by NASA Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans, Jr. and Lieutenant General Bernard A. Schriever (ARDC Commander) in January and February 1961. It confirmed NASA's intention to pursue the AGENA program through "established USAF Satellite System channels" to take advantage of Air Force capabilities and procedures. NASA remained responsible for its own spacecraft, but it agreed to coordinate its AGENA B requirements through the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division. In effect, this meant the Division ordered NASA's ATLAS boosters and AGENA B upper stages through Air Force contractors (e.g., Convair and Lockheed). Ultimately, NASA had overall responsibility for the countdown and mission, but the 6555th was responsible for the readiness of the entire launch vehicle. The 6555th and the Air Force's contractors were thus very close to the center of NASA's ATLAS/AGENA B operations.5

The second agreement, which was signed on 18 April 1961 by NASA's Dr. Kurt H. Debus and the 6555th Test Wing's Colonel Paul R. Wignall, confirmed that the 6555th would be allowed to exercise launch responsibility for all CENTAUR upper stages used on operational Department of Defense (DOD) missions. The agreement also allowed the 6555th to assign Air Force supervisors to Convair's processing teams while they were working on ATLAS D boosters used for ATLAS/CENTAUR Research and Development (R&D) test flights from the Cape's Launch Complex 36. Though the ATLAS Space Branch acted only as a technical consultant for NASA's CENTAUR development program, it supported NASA's ATLAS booster requirements in accordance with the Seamans/Schriever agreement. The Branch also retained jurisdiction over all military missions involving the ATLAS D and AGENA B as space boosters.6

Figure 4: MARINER II Venus Probe
13 August 1962

Figure 5: The AURORA 7 ATLAS/MERCURY mission lifts off
24 May 1962

In 1962, the ATLAS Space Branch supported eight ATLAS and ATLAS/AGENA space missions launched from complexes 12 and 14 (e.g., MARINER I and II, RANGER III, IV and V, and the first three manned orbital ATLAS/MERCURY missions). Air Force contractors prepared all those launch vehicles, but the 6555th started negotiations with its contractors and Air Training Command in September 1962 to establish an all-military "blue suit" ATLAS/AGENA launch team. Though military positions were approved and troops were transferred, the Air Force suddenly dropped the plan and terminated the ATLAS/AGENA blue suit program on 1 January 1964. The SLV-III Division (formerly the ATLAS Space Branch) was reduced to approximately two dozen officers, airmen and civilians by the middle of 1964, and it remained near that level for the balance of the 1960s. The Division's MERCURY support mission ended following the last MERCURY flight in May 1963, but the unit supported three DOD satellite missions and seven ATLAS/AGENA target vehicle missions for Project GEMINI between October 1963 and mid-November 1966. Under Lt. Colonel Earl B. Essing, the SLV-III Division supported four more classified DOD launches from Launch Complex 13 between 6 August 1968 and 31 August 1970. The Division continued to work in concert with 300 contractor personnel as more classified missions were prepared for launches from Launch Complex 13 in the 1970s.7

Figure 6: ATLAS/AGENA Target Vehicle on Pad 14
11 November 1966

Figure 7: BLUE SCOUT JUNIOR at Pad 18
28 January 1965

A blue suit launch capability for ATLAS space vehicles was never developed at Cape Canaveral, but the 6555th retained a limited military launch capability for "guided" BLUE SCOUT and "unguided" BLUE SCOUT JUNIOR space vehicles under the BLUE SCOUT Branch and (later) the SLV-IB Division during the 1960s. The first all-military BLUE SCOUT processing operation was completed in April 1962, and the first all-military launch of a BLUE SCOUT JUNIOR was completed successfully on 30 July 1963. Six more BLUE SCOUT JUNIORs were launched with mixed results before the program was terminated. The SLV-IB Division was disbanded in the last half of 1965, and its personnel were transferred to other agencies under the 6555th.8

Figure 8: BLUE SCOUT JUNIOR prelaunch activities
28 January 1965

Figure 9: BLUE SCOUT JUNIOR launch
28 January 1965

As we noted earlier, the 6555th combined its THOR Booster Branch with the Space Projects Branch on 25 September 1961 to form the THOR/TITAN Space Branch. The Wing also established the SLV-V Division on 10 September 1962 to handle the TITAN III  launch program separately. (It was renamed the SLV-V/X-20 Division on 1 October 1962.) The THOR/TITAN Branch became the SLV-II/IV Division on 1 October 1962, but it was split up on 20 May 1963 to form two new divisions: 1) the SLV II Division (for THOR) and 2) the GEMINI Launch Vehicle Division (to oversee the Martin Company's TITAN II/GEMINI operations on Launch Complex 19).9

Figure 10: THOR/ASSET on Pad 17B
28 August 1963

With regard to the SLV II Division, launch vehicle contractors supported three Navy satellite flights and 25 NASA THOR/DELTA missions from Launch Complex 17 between the beginning of 1962 and the end of 1965. During much of that period, the SLV II Division concentrated its efforts on the Air Force's two part ASSET (Aerothermodynamic/Elastic Structural Systems Environmental Tests) program which had its first flight from Launch Complex 17 on 18 September 1963. Five more ASSET test flights were launched from Pad 17B between 24 March 1964 and 24 February 1965. Seeing no further military use for THOR facilities at Cape Canaveral, the Air Force directed the 6555th to return them to the Air Force Eastern Test Range in April 1965. The Range subsequently transferred Launch Complex 17 and other THOR/DELTA facilities to NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the condition that the facilities be returned to the Range at the end of NASA's DELTA space launch program. As we shall see in Chapter III, the Cape's DELTA facilities were returned to the Air Force toward the end of 1988.10

Concerning the origins of Titan III space operations at the Cape, we need look no farther than the activities of the 6555th Test Wing's SLV-V/X-20 Division, which became simply the "Titan III Division" following cancellation of the DYNA SOAR (X-20) project in December 1963. Within months of its creation in 1962, the SLV/X-20 Division was at the forefront of the 6555th Test Wing's taskforce to supervise construction of TITAN IIIC facilities at the north end of Cape Canaveral. In addition to the Integrate-Transfer-Launch area construction effort, the Division monitored an $819,000 contract with Julian Evans and Associates to modify Launch Complex 20 for four TITAN IIIA missions flown between 1 September 1964 and 7 May 1965. Both TITAN IIIC launch sites (i.e., complexes 40 and 41) had their first launches before the end of 1965, and they continued to support a wide variety of missions for the balance of the decade.11

Figure 11: Aerial views of TITAN Integrate-Transfer-Launch (ITL) Area
November 1964

Figure 12: TITAN IIIC launch from Pad 40
15 October 1965

On 1 April 1970, the 6555th Aerospace Test Wing was redesignated the 6555th Aerospace Test Group, and it was reassigned to the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing headquartered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. That change amounted to a two-fold decline in the 6555th Test Wing's status, but there were good reasons for the action. First, DOD ballistic missile programs at the Cape had become decidedly "Navy Blue" by 1970. U.S. Navy ballistic missile tests constituted more than half of all the major launches on the Eastern Test Range between 1966 and 1972, and the Navy's demand for range services continued without interruption into the 1990s. In sharp contrast to its own ballistic missile efforts of the 1950s and 60s, the Air Force was about to conclude its final ballistic missile test program at the Cape (i.e., the MINUTEMAN III) in December 1970. Second, though the 6555th continued to support space operations from launch complexes 13, 40 and 41, NASA dominated manned space and deep space missions at the Cape. NASA commanded 50 percent of the Eastern Test Range's "range time" as early as 1967, and its status as a major range user was unquestioned. Last but not least, Air Force military space requirements accounted for only 11 percent of the Eastern Test Range's activity, but Air Force space and missile test requirements at Vandenberg accounted for 75 percent of the Western Test Range's workload. With the dramatic shift in Air Force space and missile operations from the Cape to Vandenberg, it was logical to give the 6555th a less prominent role. The 6555th joined the 6595th Space Test Group and the 6595th Missile Test Group as one of three groups under the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing.12

From the preceding comments, an observer might conclude that the 6555th Test Group's future looked far less promising than its past in 1970, but events over the next two decades were to prove otherwise. To appreciate the significance of the Test Group's accomplishments in this later period, we first need to examine the organizations, programs and strategies that shaped military space operations at the Cape in the 1970s and 80s. First, there was the Range. As a result of the inactivation of Air Force System Command's National Range Division on 1 February 1972, the Air Force Eastern Test Range (AFETR, pronounced "aff-eater") became the only Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) test range to operate as a separate field command in the 1970s. As such, AFETR had the status of a numbered air force, and it reported directly to AFSC for the next five years. On 1 February 1977, AFETR Headquarters was inactivated, and control of the Range passed to the Space and Missile Test Center (SAMTEC) headquartered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (SAMTEC was the parent organization for the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing, mentioned earlier). Elements of AFETR's old 6550th Air Base Group were reorganized as the 6550th Air Base Wing, which was given host responsibility for Patrick Air Force Base. Rather significantly, the 6550th Wing Commander answered to the AFSC Commander through the latter's Chief of Staff-not the SAMTEC Commander.13

Figure 13: POLARIS launch
24 April 1972

Figure 14: POSEIDON launch
15 May 1978

Figure 15: TRIDENT I launch
19 April 1983

Figure 16: TRIDENT II launch
4 December 1989

Figure 17: Final MINUTEMAN III launch from the Cape
14 December 1970

By the summer of 1979, AFSC officials began work on a new organization that would integrate range and launch operations more closely by realigning AFSC elements at Patrick Air Force Base and Vandenberg Air Force Base under consolidated commands. On 1 October 1979, Headquarters SAMTEC was redesignated the Space and Missile Test Organization (SAMTO) and the 6595th Aerospace Test Wing was deactivated. On the same date, The Headquarters, Air Force Eastern Test Range and Headquarters, Western Test Range were both reactivated and redesignated Headquarters Eastern Space and Missile Center (ESMC) and Headquarters Western Space and Missile Center (WSMC) respectively. The 6550th Air Base Wing was deactivated, and its resources were reassigned to the 6550th Air Base Group, which was resurrected under ESMC. The 6595th Shuttle Test Group, 6595th Satellite Test Group and 6595th Missile Test Group were assigned to WSMC, and the 6555th Aerospace Test Group was assigned to ESMC. Both new centers reported to SAMTO, and SAMTO reported to Space Division (formerly the Space and Missile Systems Organization [SAMSO]) headquartered at Los Angeles Air Force Station, California. After nearly twenty years as a tenant unit on the Cape, the 6555th returned to the command relationship it had enjoyed under the Air Force Missile Test Center in the 1950s: it was assigned to a local center (ESMC) which had primary responsibility for Patrick, the Cape and the Range.14

Higher up in the organization, SAMSO and its successors all had the same basic mission: to acquire missile and space systems for the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force. Between 1 July 1967 and 30 September 1979, SAMSO was responsible for negotiating and administering contracts for research efforts and space-related hardware. It provided military and civilian space missions with launch vehicles and launch-related operations, and it served as the Department of Defense's Executive Agent for the manned Space Transportation System (a.k.a., the Space Shuttle). From April 1970 through 30 September 1979, SAMTEC served SAMSO by directing all Department of Defense space flights launched from Vandenberg and the Cape. The Space and Missile Test Center and its successor (SAMTO) also evaluated ballistic missile tests on the eastern and western test ranges.15

The Cape: Miltary Space Operations 1971-1992
by Mark C. Cleary, Chief Historian
45 Space Wing Office of History
1201 Minuteman Ave, Patrick AFB, FL 32925

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