The return of the Missileers here Feb. 1 marked the 45th anniversary of the first launch of an Air Force Minuteman missile...
Minuteman I on the pad, Cape Canaveral, FL.
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CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla.—The return of the Missileers here Feb. 1 marked the 45th anniversary of the first launch of an Air Force Minuteman missile.
About 100 people who worked on various intercontinental ballistic missile programs here during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s gathered for a reunion in the city of Cape Canaveral. One of the tour stops was Complex 31, site of the first Minuteman launch Feb. 1, 1961.
Retired Lt. Col. P.J. Wilson and his wife, Roma, of Potomac Falls, Va., were among the attendees. As a first lieutenant assigned to the 6555th Test Wing here in 1961, his job was to make sure the launch pad was ready to support that first launch. He also analyzed telemetry data from the reentry vehicle.
“There was absolute elation with the successful first launch,” Colonel Wilson said. “The Cold War was on. The pressure was really great to meet the date.”
Since the program was classified, Colonel Wilson couldn’t tell Roma what he was working on at the cape.
“That’s the way things were, and I didn’t ask any questions,” she said. “But I knew he was working on something super-secret for the nation.”
Although he served at several bases during his career, Colonel Wilson spent 17 years working on the Minuteman program, culminating with a stint at the Pentagon as the Minuteman element program monitor in 1972.
Paul Waite of Viera, Fla., organized the reunion and was also part of the launch team for the first Minuteman mission. Now retired, he worked as a civilian contractor for North American Aviation as the supervisor of ground equipment.
“I was asked to stand on the roof of Hangar 1 and watch the launch by the group leader I worked for. He wanted me to witness the staging events,” Mr. Waite said. “I was so nervous. My hands and the binoculars shook so badly it was hard for me to tell when it staged.”
Fortunately, the missile performed flawlessly and after a flight of 4,600 miles its reentry vehicle landed within the designated impact zone. Over the years, three versions of Minuteman missiles were successfully tested from here.
Ultimately, the system went into operational status and became a mainstay of America’s nuclear deterrent forces.
Gordon Dittemore of Redlands, Calif., is another missileer who attended the reunion. He worked for TRW and served as the project engineer for 1,000 Minuteman silos built at various Air Force bases -- including two here. He said the reunion reminded him of all the great people and work that made the Minuteman program successful.
Complexes 31 and 32 were built here between July 1959 and July 1960 to support the Minuteman program. Each complex had one blockhouse and two launch pads. The two "A" pads were constructed as conventional flat pads and the two "B" pads were built as ballistic missile silos.
The sites were modified to support later versions of the Minuteman missile. The silo at Complex 31 now serves as the burial vault for the Space Shuttle Challenger.