Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Titan II - Defender and Explorer

The Titan II ICBM came to mind the other day when David Darling posted on FaceBook a photo from the Gemini program.  The old Titan did two jobs - three, really.  I admired it as a booster and an exploration vehicle, but I knew "the Beast" intimately as a ballistic missile.
I pulled somewhere over 200 24-hour "alerts" underground near Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1980s.  I commanded a four person crew, two officers, two enlisted.  Unlike the Minuteman missiles still on alert today, the Titan's crew was responsible for just one missile, and the command center was connected to the silo by a long cableway.  We walked out every day to inspect the aging warrior, which was supposed to have been retired by 1970 but was still on alert because there was no agreement in DC on its successor, which eventually became the Peacekeeper ICBM. 
If you were a space buff, you already knew something about the Titan II.  When NASA decided to follow its one-man Mercury capsule with the two-man Gemini, the Air Force's Titan II was the only American vehicle with the power to lift it.  The Titan II (first launched as a missile in a test in 1962)  went through hundreds of changes to become "man-rated," the biggest of which was getting rid of a longitudinal shaking or "pogo" effect.  The resulting booster had a perfect record for placing the Geminis in space: two unmanned and ten manned launches between 1964 and 1966.  (Spaceflight was, of course, all-"manned" in those days.). It went on to develop into the Titan III and Titan IV that carried the heaviest NASA and Defense payloads outside of the Apollo stack. 

Yes, it really was this awesome.  (USAF) 

Maybe I shouldn't speak reverently of a missile that could, as we well knew, kill millions of people. But however shaky the moral calculus of Mutual Assured Destruction was, it worked.  From WWII to the demise of the Soviet Union, no one on either side turned a launch key, and a large part of the reason was because they knew the other guy had time to turn his, too.  We did the job.

The LGM-25C Titan II was a two-stage bird over 100 feet tall and 10 feet wide.  The reentry vehicle containing what was euphemistically called the physics package was covered in fiberglass-like ablative material, and the whole thing was much taller than I was and had an unmistakable menace to it.  The big Aerojet LR87, an engine with twin combustion chambers and nozzles, burned nitrogen tetroxide and an equally noxious hydrazine blend called Aerozine-50.  These were hypergolics, meaning they ignited on contact, meaning you didn't want to let them come in contact or you got something like the 1979 accident at site 374-7, where a silo door weighing 700 tons was flipped aside like a poker chip in an explosion that killed one man and produced a cloud of nitrogen tetroxide (a BFRC, or "big 'friendly' red cloud") that scared the hell out of central Arkansas.

NEXT: Training and life with the Titan II underground.

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