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Military Origins of the Space Race

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Both the Soviet Union and the United States developed powerful missiles to deliver nuclear weapons. The U.S. deployed the Atlas, Titan, Minuteman, and Peacekeeper (MX) intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on land and the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles at sea.

With advances in technology, missiles became more accurate, could be launched on short notice, and could carry multiple warheads. These advances, which made missiles more effective, also made them more inviting targets for attack.


America's first ICBMs, the Atlas and Titan missiles, also saw duty in the civilian space program as launch vehicles for spacecraft.

Atlas first carried the Mercury spacecraft bearing astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. Later, Atlas missiles were mated to Able, Agena, and Centaur upper stages to create launch vehicles for a variety of American spacecraft.

Titan IIs launched all 10 Gemini missions in 1965 and 1966. Later, Titans were fitted with upper stages and strap-on boosters to launch large planetary spacecraft and military satellites.

Launch of Atlas
111 k jpeg
NARA#: KKE 44277
The Atlas ICBM was deployed from 1959 to 1965. It was a "stage-and-a-half" liquid-propellant rocket with one main engine between two booster engines. The Museum's rocketry collection includes two Atlas launch vehicles, which are displayed at NASA visitor centers in Alabama and Florida.

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