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53rd anniversary of Atlas launch rekindles nuclear past

  • Published
  • By Lan Kim
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
The first time a president witnessed the nation's nuclear defense capability was 53 years ago, March 23, 1962. The launch of an unarmed Atlas 134D intercontinental ballistic missile displayed the reliability of the strategic deterrent for many leaders to view.

President John F. Kennedy watched the launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, along with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; Gen. Thomas S. Power, Strategic Air Command's commander-in-chief; various other generals; and 50 members of the White House Press Corps.

Airmen from F.E. Warren's 389th Strategic Missile Wing were responsible for the launch.

Ret. Tech. Sgt. Frank D. Waters, a Cheyenne, Wyoming resident, was an Airman 1st Class at the time, and part of the Senior Wing Standardization Launch Crew R-07. He assisted with the launch, and knew very well the importance of that historic event.

"It served a worthwhile purpose. I think if we had not had the Atlas system, and then the Minuteman phasing into that, that we would've been at nuclear war with [the Soviet Union]," Waters said.

Waters was an automatic radar tracking specialist who assisted in getting the missile as close as possible to the target. He described the execution of the launch as "beautiful."

The launch happened in a point in history where geopolitical tensions were high, especially in the realm of nuclear power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

"I know of no other time in launch history when so many high ranking officers and personnel were in attendance," Michael Byrd, 90th Missile Wing historian, said.

"The story would get out of the president's attendance and of the complete success of the launch - that took trust because the launch could have failed," Byrd said. "And a failed launch would have made the front page faster than a successful one. A failed launch would have signaled to the Soviet Union a U.S. weakness."

After much preparation leading up to the launch, Waters and his crew were relieved that the missile took off successfully and did not explode - something they feared could have occurred that day.

"As the first president to view a live launch, President Kennedy was indicating by his presence just how important the Atlas system was and his trust [in it]," Byrd said.