50th Anniversary: Cape Kennedy launches Minuteman III for Special Test Missile Project

  • Published
  • By Robert B. Cuthbertson, Jr., Minuteman III System Program Office
  • Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center
Between Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, about 210 miles north of Miami, sits an area of land just over two-and-a-quarter square miles in size. This area is now known as Cape Canaveral, but for almost decade it was known as Cape Kennedy. During Cape Kennedy’s time, 17 Minuteman III test flights were conducted at this intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test range prior to the cessation of missile test launches in 1971.

On Sept. 16, 1970, Silo 32B at Launch Complex 32 was the focal point of a successful unarmed Minutemen III missile launch as part of the Special Test Missile Project. Updates during the mid-1970s provided the missile with an improved guidance system and remote re-targeting of the missiles. A total of 300 Minuteman III missiles received an improved warhead section with three Mark-12A Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles, or MIRVs. These MIRVs are capable of carrying 340 kiloton warheads and improved decoys.

Additionally, the launch control centers were equipped with the ability to re-target the missiles electronically, while earlier practices of re-targeting required physically changing a data tape in the missile's guidance computer.

This test launch from Silo 32B was part of a post research-and-development effort to evaluate and analyze the Minuteman III’s performance and accuracy for future upgrades. This effort provided the Minuteman III a hard-target kill capability against Soviet ICBM silos at the expense of a reduced range. Tests of a seven-MIRV version were undertaken in the 1970s, but a nuclear non-proliferation treaty limited the deployment of these.   
One little known fact of Silo 32B at Cape Canaveral is that the wreckage of the space shuttle Challenger was delivered to the site and lowered into Silos 31B and 32B and then capped with concrete lids for temporary storage.

The Minuteman weapon system is operated by and under the control of Air Force Global Strike Command, but is supported by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center's Minuteman III System Program Office and the AIr Force Sustainment Center's 309th Missile Maintenance Group and 748th Supply Chain Management Group at Hill AFB.

Here is a list of significant Minuteman III events that took place fifty years ago:
Date                       Historical Significance
Jan. 12, 1970 91st Strategic Missile Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota, began converting its ICBM facilities from Minuteman I to Minuteman III. 
March 3, 1970 First operational Minuteman III was completed at Air Force Plant 77, Ogden, Utah.
April 14, 1970 First Minuteman III missile accepted by the 91st Strategic Missile Wing.
April 17, 1970 First Minuteman III missile emplaced in Silo LF H-02 at 741st Strategic Missile Squadron at Minot AFB.
Aug. 19, 1970 First Minuteman III placed on alert status at 741st Strategic Missile Squadron. 
Sept. 16, 1970 Successful Minuteman III launch from Cape Kennedy, Florida, as part of the Special Test Missile Project, a post research-and-development effort to evaluate the Minuteman III’s performance and accuracy.
Dec. 2, 1970 Successful Minuteman III launch from Cape Kennedy as part of the Special Test Missile Project.
Dec. 14, 1970 Last unarmed Minuteman III, now named "LGM-30G," was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida (formerly Cape Kennedy).
Dec. 29, 1970 741st Strategic Missile Squadron became the first operational Minuteman III squadron.
Dec. 31, 1970 Force modernization and emplacement completed at Minot AFB. 

More: AFNWC celebrates 50 years of Minuteman III grit

stories graphic