Guiding the Guided Missiles

President John F. Kennedy watching missile launch

Polaris, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), complemented ground-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and strategic bombers as America’s nuclear deterrent during the Cold War. Before Polaris, U.S. submarines carried cruise missiles, which could not be launched while submerged.

Guiding the Guided Missiles

Rockets took to the air centuries ago when gunpowder was invented in China. But the control systems of World War II were required to transform rockets into accurate guided missiles.

The earliest guidance system was the Mischgerät analog computer aboard Germany’s V-2 rockets, controlling both horizontal direction and altitude. In the 1950s, Cold War nuclear missile arsenals demanded even more sophisticated guidance technology.

In 1961, American Minuteman missiles used transistorized computers to continuously calculate their position in flight. When the Minuteman I was decommissioned, universities used their computers for general-purpose computing.

1 2
Minuteman Missile Guidance Computer

The Minuteman guidance computer presented unique design challenges. It had to be rugged and fast, with circuit design and packaging able to withstand a missile launch. The military’s high standards for its transistors pushed the manufacturer’s quality control.

View Artifact Detail
1 2 3 4
Polaris Guidance System Mark 2, Model 1 exterior case

Development of the Polaris missile’s guidance system began in 1957 under Charles Stark Draper at MIT’s Instrumentation Lab. It was deployed in 1960. Three successive generations increased the range from 1,200 to 2,800 miles before the Navy retired Polaris in the 1970s.

View Artifact Detail
MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile

A Hawk anti-aircraft battery includes six missile launchers, several RADARs, control systems, power generators and more. The Hawk missile was enhanced repeatedly during four decades of production.

View Artifact Detail
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Hawk Missile Autopilot

The Hawk missile’s guidance system is relatively simple: Antennas receive a RADAR signal reflected from the target and the analog autopilot adjusts the course as needed.

View Artifact Detail
V-2 rocket at Cuxhaven, Germany

Approximately 8,000 people were killed by V-2 rockets, developed during World War II under Wernher von Braun. And more than 10,000 prisoners died building the rockets. After the war, the V-2 became the foundation of America’s missile and space programs.

View Artifact Detail