The Atlas ICBM, the pinnacle of fifties rocket science


In two months’ time, I’ll be displaying Cold War LEGO models at BrickFair Virginia. This is part of a collaboration with several other builders. I previously built a Soviet SS-20 ballistic missile launcher and an American Ground-Launched Cruise Missile launcher. Continuing my theme of nuclear-armed missiles, my most recent build is another classic: an American Atlas-F.

The Atlas entered service seventy years ago in 1959 as the first American Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It could be launched from the continental US, fly through space, and then deliver a 3.75 Mt warhead (more than 200 times as powerful as the weapon used against Hiroshima) to a target in the Soviet Union, more than 8000 miles (~13000 km) away.
Nuclear warheads at the time were heavy, as were the heat shields that protected them during re-entry in the atmosphere. It takes a large and heavy missile to accelerate a heavy warhead to a velocity high enough to give them such a long range (a velocity of roughly 3.8 miles per second); when full of kerosene and liquid oxygen propellant, the Atlas weighed a whopping 120 tonnes. It would have been even larger and heavier if it weren’t for its innovative light-weight balloon tanks. Pressurized gas in the tanks kept the flimsy missile from collapsing under its own weight.

The missile that I built is an Atlas-F. This was the final operational ICBM version. A major difference from earlier versions was the launch facility: an underground silo. It protected the large and fragile missile before launch. Launching the missile from inside the silo was not possible, however. Before launch, a large lift had to raise the missile to the surface. For the display, I built the top of the silo with the silo doors open, and the missile itself on its launch pedestal. The scale of the model is 1/43, or roughly minifig scale. This makes it slightly more than two feet tall.

The Atlas had a sinister purpose, but at the time it represented the pinnacle of US rocket science. Fortunately, Atlas ICBMs were never used in anger. The missiles did serve as space launchers, however. A modified Atlas launched a Mercury space capsule, with US astronaut John Glenn, into Earth orbit in 1962. More advanced solid-propellant missiles replaced the last Atlas-F ICBMs, but the final repurposed Atlas-F launched a satellite into orbit in 1995. Not bad for a design from the fifties!
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