On August 21, 1957, the Soviet Union carried out the first successful test launch of their prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7. The two-stage, 112-foot-long, oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and carried a dummy warhead 3500 miles. The Soviets described the R-7 as a “super long-distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket”. It was the “super long-distance” part that alarmed the United States, and the world at large, during the Cold War era of the 1950s. Russian R-7 ICBMs were intended ultimately to be “tipped” with nuclear devices – weapons – capable of delivering the equivalent of almost 3 megatons of TNT.
At this time, the United States’ ICBM program was producing nothing but “spectacular failures“. Initially, each branch of the armed services worked independently and in competition with one another to develop an American ICBM. The success of the R-7, a version of which was used in October to launch the Sputnick satellite, redoubled the efforts of American scientists and military to win the Race to Space and prevent the spread of International Communism. In the late fifties, the Atlas program began to make significant progress toward parity with the Russians. In July of 1959, the first fully-operational Atlas ICBM lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.