The Atlas-Centaur was an American expendable launch system derived from the SM-65 Atlas D missile. Launches were conducted from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Convair, the manufacturer of the Atlas, developed the Centaur upper stage specifically for that booster, sharing its inflated balloon skin. It was also the first production rocket stage to utilize liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as propellant. Despite high performance, LH2 nonetheless had problems because it had to be chilled at extremely low temperatures (lower than LOX) and its light molecular density meant that large fuel tanks were needed.
The first attempt at using a LH2/LOX-fueled engine was the Air Force's top-secret Lockheed CL-400 Suntan reconnaissance aircraft program in the mid-1950s, but it was judged too unsafe, expensive, and impractical for that purpose. However, the progress made during the aborted venture was picked up by Convair and others for rocket stage use.
Convair developed a specially-enhanced version of the Atlas D vehicle for mating with Centaur stages; the Atlas's engines were upgraded and the structure reinforced for the large upper stage, along with elongated fuel tanks. Centaur development was made somewhat difficult by the insistence on modifying Atlas components rather than develop totally new ones. This was done for time and budget reasons and because it allowed the Centaur to be manufactured on the existing Atlas assembly line at Convair. The first Atlas-Centaur, Vehicle F-1, arrived at Cape Canaveral in October 1961 and was erected at the newly completed LC-36A, a pad built specifically for A/C flights. However, technical problems and other delays caused it to sit there for 7 months. The mission at last got under way on 8 May 1962. All went well until about T+53 seconds when the Centaur stage ruptured and disintegrated, taking the Atlas with it in a matter of seconds.
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