U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission home page

Syncom satellite

The first synchronous orbit satellite, Syncom, built by Hughes Space and Communications, led to the development of the Early Bird Intelsat I commercial communications spacecraft as well as the ATS series of NASA research satellites.

GOES full-disk image

This photo shows a GOES-10 full-disk image, captured on January 3, 2000. Loral built many of the geosynchronous meteorological satellites.

Surveyor 1

The Hughes-built Surveyor 1, shown lifting off on an Atlas-Centaur 10 launch vehicle, became the first to make a fully controlled landing on the surface of the Moon.

Delta launch

The Delta II expendable launch vehicle, built by Boeing, with the ROSAT (Roentgen Satellite), cooperative space X-ray astronomy mission between NASA, Germany and United Kingdom, was launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 1, 1990.

Mariner 10

Boeing's Mariner 10 flew past Venus and Mercury in 1974.

Saturn V rocket

A technician works atop the white room through which the Apollo astronauts will enter their spacecraft, which is stacked at the top of a Saturn V rocket, produced by Boeing and North American Aviation. The vehicle is being prepared for the first crewed lunar landing mission.

Miuteman I missile

The Minuteman I, built by Boeing, was a second generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) using solid propellants rather than liquid fuels.

Space Shuttle Main Engine firing

A Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) undergoing a full power level 290.04 second test firing at the National Space Technology Laboratories (currently called the Stennis Space Center) in Mississippi, May 21, 1981.

Thiokol solid rocket booster test firing

This photograph was taken during the static test firing of the DM-2 (Demonstration Motor) for the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) at the testing ground of Thiokol Corporation near Brigham City, Utah. As one of the major components of the Space Shuttle, SRBs provide most of the power, their combined thrust some 5.8 million pounds, for the first two minutes of flight.

U.S. Launch Vehicle and Spacecraft Builders


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, two large companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, build America's most important launch vehicles, as well as much of the Nation's commercial and military spacecraft. Loral Space Systems, an electronics company, holds similar importance in the satellite field. The firm of TRW builds spacecraft for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force, while a newcomer, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is a growing presence as a builder of small satellites and the small rockets that carry them to orbit.


The Boeing Company, founded by William Boeing in 1916, came to the forefront during World War II as a manufacturer of heavy bombers. Boeing entered the field of missiles and space in 1958, when it was selected to develop and produce the Air Force's Minuteman missile, which became the Nation's main nuclear striking force. In 1961, NASA chose Boeing to build the first stage of the Saturn V, the largest rocket ever flown, which carried astronauts to the Moon. The company's Lunar Orbiter spacecraft orbited the Moon during 1966 and 1967, mapping its surface. Boeing's Mariner 10 spacecraft flew past Venus and Mercury in 1974. In 1976 the Air Force selected this company to develop the Inertial Upper Stage, which flies with the Space Shuttle and carries spacecraft to high orbits. To cap this record, in 1993 NASA picked Boeing to take prime responsibility for its International Space Station.


Since then the company has grown by merging with other leaders in space flight. In 1996, Boeing acquired the aerospace divisions of Rockwell International, which had its own sterling history. Founded in 1928 as North American Aviation, this firm pushed strongly into rockets and jets after the war. Its Rocketdyne Division made North American the only company able to build both large missiles and their engines within the same corporation, while its Autonetics Division gave it strength in electronics. North American went on to build large portions of the Saturn V, including its manned spacecraft and all its major rocket engines. Mergers in 1967 and 1973 erased North American's name, becoming part of North American Rockwell in 1967 and Rockwell International in 1973, but in 1972, NASA picked this firm to build the Space Shuttle orbiter, with Rocketdyne supplying the main engines.


Boeing grew further in 1997 by merging with another large firm, McDonnell Douglas, which had been created from the 1967 merger of Douglas Aircraft and McDonnell Aircraft. In missiles and space, Douglas started in 1955 with the Thor rocket, then added upper stages that turned it into the widely used Delta family of launch vehicles. Douglas also built the third stage of the Saturn V and crafted the Skylab space station, which hosted teams of astronauts during 1973 and 1974.


McDonnell Aircraft was founded by James McDonnell in 1939. Its small Mercury spacecraft carried America's first astronauts to orbit during 1962 and 1963. Its larger Gemini craft carried two-person astronaut crews during 1965 and 1966, helping them to develop the skills they needed for flight to the Moon.


Boeing greatly expanded its activity in the satellite field by merging in 2000, with the firm of Hughes Space and Communications. Established in 1961 as a branch of Hughes Aircraft, this company pioneered in geosynchronous communications satellites. It flew the first test version of the Syncom communications satellite in 1963 and built Early Bird, the first commercial model, which flew in 1965. It also built Anik A in 1972, as the first such spacecraft to serve an individual nation, Canada. Its Marisat of 1976, was the first satellite to provide ship-to-shore communications. Now known as Boeing Satellite Systems, this firm has built nearly 40 percent of the satellites that are in commercial service worldwide.


Hughes also has held leadership in space exploration. In 1966 its Surveyor spacecraft became the first to make fully controlled landings on the surface of the Moon. A year later its ATS-3 craft took the first color photos that showed the Earth as a globe. Its spacecraft have mapped the planet Venus with radar, first with Pioneer Venus of 1978 and then with a radar system that flew aboard the Magellan craft that went into orbit around Venus in 1990.


Lockheed Martin, America's second major space company, stems from a 1995 merger of Lockheed and Martin Marietta. Lockheed was founded in 1916 by the brothers Allan and Malcolm Loughead, who named the company for themselves but gave it a phonetic spelling to avoid mispronunciations. During the mid-1950s, its U-2 reconnaissance aircraft led this company into space. Starting in 1956, Lockheed built Corona spy satellites and the Agena rocket stages that placed them in orbit. The company later crafted a succession of more advanced spy satellites, which remain in use to this day. In 1977, NASA picked Lockheed to build the Hubble Space Telescope, a satellite much like a spy satellite but built to look at the stars rather than at missile bases. It flew to orbit in 1990 and is still in service.


Martin Marietta, originally the Glenn L. Martin Company, traces its beginnings to 1911. Its push into space flight began in 1955 when the Air Force chose it to build the Titan missile, which developed into the powerful Titan II, III, and IV family of launch vehicles. It now manufactures the External Tank for the Space Shuttle.


In 1994, as a prelude to its merger a year later with Lockheed, Martin took over the Convair Division of General Dynamics. Dating to 1943, Convair built heavy bombers. In 1954, it led the Nation into the field of long-range missiles with its Atlas. This developed into the Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle, which first flew to orbit in 1963.


To sum up, Boeing today offers the Delta II, III, and IV launch vehicles. The Titan family of Lockheed Martin is no longer in production, but that company sells advanced versions of its Atlas Centaur. These companies collaborate within the firm of United Space Alliance, which prepares Space Shuttles for flight and conducts the launches.


During these preparations, the firm of Thiokol plays an important supporting role. It dates to 1928; its name is Greek for “sulfur glue” and describes a synthetic rubber that was the company's first product. After World War II, it proved useful as a fuel for solid rockets. The company won leadership in this field during the 1950s, manufacturing solid-propellant rockets for the Air Force's Minuteman and the Navy's Poseidon missiles. Thiokol today produces the big solid rocket motors that boost the Shuttle at liftoff.


Small launch vehicles hold growing importance. Lockheed Martin builds the Athena, which can place a two-ton spacecraft into low orbit, just outside the atmosphere. Such vehicles are a specialty at the firm of Orbital Sciences, which was founded as recently as 1982. Its top-of-the-line launcher, the Pegasus XL, which represents an improved version of the original 1990 Pegasus, carries four tons to low orbit. More recent launch vehicles, named Taurus and Minotaur, carry smaller payloads. A company division builds the Orbcomm system of small communications satellites, which are now in low orbit.


Spacecraft, both military and civilian, represent a second broad area of space business. Communications satellites are particularly important; a list of current programs around the world fills five pages in the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology. Within the United States, Lockheed Martin and Loral Space Systems compete vigorously with Boeing Satellite Systems. All three companies have built spacecraft for Intelsat, the global communications organization. The Superbird program, which serves Japan, has divided its contract awards between these three firms.


Loral has made a specialty of communications satellites, and has also built several of the recent Geosynchronous Operational Environmental Satellite weather satellites. Rockwell International's Space Division, now merged into Boeing, has built most of the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that provide precise navigation. Lockheed Martin today stands out for the breadth of its satellite programs. It has built Ikonos, Terra, and Landsat spacecraft for earth observation. Its scientific spacecraft include missions to Mars that flew in 1996 and 2001. It builds weather satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while its military spacecraft programs include communications satellites, recent GPS satellites, Lacrosse radar imaging craft, and weather satellites used by the Pentagon.


Another builder of spacecraft, TRW, stands out for its roles in history. Founded in 1953, it soon took on the critical task of providing technical support for major Air Force missile programs: Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Minuteman. In 1958, this firm built America's first rocket to the Moon, along with its instrumented spacecraft. During the 1960s, TRW crafted communications satellites. It went on to build specialized versions for NASA that relay data from spacecraft in orbit to ground stations. Its military satellites keep watch for the launch of enemy missiles. Its scientific spacecraft include Chandra, much appreciated by astronomers. TRW remains rather small as a company, and no longer builds commercial communications satellites. Still, its customers in NASA and the Pentagon are well aware of its unmatched experience.


-T. A. Heppenheimer



“Flightlines: Boeing Products Since 1916.” Seattle: The Boeing Company, Corporate Public Relations.

Gunston, Bill. World Encyclopaedia of Aircraft Manufacturers. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1993.

Launius, Roger D., and Jenkins, Dennis R., editors. To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Sheehan, Robert. “Thompson Ramo Wooldridge: Two Wings in Space.” Fortune, February 1963, 95-99, 134-46.

Thompson, Edward. “The Rocketing Fortunes of Thiokol.” Fortune, June 1958, 106-09, 190-96.

Thompson, Tina, editor. TRW Space Log. Redondo Beach, California: TRW. Annual editions; most recent, Vol. 33-34 for 1997-98.

“2002 Aerospace Source Book.” Aviation Week & Space Technology,(January 14, 2002, Launch Vehicles Table, 144-53; Spacecraft Table, 161-73.


“Boeing: A Brief History.” http://www.boeing.com/history/boeing/

“Douglas: A Brief History.” http://www.boeing.com/history/mdc/index.htm

“North American History. http://www.boeing.com/history/bna/

Loral Space and Communications. http://www.Loral.com/overview/overview.html

Orbimage Global Imaging Information. http://www.orbimage.com/corp/orbital.html

Orbital. http://www.orbital.com/LaunchVehicles/

TRW: Who We Are. http://www.trw.com/whoweare/main/0,,1_1151^2^1151^1151,00.html


Educational Organization

Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.