Friday, September 13, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LXIII

Welcome to today's "Swords into Plowshares" installment of this feature, where we look at a few cases of former weapons given new leases on life.

It's fairly obvious, if you think about it. When you've written the requirements for a long-range artillery missile, you've also written most of the requirements for a satellite launch vehicle. That sort of works both ways, which is why everyone gets antsy when North Korea tries to enter the satellite launching arena, because exactly no one believes that Kim Jong-Un is trying to muscle in on Arianespace's market share. But while the list of would-be satellite launchers that have become successful weapons is somewhere between short and empty, the list of weapons that have gone on to a second life as satellite launchers is very long.

For the United States, it's a list that begins with our very first military missiles.

First, the Atlas. You may remember that a version of Atlas was used during the orbital phase of Project Mercury. What you may not have heard is that old, decommissioned Atlas-F ICBMs were refurbished by the Air Force, and used to launch spy satellites during the '60s, '70s, and beyond. The last of the "stage-and-a-half" Atlas rockets flew in 2004.

The next ICBM the U.S. deployed, the Titan, was also recycled for launch duty. Again, it played a role in the American manned space program as the launch vehicle for Project Gemini. And like Atlas, once the missiles were decommissioned in the '80s, they found new life as workhorses in the Air Force satellite program. One such missile sent the Clementine space probe on its way to the Moon in 1994, another was used to launch the NOAA-M weather satellite in 2002.

The next ICBM to be deployed, the Minuteman, hasn't been taken out of service yet. Its alleged replacement, the Peacekeeper, has been withdrawn. Depending on who you talk to, the Peacekeeper was taken out of service because of cuts mandated by treaty, or because the Air Force wasn't happy with its range. Maybe a little of both? Either way, its engines became available for Orbital Sciences Corporation to fool around with. Some Peacekeeper first stages were used in their Taurus launcher. But then, they got the idea to just use the whole darn thing, which was the beginning of the Minotaur. Last week, a Minotaur was used to send the LADEE probe on its way to the Moon.

Solid rockets don't waste a whole lot of time getting off the ground, do they?

Of all the missiles I just mentioned, only the Minotaur is still in service. Sort of. There's still an Atlas flying, the Atlas V, but it only shares a name with its progenitor. The American-built airframe uses a Russian-built RD-180 engine in its first stage.

The world is a weird place. If you were to ask an average American circa 1812 who our nation's strongest ally would be two hundred years hence, he'll pick anyone but the British, and he'd be wrong. And if you were to ask a Convair engineer in 1963 whose engines his Atlas rocket would be using in fifty years, he'd pick anyone but the Russians, and he'd also be wrong.

It's an interesting exercise in humility: just imagine what we're going to be wrong about, in fifty years' time?

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