Air Force Bases

Missile Testing at Edwards Air Force Base

Edwards AFB is home to the Air Force Flight Test Center. In addition to its role in military flight testing and providing a landing strip and facilities for NASA's Space Shuttle program, Edwards has also hosted activities that have contributed to the nation's missile programs. Rocketry goes back to pre-World War II days when the California Institute of Technology Guggenheim Aeronautics Laboratory used sites at the location then known as Muroc Army Air Field to test primitive engine designs. In the 1990s this tradition is carried on by Phillips Laboratory.

Phillips Laboratory

In 1947, the Power Plant Laboratory of the Air Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright Field, Ohio, selected the Luehman Ridge at Muroc to be the site of the new Experimental Rocket Engine Test Station. In April 1947 Aerojet Engineering Corporation received the contract for the initial set of test stands and the Corps of Engineers received responsibility for design and construction of nontechnical facilities. Construction costs between November 1949 and December 31, 1952, would amount to $5 million. Construction of the technical facilities began in February 1950. As work proceeded, the facility came under the command of the newly formed Air Research and Development Command (ARDC!).

Test Stand l-5 received its baptism by fire on February 26, 1952, testing a BOMARC engine from Aerojet Engineering Corporation. Within a week, Test Stand l-3 withstood the blast from a Navaho missile engine.

With the establishment of the Western Development Division (WDD) at Inglewood, California, under Brig. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever in July 1954, the Engine Test Station played an important role in the Air Force's Atlas ICBM program. The first Atlas engine test-firing occurred in November 1954. The G.A. Fuller Construction Company received a contract in 1955 for another test stand, and in 1956, the ALCO Company completed construction on a Missile Assembly Building.

With the addition of more testing facilities, "captive testing" of Atlas, Thor, and other missile propulsion systems continued through the 1950s. The tests were mostly successful. However, an Atlas missile explosion on March 27, 1959, destroyed Test Stand 1-A.

At the time of the Atlas mishap, experiments using small 2.75-inch thick rockets were demonstrating the feasibility of launching missiles from underground silos. The testing expanded to launch one-third scale and then full-scale tethered Minuteman missiles from underground silos. On September 15, 1959, the first of eight full-scale tethered launches used a Minuteman ICBM with a partially charged first stage and dummy second and third stages. With the missile attached to a 2,000-foot nylon cable, the feasibility of silo launching was demonstrated. The successful testing significantly contributed to decisions about how and where to deploy Minuteman missiles.

Also in 1959, the Wright Air Development Center transferred responsibility for rocket propulsion development to the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC). Four years later, the test stands and associated facilities at Edwards were designated the Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL). Rocket boosters for missiles, spacecraft, and military satellites continued to be tested through the end of the Cold War and beyond. In 1987, RPL was redesignated the Astronautics Laboratory. On December 13, 1990, the Astronautics Laboratory was merged into a larger research organization. This new organization, Phillips Laboratory, combined the assets of four Air Force research facilities. Although headquartered at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, Phillips maintains an active presence at Edwards at former Astronautics Laboratory facilities.

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