Air Force Bases

Minuteman I Missile Development History

The Western Development Division (WDD) was interested in solid-fuel ICBMs in 1954, but at the time found that solid-fuel motors did not produce sufficient thrust and were difficult to control. The Air Force, however, did not abandon the technology, and the WDD and the Wright-Patterson Air Development Center sponsored research in solid fuels throughout the mid-1950s.

By the spring of 1957, Air Force research indicated that a solid-fuel ICBM was possible. That fall the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division's (AFBMD-it changed its name effective June 1, 1957) Col. Edward Hall designed the revolutionary Minuteman ICBM. In marked contrast to the first generation Atlas and Titan I liquid-fuel missiles, Hall proposed building a relatively small, three-stage solid-fuel missile that would be inexpensive to build and maintain. He envisioned basing thousands of the missiles in unmanned, heavily hardened and widely dispersed silos linked electronically to a series of central launch control facilities.

The Air Force was initially cool toward the new concept, but was spurred into action when the Navy proposed modifying its Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) for use as an ICBM. Anxious to defend its role in solid-fuel development, in February 1958 AFBMD sent Hall to Washington to brief the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Strategic Air Command's General Curtis LeMay on the Minuteman concept. They were impressed with the program, and quickly allocated the AFBMD $50 million to begin research and promised the development center another $100 million if they proved that the Minuteman was indeed feasible.

In July 1958 AFBMD began to develop the components and select the contractors. By the following September the missile development command had made sufficient progress to convince the Air Force to support full Minuteman system development, and the following month the AFBMD chose the Boeing Airplane Company as the missile assembly and test contractor. Shortly thereafter, the AFBMD awarded the guidance contract to the Autonetics Division of North American Aviation (later a Division of Rockwell International) and the reentry vehicle contract to AVCO Corporation. To develop the first-, second-, and third-stage motors AFBMD sponsored a competition between the Thiokol Chemical Corporation, the Aerojet General Corporation, and the Hercules Powder Company. The Air Force awarded the initial contracts with the understanding that the company with the most promising design would win the production contract.

In September 1959 the AFBMD successfully launched a Minuteman first stage motor directly from an underground silo, thus proving that the missile would survive the rigors of a subsurface launch. In February 1961 the AFBMD launched a Minuteman containing all three stages and operational subsystems from the Air Force Missile Test Center in Florida. This was called an "all up" test. The missile performed flawlessly and after a flight of 4,600 miles its reentry vehicle landed within the designated impact zone.

Based on the success of the initial test flight, in March 1961 the Department of Defense formally accelerated the Minuteman program and gave it the same development priority as the Atlas and Titan ICBM programs. In November 1961 the AFBMD launched a complete Minuteman from a silo at the Operational Standardization and Test Facility (OSTF) at Vandenberg AFB, California. The missile recorded a successful flight of 3,000 miles.

In conjunction with the Minuteman development effort, the Army Corps of Engineers Ballistic Missile Construction Office (CEBMCO) built the launch facilities. Construction of the launch facilities and launch control centers at the first Minuteman squadron at Malmstrom AFB, Montana began in March 1961 and was completed late the following September. On October 22, 1962, SAC placed its first flight of ten Minuteman missiles on operational alert.

Deployment of the Minuteman force was accomplished with amazing speed. The Minuteman launch facilities were much smaller and easier to build than the Atlas and Titan launch facilities. Using prefabricated components and standardized construction techniques, CEBMCO built 1,000 silos by 1966.

As soon as the silos were completed, AFBMD's Site Activation Task Force (SATAF) made final modifications and the sites were turned over to their SAC crews. By July 1963 150 Minuteman missiles were on operational alert; that number increased to 300 in October 1963, 450 by March 1964, and in June 1965 the 800th Minuteman I missile was turned over to its SAC crew at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming.

Read about the Minuteman II development here, and the Minuteman III here.