Western Development Division and the ICBM (1953-1957)

In 1953, ERETS was supporting three major missile programs: the Bomarc F-99 surface-to-air interceptor being developed by Boeing; the Navaho long-range surface-to-surface missile being developed by North American Aviation; and Atlas, the first projected surface-to-surface intercontinental bombardment system, being developed by Convair (U.S. Air Force 1954b: 148). In 1953 and 1954, progress was being made on all aspects of guided missile systems (flight vehicle, power plant, guidance system, and warhead) at ERETS. Developments in celestial guidance systems and equipment indicated that the system was feasible for long-range guidance. Solutions to the reentry problem (the warhead would melt before impact) had been proposed. Progress in reducing the size and weight of warheads was being made. (U.S. Air Force 1955a: 182.)

In October 1953, the special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force called on the Air Force to put more time and resources into missile research and appointed prestigious scientists to a committee code-named "Teapot". The objective of the committee was to evaluate Soviet missile development and review all available information about American missile development to determine the feasibility of producing an ICBM as a weapon system. The report produced by the committee concluded that the United States had wasted valuable time between 1945 and 1950 while the three branches of the armed services competed for funding. However, the report concluded, if the government secured the services of talented scientists and engineers, provided adequate funding, and implemented new management techniques, the United States could develop and deploy an effective ICBM before the Soviet Union.

In April 1954, President Eisenhower gave approval for acceleration of the ICBM development program. The Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), located at Andrews AFB in Maryland, created the Western Development Division (WDD), headquartered in Inglewood, California. WDD was a development management group whose sole responsibility was to oversee the research and development, testing, and production leading to creation of a successful ICBM. In September 1955, Eisenhower gave ICBM development the highest national priority, and ordinary procedures were dropped, cutting through governmental red tape, to accelerate the program. As a result of this national focus, ERETS was renamed the Rocket Engine Test Laboratory (RETL), and the construction of the remaining planned facilities took on new importance. RETL was still a part of the AFFTC, reporting to the commander of Edwards AFB and taking technical direction from ARDC through both the Wright Air Development Center and WDD.

Because of the pace of research at the facility, it was challenging for planners to keep up with advances in technology. For the necessary facilities to be in place by the time they were needed. Air Force facility managers had to plan and build for projects that had only recently been conceived (William Lawrence, personal communication 1998). Because of greater requirements for state-of-the-art equipment, facilities, and instrumentation, research programs influenced the perpetual modernization of the rocket propulsion test facilities. For example. Project 3850 was designed to develop equipment and techniques necessary to support the captive missile and rocket tests essential to ICBM development. Aspects of the project included the development of flame deflectors, high-pressure equipment, hazardous propellant equipment, facilities criteria, specialized testing methods and techniques, and high-thrust testing facilities (U.S. Air Force 1957a).