By Dr. John Greenwood, Dr. Harry Waldron and James Spellman, Jr., Space and Missile Systems Center History Office and SMC/Public Affairs
/ Published September 18, 2015
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, El Segundo, Calif. -- Although its heritage dates back to August 1, 1907 when the U.S. Army Signal Corps first established an aeronautical division for military aviation, the U.S. Air Force became a separate military service 68 years ago today when President Harry S. Truman signed the executive order while flying aboard his Douglas C-54 Skymaster presidential aircraft, The Independence.
As part of the total force that is capable of preserving the peace and security of the United States, the U.S. Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the military under the National Security Act of 1947, making it the most recent branch of the U.S. military to be formed.
Barely a month after the ink had dried on the document, history was made as Air Force Capt. (now retired Brig. Gen.) Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier on Oct. 14, 1947. Yeager's supersonic flight in the Bell X-1 -- named Glamorous Glennis in honor of his wife -- signified the beginning of many accomplishments throughout the storied history of the Air Force.
The same holds true for the Space and Missile Systems Center and Los Angeles Air Force Base, whose roots date back to a former catholic church and parish schoolhouse on East Manchester Blvd. in Inglewood, Calif.
In 1954, the Air Force established the Western Development Division of the Air Research and Development Command, under the direction of then-Brig. Gen. Bernard A. Schreiver. The general and WDD was assigned the herculean responsibility of developing the nation's first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas -- and an alternative, or backup, ICBM -- the Titan, as a hedge against failure or delay in the Atlas program.
WDD was created on paper on July 1, 1954, but Schriever and his first 18 staff members didn't report to their designated location until August, moving into offices with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation.
The facilities and logistics were the responsibility of Ramo-Wooldridge. Simon Ramo simply picked out the closest adequate space and rented it. It turned out to be a church building, rectory, and parish school for St. John's Catholic Church, which had been closed down by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Everyone knew that the church was only a temporary solution, so modifications were minor. The church itself was divided into two large rooms, one of which held computers and the other of which was a small auditorium for meetings.
The Von Neumann Committee met there in the fall of 1955 when it reviewed the progress of ICBM programs, having been reconstituted as the Atlas Scientific Advisory Committee. John von Neumann himself would sometimes listen to major technical problems there, then move his chair into the corner and stare at the wall while he silently analyzed and devised a solution.
The computer room had very large computers that created a lot of heat. The rose window was removed and a fan installed to cool them, but the major command would not approve air conditioning for a long time. The first few months were miserably hot.
Inevitably, there were jokes about working in a former church building. Some said, for example, that it was OK for them to work on weekends because they went to church every day. They stacked contractor proposals in the confessionals, and some said that it might somehow bring the contractors to confess to any untruths in their proposals.
Most of the rooms in the school and rectory were used for offices without modification. Schriever's deputy had an office that was about 10 feet square. Most Air Force personnel simply had desks placed wherever there was room.
Security was tight. The guards were under contract to Ramo-Wooldridge. Employees didn't discuss their work with the surrounding community, but there was no cover story. Military wore civilian clothes to work. But it didn't take the townspeople long to figure out they were working on a major weapons program. A bank teller told one of Schriever's staff, "don't blow us up over there!"
Despite the trials of building a major acquisition center from absolutely nothing, in a location with no existing military infrastructure whatsoever, and using it to lead a massive research and development effort with thousands of contractors, and having the complexity double, then triple and quadruple in complexity as new programs were added, the predecessor Western Development Division left a pretty remarkable legacy.
On Oct. 10, 1955, ARDC transferred the first Air Force space development program known as WS 117L from Wright Air Development Center to WDD. By the end of 1955, the division was given the additional task of developing an intermediate range ballistic missile -- the Thor -- and of achieving initial operational capability with the missile systems it was building. In barely 18 months, the mission of WDD underwent an enormous expansion.
By June 1, 1957, WDD was redesignated the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, a fitting name in view of its enormous responsibilities. Several months later, on Sept. 20, the first successful Thor IRBM was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Then, on Dec. 17 -- the 54th anniversary of the Wright Brother's first flight -- the first successful Atlas launch and short-range flight were made. Although they were the culmination of much effort, the launches were only the first, halting steps toward deployment of operational IRBM and ICBM weapon systems.
But between the first successful Thor and Atlas launches, the Soviet Union used an R-7 Semyorka ICBM of their own design to place the world's first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in earth orbit on Oct. 4, 1957. Sputnik's impact on the Air Force missile program, as well as on its emerging space projects, was immediate and momentous. Both programs were given renewed impetus. Restrictions were quickly lifted, funding was vastly increased, and previous program priorities were reinstated.
Thor. Atlas. Titan. Minuteman. Peacekeeper. Discoverer/Corona. SCORE. MIDAS. X-20 Dyna-Soar. SV-5D/X-23 PRIME. MOL. VELA. SAMOS. DSP. DMSP. GPS. ASAT. TRANSIT. MILSTAR. AFSATCOM. SBIRS. The long and distinguished list goes on.
Despite their historical achievements, some of these programs and acronyms are just names or footnotes with today's society. But back then, few people could have realized how WDD and its successor organizations would change the nature of military technology, national strategy, and international relations while opening the way for the peaceful exploration and routine use of space for civilian and military purposes.
During the past six decades, the Western Development Division underwent multiple reorganizations, from the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in June 1957 to Space and Missile Systems Organization in July 1967 to Space Division in Oct. 1979 to Space Systems Division and finally to the current Space and Missile Systems Center in July 1992.
On Sept. 1, 1982, Air Force Space Command was established to serve as the Air Force's operational command for military space systems. In the years that followed, the command gradually assumed operational functions previously performed by SMC field units, including satellite operations, launch ranges, and satellite control networks.
SMC maintained its leadership role in the development of space and missile systems in support of the new Air Force Space Command mission but remained part of Air Force Systems Command and subsequently Air Force Materiel Command.
The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s changed the focus of military space capabilities from strategic to operational and tactical applications and began an unprecedented growth in demand for military space capabilities. Operation Desert Storm demonstrated the far reaching applications and benefits of space capabilities in joint military operations.
At the same time, defense budget reductions, industry consolidation, government and industry workforce reductions, and projected growth in commercial space investment led the national security space community to institute a series of acquisition reforms. Ultimately, these reforms proved to be flawed, and the community experienced a series of launch failures, serious program delays, and cost overruns in the late 1990s.
All these factors led to a "perfect storm" within the space enterprise and a call to action to fix systemic problems.
In the early 2000s, a number of studies examined management and organization of the defense space community and space acquisition, including the organizational alignment of the Space and Missile Systems Center. In 2001, SMC was realigned under Air Force Space Command, thus bringing the developers and the operators of military space and missile systems together under one major command. Further, program executive officer for space authority was assigned to the commander of SMC, consolidating most space development and acquisition responsibilities under a single "dual-hatted" commander and PEO.
Today, the U. S. Air Force is the largest, most capable, and most technologically advanced air and space force in the world, with about 5,778 manned aircraft in service, approximately 156 unmanned combat air vehicles, 2,130 air-launched cruise missiles, and 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The youngest branch of the U.S. military services has more than 328,000 personnel on active duty, 74,000 in the selected and individual ready reserves, and 106,000 in the Air National Guard. In addition, the Air Force employs more than 168,000 civilian personnel.
Likewise, the Space and Missile Systems Center is Air Force Space Command's center of acquisition excellence for acquiring, developing and sustaining military space systems. As the only active duty military installation in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, its portfolio includes the Global Positioning System, military satellite communications, defense meteorological satellites, space launch and range systems, satellite control networks, space based infrared systems and space situational awareness capabilities.
Happy 68th Birthday, U.S. Air Force!