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Titan II launch
A converted Titan II ICBM launches the Quickscat mission for NASA. (credit: NASA)

Battle of the Titans (part 2)


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It was a matter of national policy that the Space Shuttle would be the only new US launch system, but not everyone in the US Air Force agreed with that philosophy. The Complementary Expendable Launch Vehicle (CELV) procurement that began in 1984 and became the Titan IV program addressed back up launches for three very important Air Force payloads, all to be launched from Cape Canaveral (see “Battle of the Titans (part 1)”, The Space Review, September 28, 2020). Soon after CELV got underway in 1984, some Air Force officers began thinking about the problem of alternative launch capabilities for payloads using polar orbits launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The Air Force ICBM force consisted of 1,000 Minuteman II and III solid propellant missiles and 50 Titan II liquid propellant missiles, with the new, larger Peacekeeper solid-fueled ICBM under development.

It seemed logical that the decommissioned Titan II missiles could be converted into relatively low-cost space boosters as well, and that approach also offered certain advantages over using the shuttle from Vandenberg.

On August 24, 1978, at a Titan II operational missile site near Rock, Kansas, nitrogen tetroxide leaking during a propellant transfer operation, severely damaging the missile and killing two missile crewmen. On September 18, 1980, at a Titan II operational missile site near Damascus, Arkansas, a massive leak occurred from the missile first stage oxidizer tank; 8.5 hours later, the missile exploded. One Air Force airman was killed and 21 others were injured.

These two mishaps called into question the safety of the Titan II force, and given the new Peacekeeper missile’s ability to take over the heavyweight ballistic missile role, the decision was made to retire the Titan II force. This immediately raised the question of what would be done with the missiles removed from deployment.

Many of the SM-75 Thor IRBMs originally deployed to Great Britain were modified into space boosters; the last launch of one of those vehicles occurred in 1980. A number of the Atlas E and Atlas F ICBMs removed from deployments in the mid-’60s were modified into space boosters and were still being launched at the time, although 25 of them had been run over with a bulldozer in the early ’70s to dispose of them because of “excessive” storage costs. The cost of missions using a converted Atlas E/F was attractive, at about $15 million each. In contrast, a Delta 2914 launch at that time cost $20 million.

It seemed logical that the decommissioned Titan II missiles could be converted into relatively low-cost space boosters as well, and that approach also offered certain advantages over using the shuttle from Vandenberg. The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and Advanced Television and Infrared Observation Satellite (ATN) NOAA payloads being launched on Atlas E converted ICBMs only weighed about a ton, more than 13,600 kilograms less than a shuttle could haul to orbit. And both DMSP and TIROS payloads needed to be launched on a call up basis, within about 120 days of the failure of one of the on-orbit birds. Such a call-up requirement was a challenge to meet with expendable launch vehicles but was going to be far more difficult to work into the shuttle schedule on such short notice. And, of course, having a few payloads launching on converted Titan IIs could also facilitate other payloads that would not be forced to fly on the shuttle.

So, after getting the CELV program going in 1984, in fiscal year 1985 the Air Force advanced the idea of converting Titan II ICBMs into space boosters and requested funding in the budget. Payloads included DMSP missions after the Atlas E booster supply ran out, a classified program, and possibly ATN launches when Atlas Es were no longer available for them, either.

NASA’s reaction

NASA was not exactly overjoyed with this development. While the agency did not offer an alternative to Titan II as it had for the CELV program, it nonetheless lobbied heavily against the program on Capitol Hill. At an Atlas launch of a TIROS NOAA in November 1984 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Air Force ELV SPO director put down the phone, shook his head, and said, “NASA managed to cancel out the funding for Titan II today!”

And that NASA opposition created some special hazards for the new Titan II program. The Air Force argument was that the converted ICBMs just had to be cheaper than building new boosters, so the policy prohibition on new ELVs should not matter; this proved to be a badly flawed concept. The Air Force issued a request for proposals (RFP) for conversion of the Titan II ICBMs into space boosters in 1985.

The Martin Marietta proposal

The proposal from Martin Marietta featured minimal conversion and rework of the decommissioned ICBMs. The Titan II had been upgraded years before with a new inertial guidance system similar to that used on the Titan III space boosters; that would be retained, even though the hardware had accumulated many running hours in service. A telemetry system and a destruct system would be added and the reentry vehicle mating mount would be replaced with a suitable payload interface and a fairing. The same engines already mounted on the boosters would be used. A program to hot-fire engines periodically added confidence that the propulsion system would be in good shape.

One would have assumed that, given the vastly reduced overhaul and modifications to be accomplished on the Titan II ICBMs, the costs would have been even lower than that required for the Atlas.

This was in marked contrast to the Air Force experience with the Atlas E/F ICBMs, in which all the hardware was stripped from the missiles and replaced with a whole new wiring harness, a guidance system that utilized only a few 1950s components as part of new hardware, as well as telemetry and destruct systems. The Atlas engines were overhauled and hot-fired. The top of the booster tank was removed and replaced with a payload interface, with adapters and fairings as required for the specific spacecraft.

One would have assumed that, given the vastly reduced overhaul and modifications to be accomplished on the Titan II ICBMs, the costs would have been even lower than that required for the Atlas. Reality proved to be quite different.

Another company weighs in

Alone among the major ELV manufacturers, General Dynamics (GD) had made the corporate commitment to keep selling Atlas launches to commercial customers. While the company had competed for the CELV contract, some observers thought that GD actually was relieved to lose, because CELV would have absorbed the resources it needed to get its commercial Atlas program underway. However, when Martin Marietta began announcing plans to use the Titan IV contract as a way to springboard its own Commercial Titan II program, GD no doubt had second thoughts as to the commercial utility of CELV. When the Titan II RFP was released by the Air Force, GD chose not to respond, but after the proposal from Martin Marietta was received by the Air Force, GD submitted one of their own.

The GD proposal was unsolicited, and while it was no doubt inspired by the Titan II space booster effort, it was not offered in response to that RFP. GD proposed to provide new-build Atlas boosters to meet the same requirements as that for Titan II. Their concept was to build new Atlas first stages based on those used by the Atlas Centaur booster launched at Cape Canaveral and the Atlas H being launched at Vandenberg. A new solid propellant upper stage would be added. This was all entirely feasible and represented low risk, but the really bad news was that GD’s proposal was cheaper than Martin Marietta’s.

The whole basis for the Titan II program was that converting existing ICBMs was going to be cheap, but in fact the Martin Marietta proposal showed that using a Titan II was between three and four times the cost of an Atlas E converted ICBM launch. GD’s unsolicited proposal was nowhere near as low in cost as an Atlas E, but still less than the Titan II cost. GD would take advantage of the existing Atlas E and Atlas H programs and utilize the existing lower-cost, higher-quality Vandenberg workforce.

This was a potential disaster for Titan II. If the word got out that the “Titan II is obviously cheaper than any alternative” was a sham, that was all NASA would need to get the program killed. GD was quietly told not to go market its proposal in Washington DC; the result would only be the end of Titan II, not a new production order for GD.

But in the case of Titan II, that DD-250 would be signed 45 days after launch, so that the Air Force could refuse to accept the vehicle if the launch result was not satisfactory.

As for the GD proposal, technically, unsolicited proposals could only be accepted if they were for a unique capability that did not exist elsewhere. Since the Titan II space booster was a viable alternative to the capability proposed by GD, their proposal could not be considered to be acceptable. The reason was merely a fig leaf, but a necessary one.

The big change

The loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, changed everything about the US space launch business. Immediately after the loss of Challenger, certain things became obvious. The planned shuttle schedule could not be maintained with only three vehicles, and that meant the Vandenberg shuttle launches had to be cancelled. The shuttle would be grounded for an extended period; this turned out to be two and half years. A replacement for the Challenger would be built but would not be available for some time; the new shuttle Endeavour would not fly until more than six years later. All DoD missions not needing the shuttle would be moved to ELVs and no new shuttle missions would be planned for DoD. ELVs would become once more the “normal” way of launching payloads that did not required a crewed presence. And all commercial payloads would have to move from the shuttle.

NASA’s opposition to the Titan II space booster was dropped immediately after the loss of the Challenger.

Forging ahead with Titan II

Titan II had a green light to proceed but ran into some trouble along the way. The loss of a Delta 3914 on May 3, 1986, due to a chafed wire inspired the inspection of the wiring harnesses on all US boosters. The first Titan II was found to have some wiring harness concerns that had to be corrected. And when the first Titan II was erected on the SLC-4 launch pad, the ground system refused to recognize the booster. Although potentially serious problems, these also were straightforward to correct.

The biggest problem found was that Martin Marietta had designed the Titan II space booster to not require a rate gyro package and to process the directional gyro data to derive rate of response information. The first vehicle was built to that design but, meanwhile, Martin Marietta conducted simulation testing to ensure that the approach would work over the entire performance envelope—and found out that it would not. A rate gyro package had to be designed and installed on the booster after it had already been erected on the launch pad.

The management approach used for the Titan II procurement was basically the same as that for Titan IV. Martin Marietta would be a prime contractor with Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR). The prime contactor would supply a launch, not a piece of hardware to be launched under a separate contract.

One new innovation was introduced. As usual, a DD-250 form was formally signed by the government representative to accept the contractor’s product. But in the case of Titan II, that DD-250 would be signed 45 days after launch, so that the Air Force could refuse to accept the vehicle if the launch result was not satisfactory.

Successes and failure

The problems were worked out and the first Titan II space booster was launched from SLC-4 at Vandenberg AFB on September 5, 1988, carrying a classified payload to orbit. A similar mission was launched a year later and a third on April 25, 1992. Next came the Landsat 6 mission on October 5, 1993. This was first Titan II mission for NASA/NOAA, but it was a failure. While the Titan II booster performed properly, the upper stage malfunctioned and the spacecraft reentered. But even while the first launches were going on new controversy arose over the use of Titan II.

The surplus missiles issue

The operational Global Positioning System (GPS) spacecraft originally were to launch on the Space Shuttle. Following the loss the Challenger, a competitive procurement led to a new version of the venerable Delta booster being chosen for GPS: the Delta II and, later, the enhanced Delta II with larger solid strap-on motors. But after the first procurement of GPS launches the Air Force announced that future procurements would be on a competitive basis.

So, with at least another 35 Titan II ICBMs available, why did the launches stop? Titan II had not proved to be all that cheap and there were other alternatives available.

Even after the initial Titan II procurement there were still more than 30 missiles in storage and available for future use. Martin Marietta designed modifications for the Titan II that would have incorporated multiple strap-on solid rocket boosters similar to the Delta and thus increase the vehicle’s performance to enable it to launch GPS missions. This sent McDonnell Douglas into a panic. The company sent lobbyists around the Pentagon and Washington DC arguing that allowing use of such surplus missiles was a terrible idea. They even cited the World War II use of the British Merlin engine in the US-built P-51 as being due to the damage done to the American aircraft engine industry by the releases of surplus World War I engines. They found some sympathy for their views in the Department of Transportation. Of course, this ignored the fact that McDonnell Douglas Thor IRBMs had been converted to space boosters and served for years in that role.

The anti-surplus missile people won the argument in DC and, to this day, there are strong restrictions on the use of such surplus hardware, despite the fact that provisions for such use are specifically called out in the Commercial Space Launch Act (see “An embarrassment of riches”, The Space Review, June 28, 2010).

Titan II space booster assessment

A total of 13 Titan II space boosters were launched; all were mission successes except for the Landsat 6 mission. In addition to four classified missions, three DMSP, three NOAA ATN, a Quickscat mission, and the Clementine mission, which tested new sensors by orbiting the Moon, were launched. The last launch, DMSP F-15, occurred on October 18, 2003.

So, with at least another 35 Titan II ICBMs available, why did the launches stop? Titan II had not proved to be all that cheap and there were other alternatives available. The Air Force bought new build Delta IIs at a lower cost than most of the Titan II missions. And by 2002, the Air Force had the new Delta IV and Atlas V to use, as well as a need to use them in order to keep per-mission costs lower and to reduce overall launch pad maintenance costs.

The conversion of Titan II ICBMs into space boosters was a success; its main value was to fill in between the loss of the Space Shuttle capability and later expendables. But the Titan II space booster was created by the Air Force as a way to justify a low-cost alternative to the Space Shuttle, not because it was a good idea in its own right. Once there was no need to worry about shuttle alternatives, its value was limited. The majority of Titan II missions probably could have been handled by the use of vehicles such as the Delta II and Atlas II at the same cost, or even less ,after the initial post-Challenger flurry of ELV activity was over. Ironically, the new company of Lockheed Martin essentially abandoned further development of the Titan II in favor of versions of the Atlas vehicle that originally was intended to supplant it.


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