by Dr. John Greenwood, Dr. Harry Waldron and James Spellman, Jr.
Space and Missile Systems Center History Office and SMC/Public Affairs
9/18/2015 - 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 Unites 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,
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
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
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
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, Florida. 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
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!