SMDC History: First Zeus launched From underground cell

By Sharon Watkins Lang, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Historical OfficeApril 25, 2016

SMDC History: First ZEUS Launched From Underground Cell
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The Nike-Zeus represents the next generation of the Nike family of missiles. The Nike-Ajax was developed to defend against bomber attacks. Its successor the larger and more powerful Nike-Hercules was created to tackle the potential of a massed bomber attack. The next generation, the Nike-Zeus, sought to address a new problem. It was the first system developed to intercept ballistic missiles, specifically intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In the initial concepts, the Zeus anti-missile missile retained some of the features of the Nike-Hercules. The most prominent being the winged body. With each successive research and development test firing, the configuration was amended as new technologies, new concepts and/or new techniques were adopted.

The test on April 28, 1960 saw two firsts. Unlike previous tests, the main fins or wings of Zeus missile were removed to simulate a next generation DM-15B Zeus interceptor. At the same time a dummy sustainer and warhead were installed. Thus the second stage engines and warhead were not fired in this test. The missile did however incorporate a new booster motor which was capable of producing 450,000 pounds of thrust.

Second, this test was the first to employ a prototype underground cell, developed following an extensive series of static engine firings to collect data on pressure, temperatures and acoustics. In this particular test, the exhaust duct from the underground cell remained open to allow expanding gases to divert into the atmosphere.

Period reports note that both primary objectives were met. The launch helped generate the necessary data and design criteria for an underground cell. At the same time, scientists were able to investigate the effect of exhaust gases on hardware and equipment and the subsequent impact if any on the performance of the interceptor. In addition, this ducted version of the underground launch cell was ultimately adopted by the project office.

To many, this test was the first suggestion that an operational Nike-Zeus might employ an underground launch system. In a subsequent press release, Army spokesmen explained the rationale for this dramatic transition noting that overall construction costs were less for an underground cell. Above ground complexes for example require an elaborate barricade system and access tunnels, in addition to an air conditioning/heating system to monitor and control the temperature of the equipment.

In contrast an underground facility was "more resistant to attack" and its location below the surface provided a natural ambient temperature. At the same time officials believed that maintenance costs would be reduced with the elimination of the hydraulic system employed on the fixed launching rail.

According to newspaper accounts, the April 28 test was quite spectacular. "The Zeus roared skyward from its launcher at 8:52 CDT. The missile streaked almost straight up on a ballistic trajectory. All test objectives were met."

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