Fifty-two years ago this month, the USAF Bold Orion air-launched ballistic missile performed a successful intercept of the Explorer VI satellite. This event marked the first time in history that a endoatmospherically-launched missile intercepted a target vehicle in space.
Bold Orion was a 1950’s-era air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) prototype developed by Martin Aircraft for the United States Air Force (USAF). It was part of USAF’s Weapons System 199 (WS-199) research and development program. The goal of WS-199 was to develop technology to be used in emerging strategic weapons systems by the Strategic Air Command (SAC).
The Bold Orion was developed using components obtained from existing missile systems as a cost savings measure. The missile was initially configured as a single stage vehicle. Power was provided by a Thiokol TX-20 Sergeant solid rocket motor. However, preliminary flight tests showed that the vehicle lacked sufficient kinematic performance. The addition of an ABL X-248 Altair solid rocket motor made Bold Orion a two-stage vehicle.
The two-stage Bold Orion configuration was 37 feet in length and had a maximum diameter of 31 inches. The vehicle was air-launched from a USAF/Boeing B-47 Stratojet aircraft. Missile launch occurred while the carrier aircraft executed a zoom climb maneuver. The option was available to fly either a maximum range endoatmospheric mission (about 1,000 nm) or achieve exoatmospheric altitudes as high as 150 nm.
The Bold Orion flight test program consisted of a dozen missions. The first six of these were single-stage vehicles which were flown between May and November of 1958. The remaining rounds were two-stage configurations which were tested between December of 1958 and October of 1959. All missions were air-launched off the coast of Florida and flown down the Eastern Test Range.
Bold Orion’s grandest moment came on the occasion of its final flight. The goal was to test the vehicle’s ability to perform in the anti-satellite (ASAT)role. The Explorer VI satellite served as the mission target. A direct hit was not required since an actual interceptor would be configured with a nuclear warhead. In that scenario, detonation of the warhead within several miles of the target would be sufficient to destroy it.
Bold Orion’s ASAT mission occurred on Tuesday, 13 October 1959. Launch took place within the Atlantic Missile Range Drop Zone (AMR DZ). The altitude, latitude and longitude of the drop point were 35,000 feet, 29 deg North and 79 deg West, respectively. Bold Orion successfully intercepted the Explorer 6 satellite, passing its target at a range of less than 3.5 nm and an altitude of 136 nm.
The Bold Orion ASAT test marked the first interception of a satellite in space and verified the feasibility of an ASAT system. However, negative political ramifications came along with technical success. Specifically, the Eisenhower Administration intended to keep space neutral. Bold Orion’s overtones of hostile intent did not play well with that mandate. As a result, ASAT development within the United States was halted not long after Bold Orion’s final mission.
Bold Orion’s success gave USAF the flight experience and technology to develop the Skybolt ALBM. Known as GAM-87, this two-stage missile sported a W59 thermonuclear warhead with a yield of 1.2 megatons. A quartet of pylon-mounted Skybolt missiles would be carried by and air-launched from a USAF/Boeing B-52H Stratofortress. While Skybolt’s kinematic performance was impressive, test problems and the development of the Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) ultimately led to its cancellation.