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The first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) to be developed by the United States was the Atlas. Research began in 1946 but was cancelled in 1947.
In 1951, it was revived on a modest scale, which was gradually increased to become the nation's highest military priority by the end of the decade. Its liquid fuel propulsion made it a difficult technology to maintain, and it was replaced in the 1960s by the solid state Minuteman ICBM.
On April 19, 1946, the Army Air Forces awarded a contract to Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, better known as Convair, for research and development studies toward a ballistic missile with a range of 1,500 to 5,000 nautical miles. As a result of cutbacks in funding, the contract was cancelled in June 1947, although Convair continued with available funds and materials to launch three test missiles.
During 1949 and 1950, research by such institutions as the RAND Corporation indicated that technological advances were making ICBMs increasingly practical vehicles for the delivery of nuclear weapons. In January 1951, the Air Force directed Convair to do a $500,000 study project aimed at the development of an ICBM capable of delivering an atomic bomb. The undertaking was known as "Project Atlas."
Funding remained low for the first few years. However, the continued failure of the Navaho and Snark cruise missiles to deliver their promised capabilities, along with the development of more compact and powerful nuclear weapons, persuaded the Air Force to re-examine its attitude towards ICBMs.
In October 1953, it created the Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee, better known as the von Neumann Committee, for its chairman John von Neumann. The committee's report in February 1954, argued that the technological difficulties facing ICBM development could be overcome and that the "thermo-nuclear breakthrough" made it advisable for the Air Force to put more energy into Atlas. This opinion was supported by research done by the RAND Corporation, which felt that operational missiles could be deployed by the early 1960s.
Having taken this advice and in May 1954, General Thomas White, the Air Force Chief of Staff, gave Project Atlas the air force's highest priority. Steps were soon taken to accelerate Project Atlas. The Western Development Division (WDD) of the Air Research and Development Command was established in Inglewood, California, to take complete control of Project Atlas.
Pressure grew to increase the focus on ICBM development even further. In the fall, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Killian Committee to consider this question. It reported in February 1955 that Atlas should be given the highest national priority.
While still studying the Killian Report, Eisenhower received a letter in June from two prominent senators, Henry Jackson of Washington and Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, urging him to take action. In September, he assigned the highest national priority to ICBM development and deployment.
The mandate to achieve initial operational capability was assigned to WDD. Responsibility would pass to the Strategic Air Command after IOC was achieved. The first successful launch of an Atlas missile took place in December 1957.
Due primarily to the use of liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel, the silos were dangerous and difficult to maintain. With the advent of the Minuteman, the liquid fuel rockets, the Atlas, as well as the Titan ICBM were removed from active military duty.
The Atlas had another career, however, as a launch vehicle for space exploration. It was an Atlas missile that lifted the first modules of the Mercury Program into space. Atlas missiles continued to deliver civilian payloads into space for many years after the end of their military deployment.
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