The United States successfully test-fires its first Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile. The threat of global nuclear holocaust moves from the plausible to the likely.
The Titan I
was not the first ICBM: Both the United States and Soviet Union had already deployed ICBMs earlier in the 1950s (the Atlas A by the Americans, the R-7 by the Russians). But the Titan represented a new generation, a liquid-fueled rocket with greater range and a more powerful payload that upped the ante in the Cold War.
The Titan that the U.S. Air Force successfully launched from Cape Canaveral 50 years ago today featured a two-stage liquid rocket capable of delivering a 4-megaton warhead to targets 8,000 miles away. A 4-megaton detonation, puny by today's standards, nevertheless dwarfed the destructive power of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan
The Titan's range meant that, firing from its home turf, the United States was now capable of hitting targets in Eastern Europe, the western Soviet Union and the Soviet Far East.
The first squadron of Titan I's was declared operational in April 1962. By the mid-'60s, five squadrons were deployed in the western United States.
The missiles were stored in protective underground silos, but had to be brought to the surface for firing. The Titan II
, which began appearing in large numbers during the mid-'60s and eventually supplanted the Titan I, would be the first ICBM
that could be launched directly from its silo.
Today, ICBMs can be launched from silos, from mobile launchers and, most effectively, from submarines.
The prototype for all ICBMs was the A9/10, a missile developed by Nazi Germany during World War II. The A9/10, which never advanced beyond the testing stage, was designed to attack American cities on the East Coast as part of "Projekt Amerika."
Although that weapon was never deployed it led directly to the development of the V-2 rocket
, the first ballistic missile ever used in warfare. The man behind both the A9/10 and V-2 projects, Wernher von Braun, came to the United States following the war, when the both the Americans and Russians began scooping up useful German rocket scientists. Von Braun would play a central role in both the U.S. nuclear-weapons and space programs.
Developed as a vehicle for delivering nuclear warheads to targets thousands of miles away, the Titan, like the Atlas before it, also proved effective as a launch platform for NASA. The Titan II was used extensively during the Gemini program, before being replaced for Apollo by the far more powerful Saturn V
The Cold War is now history, and various treaties have led to the reduction of nuclear arsenals in both the United States and Russia. But the ICBM is still around, and still lethal. All the so-called nuclear countries have them, and North Korea may have recently joined the club.
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