Last updated: 1 February 2024
(for update details, see here)
The Main Part of the Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles presents concise information about all missiles and rockets, which have received a numerical designation in the DOD's joint Designation System for Unmanned Aerospace Vehicles since 27 June 1963.
Appendix 3 covers the space launchers, upper stages and satellites which received a formal designation in the unmanned aerospace vehicle designation system. The old SLV (Standard Launch Series) of designations, which was used by the USAF in the 1960s and 1970s, is also covered here. Note: As an extension of the usual scope of the Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles and its appendices, the Launch Vehicles section is not limited to unmanned military systems, but lists all U.S. space launch vehicles. Therefore systems like Saturn and the Space Shuttle are also included.
Launch Vehicles - Introduction
The United States developed a great variety of space launch vehicles. A number of these launch vehicles have their ancestry in military missiles, but some others were developed specifically for use as a launch vehicle. Prior to the establishment of NASA, in 1958, space launches were the responsibility of the military services each operating independently. NASA took over some responsibilities but the military, and in particular the U. S. Air Force remained very closely involved, partially through their control of the launch sites, partly because of the reliance on surplus missiles. In 1990 the trend moved towards commercial operators providing the launch vehicles on a direct contract basis with the spacecraft owner.
In 1962 the Department of Defense introduced the LV (Launch Vehicle) and SLV (Standard Launch Vehicle) designations for space launchers. The letters have been used in a single numerical sequence. In the 1988/89 time frame (the exact date is not known) the letter SB (Space Booster) was introduced. The SB was used in a single numerical sequence with the prefixes 'S', for a upper stage booster, and 'A' for and aircraft dropped launch vehicle. Because these designations probably refer only to the basic (i.e. first stage) vehicle and not the entire launch vehicle and were, most likely, only applied to military launches, their use has been sporadic. In addition, the commercial and/or popular names of the launch vehicles, rather than the military designations, have been extensively used in the press and formal writings. As such, the listings provided in the articles may contain errors and discrepancies.
The articles include a full description of the launch vehicles - military as well as non-military uses. Excluding the non-military uses would make the articles incomplete, if not misleading, as they would not present the entire story of these vehicles.
The articles are the consolidated of data gathered by the author over many years and it would be impossible and inappropriate to credit the reference sources. However, an exception must be made for United States Civilian Space Programs 1958-1978, a publication of the Science Policy Research Division, Library of Congress (Washington, January 1981) which has provided the basis for the initial research.
In particular it was found that specifications for launch vehicles may differ in reference sources. To a certain extent, these differences are caused by roundings which have been published in popular writings (including press releases), and which have been copied in more specialized references sources. Furthermore, many of the reference sources currently available on the Internet appear to be 'interdependent', ie they repeat data, including errors and omissions. In addition, and particularly in the case of launch vehicle length, these differences can be attributed to detail differences of individual launch vehicles due to the payload carried.
In all cases we have tried to obtain the closest possible sizes to the actual and have taken the specifications from what seems to be the most reliable source. This means that the data shown here can still be wrong!
Military Satellites - Introduction
Satellites have been launched by all branches of the United States military services as well as the non-military CIA and NRO government authorities, since early 1959. Whilst there are some exceptions, most US military satellite programmes did not carry public names at the time of launch and names that have been published in reference sources are often the result of work by space enthusiasts who have pieced together selected bits of information along with orbital and launch vehicle data to determine to which programme a specific satellite belongs.
Apart from these names, which often relate to the programme's code name, a number of other cross-programme designation systems appear to have been used:
- The letters S and P have been used in selected cases to designate payloads on satellites, which in some cases, was also used as the designation of the entire satellite. Usually these payloads were of a scientific or technology nature;
- Satellites of an operational nature were usually designated in an 'Ops' for Operations series where each satellite received an individual but random number;
- Since 1984 operational military satellites were officially given a number in the USA series. This series coincided with the loss of the Ops numbers.
In 1988/89 a separate series of satellite designations was introduced in which the letter S was preceded by a mission indicator, being E = communications, L = surveillance, N = Navigation and W = weather (see also article on Designation System for Unmanned Aerospace Vehicles).
Reference must also be made to the KH designations which have been used for military and non-military reconnaissance satellites. Although 'Keyhole' is often cited as the meaning of the acronym KH, it is suspected that the meaning of this military designation is different. This suspicion is supported by the use by the US Air Force of the letter K to designate aircraft cameras (such as KA-59 for a 1965 camera designed for medium altitude reconnaissance missions), whilst the meaning of the letter H may be found in the apparent designations RH and VH and the associated designations VS and VU. The two latter are for non-satellite detection systems for surface and sub-surface nuclear explosions. Since the letters S and U have been used in other designation system to indicate surface and sub-surface, H may mean satellite borne.
Descriptions will be provided of all satellites included in the S-for-Satellites series as well as selected undesignated satellites which are part of major programmes. The majority of photo reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering satellites of the USA have not been discussed as these satellites, whilst launched with military launchers, are owned and operated by the non-military CIA and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). This involves satellites known by a wide range of names including the Discoverer or Corona series, the Samos series, the various KH series, unnamed 'Ferret' satellites, the Vela series, the Lacrosse series and the Canyon, Rhyolite, Jumpseat, Chalet, Vortex, Magnum, Trumpet, Orion and Capricorn electronic intelligence gathering satellites.
In addition there have been many military satellites of a minor nature for other military experiments, calibration purposes and scientific experiments, including the Solrad (GREB) series, the ERS/TRS/ORS series and the OV series.
About the author
The pages about the launch vehicles and satellites were written and maintained until 2009 by Jos Heyman.
Jos had compiled a large knowledge base on space vehicles for decades, and had kindly offered to contribute to the Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles.
Unfortunately, Jos passed away in 2016. This site is part of his legacy on the Web, together with his extensive U.S. Military Aircraft Designation Database.
From early 2024 onwards, updates to the launch lists, and a few additional articles on satellites, are provided by me (Andreas Parsch).
McDonnell Douglas SLV-2 Thor
General Dynamics (Convair) SLV-3 Atlas
Martin Marietta SLV-4 Titan II
Martin Marietta SLV-5 Titan III
General Dynamics SB-1 Atlas E
Lockheed Martin (General Dynamics) SB-2 Atlas II
Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) SB-3 Delta II
Martin Marietta SB-4 Titan II
Lockheed Martin SB-5 Titan IV
Martin Marietta SB-6 Titan 34D
Boeing SSB-7 IUS
Lockheed Martin (General Dynamics) SSB-8 Centaur
McDonnell Douglas SSB-9 PAM-D2
Martin Marietta SSB-10 Transtage
Orbital Sciences ASB-11 Pegasus
Boeing (Rockwell) Space Shuttle
Orbital Sciences Taurus
Lockheed Martin Athena
Orbital Sciences Minotaur
WS-2 DMSP Block 6
TRW/AESC LS-3 DSP
TRW ES-4 DSCS II
General Electric ES-5 DSCS III
Boeing (Rockwell) NS-7 Navstar GPS
Lockheed Martin ES-8 Milstar
Lockheed Martin XSS-11
Boeing ES-14 WGS
Ball Aerospace LS-15 SBSS
Lockheed Martin LS-16 SBIRS
Lockheed Martin ES-17 AEHF
Northrop Grumman GSSAP
For comments and suggestions, send e-mail to: Andreas Parsch
Last Updated: 1 February 2024