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In 1962, John Glenn went into orbit on an Atlas rocket, and thus began a family of rockets that lasted for 60 years!

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It’s a new year!

And that means that this SciShow Space video is supported by the January pin of the month, now with a brand new theme for 2023! To find out what our new pin theme is and to reserve your own pin, you can go to or click the link in the description down below. [ intro ] In 1962, an astronaut was hurled into Earth orbit by a modified missile.

And it worked so well, that modified missile is still hurling things into space six decades later. Okay, It’s not the exact same rocket. It’s a family of rockets called Atlas.

Over the years, Atlases became some of NASA’s most reliable launch vehicles, but their time is coming to an end. So let’s take a look back and celebrate the innovations engineers had to make to turn a weapon of war into a tool for exploration. Our story begins in April 1945, in the final months of World War 2 and 13 years before NASA was established.

There’s a cold war brewing, and the U. S. military is looking to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. A missile that could deliver a nuclear payload to a target over 5,000 miles away.

To achieve those great distances, an ICBM needs a lot of thrust, or the amount of push that you get out of an engine. And all that thrust requires a lot of fuel. But the more fuel you need, the heavier your missile is, meaning you need more fuel to get it where you want it to go.

Meaning that it’s heavier, so you - You can see where this is going So the Army Air Forces, a precursor to the Air Force, developed the Atlas missile family, which made the actual metal part of the missile as light as possible. Take the fourth family member, the Atlas D. It was about 23 meters tall, 3 meters wide.

But the metal shell of its body was less than 1.2 millimeters thick. In fact, that shell was so thin, Atlas relied on internal pressure from its liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel to hold its shape. Like a pop can.

It was so much like a balloon, they called it a balloon tank structure. But engineers found another way to give Atlas’s range a boost, too. By the 1950s, operational missiles had just one stage on them.

They were like a candle you couldn’t relight. You launched them, and the fuel burned and burned until it ran out. But what if you could build a missile with separate segments?

Multiple stages? After you used up the fuel in one compartment, you could just eject that part, and turn on a new set of engines with a second source of fuel, and keep going with a much lighter missile. Great idea, except engineers at the time did not know how to reliably light an engine mid-flight.

So instead, starting with the Atlas B, they devised a stage and a half system with three engines. All three started at launch, but two were ejected 140 seconds into the flight. With this set of innovations, an Atlas B missile had enough oomph to deliver a payload into orbit.

Which was a huge perk, because the U. S. had found itself falling behind in the Space Race. In December 1958… that’s over a year after the USSR launched Sputnik… an Atlas B launched the SCORE communications satellite that broadcast President Eisenhower’s pre-recorded Christmas Message around the world.

But Atlas B, like its A and C siblings, was only ever meant to be a prototype. Now officially up and running, NASA needed a launch vehicle to throw a person into orbit. Specifically this person, John Glenn.

So they turned to the only available option, the Atlas D. But first, they had to make a few modifications. The Atlas-Mercury launch system used the same fuel, the same stage-and-a-half engines, and the same balloon-style body as the Atlas D.

But the Mercury capsule made it taller, so the metal shell had to be thicker so the whole rocket wouldn’t collapse under the extra weight. NASA also had to make it safer to stick a human in, as opposed to a satellite, or a bomb. For example, engineers improved the guidance system and the engines to reduce the risk of rolling… or exploding, as rockets tended to do back then.

And on February 20, 1962, an Atlas-Mercury rocket launched its first crewed flight. John Glenn orbited the Earth three times, and got to enjoy about four hours of feeling weightless. And lucky for him, he did not get space sick.

Additional modified Atlases, like the Atlas-Agenda and Atlas-Centaur, were also used to ferry non-human cargo into space. And over the years, the Atlas family continued to grow, incorporating slightly different designs. In 1990, they switched up the naming scheme.

And they moved to roman numerals with Atlas I When the Atlas III came along in 2000, engineers finally did away with the 3-engine, stage-and-a-half design. They swapped it out for a proper two stage rocket. A single Russian engine powered the first Atlas stage, and the upper Centaur stage came in either a one or two engine variety, depending on how heavy the payload was.

But the biggest redesign came in 2002, with the roll-out of Atlas V. Not only did the first stage swap out the balloon tank structure for a more stable design, the Atlas V was built to be truly modular, for both different sizes of payload, and different places that payload needs to go. that means the Atlas V has launched a bunch of important scientific missions over the last 20 years, from shipping rovers to Mars, to hurling New Horizons past Pluto. But despite all that success, we will not be seeing an Atlas VI.

The next rocket in development went through a rebrand with the help of the internet. The United Launch Alliance, which formed back in 2006 to handle the U. S. military’s launches, let people choose from five possible names: Eagle, Freedom, GalaxyOne, Zeus, and the eventual winner…Vulcan.

So yeah. There was no chance it was going to be named Rocky McRocketFace. Or anything that would have been fun, but was not an option Vulcan brings a modular upper stage, new engines, and more solid boosters, making it more flexible and able to carry bigger payloads than the Atlas V.

So, the era of Atlas is coming to an end, but this reliable rocket family has a few more missions to complete before we say goodbye. And at least one of them includes ferrying people, again! An Atlas V will soon deliver the first crewed mission of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to the International Space Station.

Much like an orbit, Atlas’s use for human spaceflight has come back around. And like the Atlas of myth held up the sky, this family of rockets did an amazing job supporting the missions that we sent up there. Now for a very exciting announcement!

This video marks the beginning of a new theme for the 2023 Space Pins of the

Month: Rockets! Get ready for specially designed pins for your jacket, display case, or SciShow pin board featuring some of the coolest, biggest, and longest running rockets of all time. And Speaking of long-running rockets, the Atlas rocket is January’s pin. We’re celebrating it with this amazing lovely pin, That we’ve designed You can get yours at or by clicking the link down in the description down below.

And next month, there will be a new rocket on the Space pin. So you’ll have to keep watching SciShow Space to see what it is. But if wanna get the Atlas, this is your last chance, we will not offer it after this month. [ outro ]