ATLAS HISTORY April 2009  
     By:  Ed Bock

Project SCORE was the World’s first communications satellite.  It was launched by an Atlas rocket on December 18, 1958.  SCORE, an acronym for Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment, captured world attention by broadcasting a Christmas message from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The SCORE satellite equipment was integral with the Atlas Sustainer stage and became the largest object placed in orbit up to that time.  Launching the entire Atlas Sustainer stage into orbit is the closest anyone has ever come to demonstrating single-stage-to-orbit (Atlas had 1-1/2 stages; a jettisonable Booster engine section and the Sustainer stage with Sustainer and Vernier engines, avionics, an integral nose cone, and all the propellant tankage).

March 1958 was the middle of the cold war with the Soviet Union and the early phase of the space race.  The USSR had launched Sputniks 1 and 2 on October 4 and November 3, 1957, for a total mass in orbit of 1304 pounds.  The US had only managed to orbit several Explorers on Jupiter rockets, while the Vanguard suffered an embarrassing (and usually spectacular) series of failures.  Total US mass in orbit: 65 pounds.  Then in May 1958 came Sputnik III.  The Atlas ICBM was in its early phases of development testing.  By June 1958, eight Atlas A vehicles (non-jettisonable Booster engines and propellant tank with no Sustainer engine) had been launched (3 successfully).  Atlas B vehicles (jettisonable Booster section and Sustainer stage) were just starting their flight tests.  

Early Atlas flight test results indicated that it would be theoretically possible to orbit the entire Sustainer stage if enough non-flight-critical hardware (such as tracking, telemetry and range safety equipment) could be removed.  The 150 pounds of SCORE electronics was developed over a six month period by the US Army Signal Research and Development  Laboratory (SRDL) at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, under the then new Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the fore runner of DARPA.  President Eisenhower was reluctantly persuaded to “give it a try” as long as the attempt remained secret until SCORE achieved orbit.  If news of the project leaked, the government people involved would lose their jobs.

Atlas flight tests were ballistic trajectories, so the changes needed in vehicle hardware and software (guidance equations) had to be achieved via subterfuge and obfuscation by the smallest number of people.  This was accomplished by “Club 88”, the 88 people who were briefed on the project to orbit an Atlas; including 22 military/government, 26 STL (USAF technical advisors), and 19 General Dynamics Convair engineers.  The civilians were told that they would lose their security clearances if any leaks occurred.  To disguise what was to be attempted, several flight sets of light weight conical nose cones and adapters were ordered.  Rocketdyne engine set acceptance test firing data were screened to pick the highest performing engines.  A vigorous Atlas weight reduction effort was initiated under the guise of demonstrating a 6000 NM ballistic trajectory.  A single GD Convair guidance engineer was selected to develop the equations for orbiting Atlas.  Atlas 10B was designated as the SCORE vehicle.

At 17 November 1958, the Atlas B flight test record stood at six attempts with three failures, including the last two.  President Eisenhower was very nervous and withdrew his support, but an intensive lobbying effort by program personnel turned him around.  Fortunately, the Atlas 12B flight on November 28 was fully successful, demonstrating the full operational range requirement of 5500 NM.  The engines on 10B were switched out in the San Diego factory with a higher performing set and the vehicle was shipped to Cape Canaveral and erected on Complex 11.  The Flight Readiness Firing was accomplished with all the normal ballistic trajectory hardware installed.  Then two days before launch, the equipment needed for SCORE was substituted and all non flight critical hardware removed, including AZUZA tracking and Telemetry.  All unused brackets welded to the propellant tank were snipped off.  The wire carrying the signal for Sustainer Engine cutoff was cut, taped, and hidden back into its harness.  During the night before launch, the reentry vehicle with dummy warhead was replaced with a light weight conical nose fairing, and the Range Safety Receiver was removed.  All these changes were authorized by verbal orders with no formal paperwork.  Because President Eisenhower’s taped Christmas message would not arrive until launch day, it would have to be uploaded in the clear to the onboard tape recorder.  This was accomplished by a SRDL trailer parked several launch complexes away and rumored to belong to the CIA.

Launch day weather was good, the countdown was smooth, but the initial attempt was scrubbed by a ground system interlock with the missing AZUZA equipment.  A jumper fixed the problem, countdown was recycled and Atlas 10B was launched.  Its initial trajectory during Boost phase was outside nominal and almost reached the destruct limit line, but the Sustainer guidance corrected back to near nominal.  The Cape Canaveral Range Safety Officer was a Club 88 member, and with the Atlas’ Range Safety Receiver removed, he had no vehicle destruct capability.  JPL in California, who thought they were looking for a test ICBM, confirmed that orbit had been achieved.  The actual orbital parameters were an inclination of 32.3 degrees, apogee of 787 NM and perigee of 98.5 NM.  The orbit was more elliptical than planned due to larger than predicted propellant residuals.  The goal was 32.0 degrees, 550 NM, and 101 NM, respectively, with Atlas to remain in orbit a minimum of 5 days, but it achieved 34 days. 

President Eisenhower’s message played repeatedly for 12 days:  
“This is the President of the United States speaking.  Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite traveling in outer space.  My message is a simple one.  Through this unique means I convey to you and all mankind, America’s wish for peace on earth and goodwill toward men everywhere.”

The Atlas’ 8660 pound 75 foot long Sustainer stage with SCORE electronics was then the heaviest and largest object launched into orbit, and SCORE was the world’s first communications satellite.  The broader significance was that it demonstrated the practical operation of a satellite radio-relay system with intercontinental capability.  And, for a very brief period, we were ahead of the USSR in the space race.

Sources and Resources

Atlas, The Ultimate Weapon  --  Chuck Walker  2005

The Talking Satellite:  A Reminiscence of Project SCORE --  Deane Davis
Published in the British Interplanetary Journal, Volume 52, 1999

Curt Johnston’s Atlas History - Atlas 50 Year Reunion, July 2007

Wikipedia,  Project SCORE  

Military Space Programs,  SCORE