Series: Minuteman Missiles and the Nuclear Arms Race

Developing the Minuteman I

a small slender missile stands erect on a launch pad, connected to a tower
A minuteman I missile on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, 1960.

By the end of March 1958, at least seven or the Nation's foremost aircraft manufacturers, including the Boeing Airplane Company, were competing to build the new missile. Although Seattle-based Boeing had built many of the Nation's largest strategic bombers, the company had virtually no experience with missiles. Still, Boeing mounted an all-out effort to win the Minuteman contract, assigning more than 100 employees to work on the project. When the Air Force selection board met to examine the proposals, one top official recalled that "there was no question . . . that Boeing was the right company for the job." In October 1958, the US government contracted with Boeing to assemble and test the new missile.

During the next few months, the rest of the Minuteman missile team came into place. The Thiokol Chemical Company of Brigham City, Utah, the Aerojet General Corporation of Sacramento, California, and the Hercules Powder Company of Magna, Utah, all won contracts to work on the missile's propulsion stages. Minuteman's guidance and control systems went to the Autonetics Division of North American Aviation in Downey, California. The AVCO Corporation of Boston contracted to build the missile's thermonuclear warhead.

Much of the development work for Minuteman took place in northern Utah. Thiokol and Hercules already operated plants in the area and, within a few months, Boeing moved into a new assembly plant that occupied 790 acres at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden. By the beginning of 1960, Boeing's Minuteman work force had grown to nearly 12,000, as the company started to assemble the missiles. Time magazine reported that the desert north of Salt Lake was "boiling" with activity:

Strange lights glare in the night, making the mountains shine, and a grumbling roar rolls across the desert. By day enormous clouds of steam-white smoke billow up . . . and drift over hills and valleys. Monstrous vehicles with curious burdens lumber along the roads. All these strange goings-on mark the development of the Minuteman, the solid-fuel missile that its proponents confidently expect will ultimately replace the liquid-fuel Atlas as the U.S.'s standard ICBM.

According to journalist Roy Neal, the ICBM program created a new national industry: "Tens of thousands of industrial and Air Force managers, engineers, and workers [had] to be trained. New machine tools and test facilities [had to] come into being .... " These efforts changed "the face of America, the make-up of the Armed Forces and the industries that support them."

At the end of 1960, the Air Force took the first Minuteman missile to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for flight testing. The compact new missile was only six feet in diameter and 53 feet high - about half the size of a Titan. Minuteman's three cylindrical, steel-cased propulsion stages were stacked one atop the other, with each stage slightly smaller in diameter than the one beneath it. Each stage was filled with a rubbery mixture of fuel and oxidizer, molded around a hollow, star-shaped core. The Minuteman's guidance system occupied a small compartment above the third stage. The "reentry vehicle" at the tip was identical to the nosecone that would eventually contain a thermonuclear warhead.

Following two aborted launch attempts, the Air Force successfully fired the first Minuteman missile at 11: 00 a. m. on February 1, 1961. Even the most experienced missile watchers found it to be "a dazzling spectacle.'' When the missile's first-stage engine ignited, there was a loud bang. Then the missile began to rise on a column of flame and smoke. Unlike the Atlas or Titan missile, which one observer said left the ground "like a fat man getting out of an easy chair," the Minuteman missile "shot up like a skyrocket.” The missile performed flawlessly. The three propulsion stages completed their burns on schedule, then detached themselves and plummeted back to earth, while the unarmed warhead hurled on toward its assigned destination. Twenty-five minutes after liftoff, the reentry vehicle splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean squarely on target - 4,600 miles away.

From his office in Washington D.C., Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas D. White described the launch as "one of the most significant steps this Nation has ever taken toward gaining intercontinental missile supremacy." An engineer who witnessed the event put it another way: "Brother," he said, "there goes the missile gap."