Redstone: The Missile That Launched America into Space

During the earliest years of the Space Age, it seemed that the US Army’s Redstone missile was constantly present. On May 5, 1961 a modified Redstone missile topped with a Mercury capsule called Freedom 7 launched the first American, Alan Shepard, into space. In addition to being the launch vehicle for the first Mercury suborbital test flights, the Redstone also served as the basis of the launch vehicle for America’s first Explorer satellites only three years earlier. Outside of the limelight of these early Space Age achievements, the Redstone also served as a powerful weapon on the frontlines of the Cold War and was a crucial step in the development of even more powerful rockets. In many important ways, the Redstone missile helped to launch America into space.


The Origins of the Redstone

After the end of World War II, the core of the team led by Wernher von Braun that developed and built the German A-4 missile (more commonly known as the V-2) were relocated to the United States to begin ballistic missile development for the US Army. What would become the Redstone started as a design study called Hermes C in the late 1940s. The Hermes program was a series of experimental rockets that combined proven German A-4 technology with new American innovations. As such, the Redstone is a direct descendant of the A-4. In July 1950, a feasibility study began for a ballistic missile with an 800-kilometer range based on the Hermes C work.

The Hermes series of experimental rockets, like the Hermes A1 being launched here from White Sands, led to the development of the Redstone. (NASA/MSFC)

As the war in Korea dragged on, the program received the highest “1A” priority and was redirected in the hopes of employing it in that conflict. In order to speed development and make it a highly mobile field weapon, the nominal range was reduced to 320 kilometers and it was decided to use a smaller A-series rocket engine based on the one developed by what was soon to become North American Aviation’s Rocketdyne Division (now part of Aerojet Rocketdyne) for an early version of the rocket booster employed by the USAF Navaho supersonic cruise missile. On April 8, 1952, this new tactical missile was officially named “Redstone” after the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where Dr. von Braun and his team had moved in 1950.

Rocketdyne’s A-series engine would power the various versions of the Redstone missile. (NASA/MSFC)

The single-stage Redstone with its warhead attached was originally 19.2 meters long and 1.78 meters in diameter. Later production models had a length of 21.0 meters and a weighed as much as 28,000 kilograms at launch depending on its payload. Its A-7 engine generated 334 kilonewtons of thrust for 110 seconds burning the same combination of propellants used by the A-4 rocket: liquid oxygen and a mixture of 75% ethanol and 25% water. The Redstone was controlled by an inertial guidance system and was steered during powered flight using moveable vanes in the A-7 engine’s exhaust stream as well as movable rudders on the tips of the four stabilizing fins at the base of the rocket – a system similar to that employed by the German A-4 rocket. The first 16 Redstone rockets were built at the Redstone Arsenal with subsequent missiles manufactured under contract by Chrysler at its facility in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Diagram showing the major components of the Redstone missile and its warhead. Click on image to enlarge. (Chrysler)

Like the A-4, the Redstone could carry a warhead containing high explosives. To increase the destructive power of the Redstone significantly, it was also designed to carry a W39 nuclear warhead. The W39 was originally developed for the Snark intercontinental-range cruise missile. With a mass of 3,100 kilograms, the W39 had an explosive yield of 3.8 megatons, or well over one hundred times greater than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Early in the development of the Redstone engineers realized that the range and accuracy would be improved if the warhead separated from the Redstone after burnout, unlike the A-4 where the warhead remained attached throughout its flight. The W39 was housed in a tapered cylinder topped with a nosecone that was 5.0 meters long with the Redstone’s instrument compartment attached. The warhead was guided to its target after separation using four air vanes at its base. The Redstone could deliver its nuclear cargo to a point 240 kilometers away with an accuracy of 140 meters.

The first Redstone test flights, like round RS-6 shown here at launch in October 1954, lifted off from the then new launch complexes at Cape Canaveral. (NASA/MSFC)

Development of the Redstone proceeded quickly and the first test flight was launched from Cape Canaveral on August 20, 1953 (the first launch of an American-built missile from the Cape). While this first flight was less than successful, the design quickly proved itself during the succeeding three dozen tests flown over the next five years. After the first 11 test flights that were exclusively for Redstone development, subsequent flights starting in March 1956 also tested the guidance system and other components for the new Jupiter IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile), which was also being developed for the Army by Dr. von Braun and his team as part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) in Huntsville. This version of the Redstone, called Jupiter A, also tested various upgrades to the Redstone design as well as ground equipment to help gain additional practical experience with the rocket.

US Army personnel are shown preparing a Redstone missile for launch in the field. (US Army)

In April 1956, the Army’s first Redstone battalion was formed. In February 1958, Army crews began training flights with actual Redstones launched from Cape Canaveral and White Sands. The Redstone became operational on June 1, 1958, and was subsequently deployed in West Germany to support NATO’s shield force on what was then the front lines of the Cold War. The Redstone became the first large ballistic missile deployed overseas by the United States.

A distant view of the detonation of a 3.8 megaton nuclear warhead carried by a Redstone over Johnson Island in the Pacific for “Teak” on July 31, 1958.

Not long after entering service, two Redstones were launched from Johnson Island in the Pacific Ocean as part of Operation Hardtack. Started in 1952 by the Atomic Energy Commission, the purpose of Operation Hardtack was to determine the effects of high altitude nuclear detonations. The first Redstone launch on July 31, 1958, code named “Teak”, lofted a W39 warhead to an altitude of 76.8 kilometers where it was detonated. The test created a fireball 18 kilometers in diameter that could be seen from the Hawaii 1,300 kilometers away. The explosion blacked out short wave radio over the Pacific for up to nine hours and generated an aurora that was observed from the Samoan Islands 3,200 kilometers away. The second launch on August 11, code named “Orange”, sent its warhead to an altitude of 43.0 kilometers before detonating. In the process of supporting the goals of Operation Hardtack, the Redstone had now received a complete end-to-end test in the field from launch to the detonation of its nuclear warhead (see the video on Operation Hardtack in the Related Video section at the end).


The Redstone in the Space Age

While Dr. von Braun and his team were developing the Redstone and later the Jupiter IRBM for use as weapons, their real dream of spaceflight was never far from their minds. During the early stages of its development, they realized that a modified Redstone could serve as the basis of a launch vehicle capable of orbiting a miniaturized satellite payload. Eventually a joint Army-Navy study was started called Project Orbiter. In its original incarnation, the Redstone would loft a “high speed assembly” consisting of cluster of 37 Loki surface-to-air missiles that would fire at altitude to send a small satellite into orbit.

The Project Orbiter proposal was submitted to the Department of Defense in September 1954. On September 9, 1955, the DoD rejected that plan in favor of a proposal by the Naval Research Laboratory to use modified versions of their Viking and Aerobee sounding rockets to orbit a satellite. Eventually called Vanguard, this was to be America’s “official” satellite program, which hoped to orbit a payload during the International Geophysical Year in 1957–58 (see “Vintage Micro: The Original Standardized Microsatellite”).

The final configuration of ABMA’s Jupiter C in its satellite launch configuration that was later known as the Juno I. Click on image to enlarge. (NASA)

Undeterred, Dr. von Braun and his team at ABMA continued to develop and improve upon the original Project Orbiter proposal in hopes of being given approval to launch a satellite before Vanguard. In its final incarnation, a modified version of the Redstone was employed as the first stage of the launch vehicle. While the diameter of the missile remained unchanged, the propellant tanks of the production Redstone were lengthened by 1.65 meters to increase the burn time to 155 seconds. The A-7 engine was modified to use what the Army called Hydyne as a fuel to generate 369 kilonewtons of thrust. Hydyne consisted of a corrosive mixture of 60% unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and 40% diethylene triamine (DET) that packed more of a punch than the ethanol normally used by the Redstone.

This drawing shows the arrangement of the three upper stages of the Jupiter C/Juno I upper stages known as the high speed assembly. Click on image to enlarge. (ABMA)

Mounted on top of this modified Redstone was a cluster of 15 scaled-down versions of the JPL-developed rocket motor used in the Sergeant surface-to-surface tactical missiles. Eleven of these motors were used as the second stage, three in the third stage, and a single motor as the fourth stage. This Redstone-based launch vehicle had a total length of 21.7 meters and a lift off mass of 29,000 kilograms. It was capable of orbiting 11 kilograms.

The Jupiter C shown configured for RTV flights in support of the Jupiter IRBM program. Click on image to enlarge. (ABMA)

While the Army was banned from developing this rocket as a satellite launcher, Dr. von Braun’s rocket did have an application in support of the Jupiter IRBM development effort. One of the unresolved issues for an IRBM was the survival of its warhead after a high-speed reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. While the proposed satellite launcher was not powerful enough to loft an actual Jupiter warhead, the rocket was capable of accelerating a one-third scale model RTV (reentry test vehicle) with a mass of 140 kilograms to hypersonic velocities to test the design. The only major change required was the removal of the final stage and the installation of an adapter for the nosecone. The development of this rocket, now designated Jupiter C (with the “C” standing for “Composite”) to help disguise its heritage under the Jupiter program umbrella, proceeded so that the satellite launch option would be preserved.

Jupiter C in its satellite launch configuration being prepared for its test flight on September 20, 1956 from LC-5 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. (US Army)

The first launch of the Jupiter C went off without a hitch on September 20, 1956. The inert fourth stage and its dummy satellite payload reached a record peak altitude of 1,097 kilometers and landed 5,366 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. The principle objectives of the flight were met and the beacon on the simulated satellite payload was tracked throughout the flight. Von Braun and his ABMA team had demonstrated that they had the means of launching a satellite into orbit (see “America’s First Satellite… Almost”).

A Jupiter C reentry test vehicle (RTV) being prepared for a pre-launch spin test. (US Army)

On May 15, 1957, the second Jupiter C, which was the first to carry a scaled Jupiter RTV payload, successfully lifted off. Although the rocket operated as intended, a guidance system malfunction caused the RTV to overshoot the target area and the payload was not recovered. Radar tracking, however, indicated that the test vehicle’s ablative heat shield worked as intended and that the RTV survived reentry. The third flight of the Jupiter C took place on August 8, 1957. The RTV was quickly recovered and within days presented by President Eisenhower on national television as the first object to be successfully recovered from space. With this successful third flight, the Jupiter C program had met all of its objectives and the program was declared completed. The remaining Jupiter C rockets were placed into storage in hopes of using them to launch a satellite.

President Eisenhower shown with the RTV recovered from the August 8, 1957 flight of the Jupiter C. (US Army)

The Jupiter C did not have to wait long. On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Five days after the launch of Sputnik 2 on November 3, Dr. von Braun and his team at Huntsville were given official approval to attempt a satellite launch using a four-stage version of the Jupiter C now called the Juno I. After the spectacular failure of Vanguard TV-3 on its first orbital test launch on December 8, a Juno I successfully launched Explorer 1 into orbit from Cape Canaveral on the night of January 31, 1958 (see the video on Explorer 1 in the Related Video section at the end). During the next nine months, five additional Juno I launch attempts took place, resulting in two more Explorer satellites successfully orbited. Afterwards the Juno I was retired in favor of the more capable Juno II, which consisted of the same upper stage cluster mounted atop of a modified Jupiter IRBM (see “Vintage Micro: The Second-Generation Explorer Satellites“).

A Juno I being prepared to launch America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. (NASA/MSFC)

Although the Redstone was retired from its duties as a satellite launch vehicle, in 1959 it was selected by NASA to launch the 1,300-kilogram manned Mercury space capsule on suborbital test flights. Designated the Redstone MRLV (Mercury Redstone Launch Vehicle), the stretched propellant tanks from the Juno I were retained but the Redstone reverted back to using ethanol as a fuel. In the end over 800 component changes were made to human-rate the Redstone and make it compatible with the Mercury.

Diagram of the Redstone MRLV. Click on image to enlarge. (NASA)

The first test flight of the Mercury Redstone, MR-1, took place on November 21, 1960. Unfortunately the rocket only rose about ten centimeters or so off the launch pad before the engines cut out. After the rocket settled back onto the pad (and did not explode!), Mercury’s launch abort system activated, sending the escape tower off towards the Atlantic but leaving the Mercury capsule behind. The problems uncovered by this test were corrected and a new Redstone launched MR-1A on December 19. A second test flight, MR-2, carrying a chimpanzee named Ham, was launched on January 31, 1961. Unfortunately a number of problems occurred during this flight, which made the MR-2 capsule overshoot its landing area by 212 kilometers. After crews corrected those problem one last test flight with a boilerplate Mercury capsule, designated MR-BD, was successfully launched on March 24, clearing the way for the first manned Mercury flights.

A Redstone MRLV was used to launch the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule carrying America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on the MR-3 flight launched on May 5, 1961. (NASA/MSFC)

The first manned Mercury flight, MR-3, carried Alan Shepard on a 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. The Redstone MRLV worked as intended, lofting Shepard’s Freedom 7 capsule to a peak altitude of 187.5 kilometers and landing in the Atlantic Ocean 487.6 kilometers downrange from Cape Canaveral. After the largely successful mission of MR-4 launched on July 21 with Gus Grissom piloting the Liberty Bell 7 capsule, NASA cancelled any further Mercury Redstone flights since all test objectives needed for orbital flights which would employ a modified Atlas D ICBM had been met (see “A History of Suborbital Crewed Spaceflights“).

In the foreground is a Redstone MRLV used to launch Mercury on suborbital missions. Tooling and jigs used for the Redstone and the Jupiter IRBM (to the left) propellant tanks were used to construct the cluster of tanks used for the Saturn I first stage seen in the background. (NASA/MSFC)

While the Redstone was not used for further American spaceflights, it did leave a legacy. Being the first large missile developed in the United States, it laid the groundwork for subsequent advances in American missile technology. In addition, the tooling and jigs used to make the Redstone’s airframe and propellant tanks were adapted for use in Dr. von Braun’s new Saturn I rocket. Eight stretched, 70-inch Redstone propellant tanks were clustered around a stretched 105-inch Jupiter propellant tank to create the tankage for the first stage of the Saturn I. The Saturn I and IB continued to fly as part of the Apollo program until 1975—long after the retirement of the Redstone.


Retirement and Afterwards

The Redstone, now nicknamed “Old Reliable”, continued to be part of America’s Cold War arsenal until it was declared obsolete on June 25, 1964. Newer missiles, like the solid-propellant Pershing, were much more mobile and easier to prepare for launch in the field than the liquid-fueled Redstone. On October 30, 1964, the US officially retired the Redstone from service during a ceremony at the Redstone Arsenal, and all support contracts were terminated on December 1. The Redstone and its support equipment were subsequently consigned to museums or scrapped in the coming years (see “A Redstone in New Hampshire“). But before the last of the Redstones were gone, the Defense Department used it one last time as part of an antiballistic missile test program called Project Defender. On November 30, 1965, a Redstone was launched from San Nicholas Island off the California coast and was subsequently intercepted by a Navy Terrier surface-to-air missile.

Diagram of the Redstone SPARTA configured to launch WRESAT. The version used for the reentry tests would have looked similar. Click on image to enlarge. (WRE)

Before the last of the Redstones were permanently consigned to history, it performed one last mission starting in 1966. It served as the launch vehicle in the joint United States/United Kingdom/Australia program called Project SPARTA (SPecial Antimissile Research Tests, Australia), which was to observe model warheads of various shapes and materials during reentry. The SPARTA rocket consisted of a Redstone as the first stage, an Antares solid rocket motor (similar to those used in the third stage of NASA’s Scout all-solid launch vehicle) for the second stage and a BE-3 solid motor for the third stage. The rockets launched from the Woomera Test Range in South Australia, with the first two stages lifting the test body to an altitude of about 360 kilometers. The third stage would then fire downwards to push the test body back into the atmosphere at speeds of over 6 kilometers per second to be observed by radar and various optical sensors. TRW Systems Group was the prime contractor, LTV Aerospace Corporation supplied the upper stages, and Chrysler refurbished a total of ten surplus Redstone missiles for the program. In order to launch the SPARTA rocket, some ground equipment donated to the Smithsonian Institution had to be borrowed back.

The launch of WRESAT from Woomera Test Range in South Australia on November 29, 1967 was the last known flight of the Redstone. (RAAF)

The first launch of the SPARTA on November 26, 1966, apparently failed and was destroyed by range safety. The following eight launches, with the last taking place on October 31, 1967, were successful, meeting all Project SPARTA objectives. Australia’s Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) got permission to use the last surplus SPARTA rocket to launch a test satellite they had constructed. Called WRESAT, it was a cone 1.59 meters long with a base diameter of 76 centimeters and a mass of 45 kilograms. It carried a payload of ultraviolet and X-ray sensors similar to those Australia had launched earlier on sounding rockets (see “Australia’s First Satellite & the Last Redstone“).

WRESAT shown during prelaunch testing. (WRE)

WRESAT was launched on November 29, 1967, and entered a 193 by 1,259 kilometer orbit with an inclination of 82.2°. This made Australia only the fourth nation after the Soviet Union, the United States, and France to successfully build and launch a satellite from its own territory (see the video on the WRESAT launch in the Related Video section at the end). WRESAT continued to transmit data until its batteries were exhausted on December 8 and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere on January 10, 1968. In April of 1990 WRESAT’s Redstone first stage was recovered from Australia’s Simpson Desert and subsequently put on display at the Woomera National Aerospace and Missile Park. This was the last known launch of the Redstone and a perfect ending to its long successful career in space and as a weapon.


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Related Videos

Here are a series of documentaries on various parts of the history of the Redstone. First is a declassified Defense Department documentary on the Operation Hardtack high altitude nuclear detonations of 1958 including the Redstone-launched “Teak” and “Orange” flights.



Here is a period documentary on the preparation and launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.



Here is a US Army documentary on the launch of Redstones from the White Sands Missile Range for testing and training in early 1959.



Here is an excerpt from an Australian documentary showing the preparation and launch of WRESAT in 1967. This is the last known flight of a Redstone missile.



Related Reading

“America’s First Satellite… Almost”, Drew Ex Machina, October 4, 2015 [Post]

“A Redstone in New Hampshire”, Drew Ex Machina, October 30, 2015 [Post]

“A History of Suborbital Crewed Spaceflights”, Drew Ex Machina, May 5, 2016 [Post]

“Australia’s First Satellite & the Last Redstone”, Drew Ex Machina, November 29, 2017 [Post]


General References

David Baker, The Rocket: The History and Development of Rocket & Missile Technology, Crown Publishers, 1978

Bill Gunston, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Rockets and Missiles, Salamander Books, 1979

Chuck Hansen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History, Aerofax/Orion Books, 1988

J.D. Hunley, Preludes to US Space-Launch Vehicle Technology: Goddard Rockets to Minuteman III, University Press of Florida, 2008

Keith J. Scala and Michael A. Crowe, “SPARTA Program: The Redstone Down Under”, Spaceflight, Vol. 33, No. 8, pp 287–288, August 1991

Keith J. Scala, “The Secret Life of the Redstone Missile”, Quest, Vol. 3, No. 2/3, pp 68–74, Summer/Fall 1994

Wernher von Braun, “The Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno”, in The History of Rocket Technology (ed. Eugene M. Emme), pp 107–121, Wayne State University Press, 1964