Fifty years ago, the Army's missile defense program took another step forward toward the development of an operational ballistic missile defense system.

On Saturday, March 30, 1968, the first Spartan missile, the Army's biggest and most powerful missile, completed its first flight test at the Kwajalein Test Site in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Larger and heavier than its predecessor the Zeus anti-missile missile, the Spartan was designed to give the BMD system a broader range and wider coverage per battery. With the combination of the long-range Spartan and the long-range Perimeter Acquisition Radar, experts believed that the system could protect the entire nation, including Alaska and Hawaii with only 15-20 missile sites.

As a direct follow-on to the Nike-Zeus, the three-stage Spartan interceptor, which measured 55 feet in length, began its test program on Kwajalein rather than White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. To accommodate the additional length, the launch facility on the west end of Kwajalein Atoll, the earthen mound popularly known as Mt. Olympus -- the highest point on the islands, had been raised and expanded during the previous year.

After a false start earlier in the month (a battery connection failed to charge), the Spartan launched from its vertical concrete cell at 10:01 p.m. CST. The first and second stages (11 feet and 16 feet, respectively) provided the necessary propulsion. The third stage, designed to carry a nuclear warhead, was unarmed.

The external configuration and most of the internal components, however, were of tactical design. As the Bell Labs ABM project history observed "the R&D missile configuration reflected the basic approach of 'do it once; do it right' -- the projected tactical design was built into the first flight missile and interim test missile designs were avoided. Thus, the flight test data on each major component were directly useful in the final design."

All tests objectives were achieved in this first flight of the developmental Spartan. The primary objectives were to test the main propulsion system and the structural integrity of the missile as well as the response to guidance from the ground and the issue of controllability in flight. As the newspapers reported "guided in flight by a nearby radar the Spartan rose during first stage boost and then arced down range across the ocean." The Spartan "performed according to its flight plan with the flight terminating at 277.7 seconds."

Lt. Gen. Alfred D. Starbird, the Washington-based Sentinel system manager, declared the event "a gratifying success for the first test of the Spartan."

Brig. Gen. Ivey O. Drewry, commander, Sentinel System Command, meanwhile observed that the launch "[confirmed] our confidence in our research, development and production program."

The Spartan was developed by the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation's Missiles and Space Division in Santa Monica, California. Bell Laboratories was responsible for the missile borne guidance systems. Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Huntsville, Alabama, division developed the solid propellant and was responsible for casting the Spartan motors.

The Spartan developmental test program, which included 15 launches, would continue on Kwajalein Atoll until December 1969. In the spring of 1970, the Safeguard test program, which involved both Spartan and the short-range Sprint interceptor as well as the Missile Site Radar, would transfer to Meck Island.