The mighty Titan -- a pillar in American rocketry for five decades -- flew into orbit for the final time Wednesday, capping a distinguished career of heavy-lifting that has spanned the nation's space age.
The 16-story vehicle roared off its Vandenberg Air Force Base launch pad in California at 11:05 a.m. PDT (2:05 p.m. EDT; 1805 GMT) carrying a top-secret spy satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.
Less than 10 minutes later, the Lockheed Martin-built rocket completed its job by deploying the spacecraft payload. The new satellite will be operated by the NRO, a hush-hush government agency responsible for the country's spy satellite fleet. Details of the Titan's payload and its mission were not revealed to the public.
However, experts say the craft was placed into an orbit that coincides with imaging satellites. Such spacecraft are telescopes that point back at Earth with powerful vision to see objects as tiny as just inches across, observers believe.
Back on Earth hundreds of workers were relieved to see the Titan era conclude successfully. The program was born 50 years ago this month to develop a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile weapon system. It later morphed into a launcher for Gemini astronauts and satellites of all shapes and sizes.
"Today's spectacular launch is a fitting way to say goodbye to Titan," said G. Thomas Marsh, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Wednesday. "The Lockheed Martin employees who have given their utmost efforts to the program over the years join with our Air Force and NRO customers, and the many other organizations that make up the Titan team, in expressing our great pride in this service to our country's space program."
Titan 1's began launching in 1959, then evolved into the Titan 2 missiles that also found use in the 1960s by blasting NASA's manned Gemini missions into orbit in the precursor to Apollo and were retrofitted in the 1980s for lofting government spacecraft, including weather satellites.
Various Titan 3, 34B and 34D satellite-launchers and finally the largest and most powerful version -- the Titan 4 -- were conceived through the years to incrementally increase the capability of the rocket family.
Wednesday's launch was the 200th Titan to fly from Vandenberg including:
- 20 Titan 1 ICBM
- 58 Titan 2 ICBM
- 13 Titan 2 space rockets
- 57 Titan 3B
- 22 Titan 3D
- 11 Titan 34B
- 7 Titan 34D
- 12 Titan 4
Cape Canaveral hosted 168 Titan launches including:
- 47 Titan 1 ICBM
- 23 Titan 2 ICBM
- 12 Titan 2-Gemini
- 4 Titan 3A
- 36 Titan 3C
- 7 Titan 3E
- 8 Titan 34D
- 4 Commercial Titan
- 27 Titan 4
"If you take a look back through history, it's not at all a stretch to say that Titan was really a key part of how we won the Cold War because the advantages we had from space allowed us to be successful," said Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, Space and Missile Systems Center commander.
Besides hauling countless military and spy satellites, Titans also launched the Viking space probes to Mars, Voyagers to the outer planets and Cassini to Saturn.
In a pre-launch letter to employees, Lockheed Martin's Titan program manager Walt Yager said Wednesday's liftoff would "place the final brush stroke on the Titan Masterpiece."
"Mission success is an outgrowth of The Titan program. Titan B-26 will put that trademark on history. The entire team is proud to represent those who have gone before us and close the book on a National Legend. God Speed the 'Silent Hero.'"
But the need to modernize the U.S. rocket industry caught up with Titan. Known for its complexity and stiff price tag, at least $411 million for Wednesday's rocket, military leaders took the first steps to retire the big booster a decade ago with creation of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. The new-generation EELV rockets -- Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 and Boeing's Delta 4 -- are supposed to be less expensive and offer a tailored-feel for a payload's weight. Both made inaugural flights in 2002.
"The Atlas 5 and the Delta 4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles are going to provide our assured access to space and become the workhorse launch vehicles for the 21st century," Hamel said.
The sadness of seeing the last Titan soar over the horizon is compounded for about 120 Lockheed Martin workers at Vandenberg. They have two months to find new jobs before their Titan careers end. The Defense Department is retaining the workers for the extended period after the last liftoff to help ease the transition.
About 110 workers will begin the effort of closing out the program, including cleanup of the launch pad. Work to decontaminate the Space Launch Complex-4, remove hazardous items and dispose of hardware is expected to last several months as the workforce gradually dwindles down.
The company expects to reduce its total Vandenberg workforce to 159 employees in support of the new Atlas 5 rocket.
Meanwhile, another 250 jobs at Lockheed Martin's Denver site will be phased out with Titan. But Yager said 60 percent have found new jobs inside the company. That percentage is similar to the rate experienced by Cape Canaveral workers following the final Titan 4 from the East Coast this spring.
Also being impacted are the Titan subcontractors like solid rocket booster-maker Alliant, avionics-maker Honeywell and Aerojet, the engine supplier for Titan since the program's start.
"What began as a development project for Aerojet ran for 50 years as a production program with 100 percent mission success in space launch applications," said Aerojet President Michael Martin.
Aerojet produced 1,182 Titan engines and performed 11,582 engine tests and 368 launches.
One of the Vandenberg workers following Titan into the sunset is a space icon. Tom Heter II, Lockheed Martin's director of launch operations on the West Coast, is retiring in January after 44 years working on Atlas and Titan rockets.
"With my age it's time I take the offramp if you will and let the group go on down the road with Atlas 5, Delta 4 and the (United Launch Alliance)," Heter, 66, said in an interview.
The ULA will marry the EELV rocket programs under one organization for government launches.
Heter says the thrill of seeing a launch remains strong, as does the pride in his team's role of putting critical national payloads in space.
"We're in the business of protecting the good ol' USA," he added. "Yeah, we don't wear the blue uniform but we're just as dedicated and just as proud. I don't know if other people that are not in the business can really feel that pride but it certainly runs rampant out here."
Wednesday's launch paid tribute to the memory of two respected Titan team members who passed away this year.
Lenny Hoops, an Aerospace Corp. employee, was an expert on ground control systems used to test and launch rockets.
"Lenny's knowledge of his systems was unrivaled within the corporation and recognized within the contractor community. Lenny's innate ability to teach coupled with his system knowledge allowed him to conduct several ground system training classes in support of the 2nd Space Launch Squadron. Lenny was most at home with a LASER pointer in hand and a Power Point briefing displayed on a projection screen," a tribute read.
Abe Freels was a three-decade Titan veteran working as the Lockheed Martin senior program engineer at Cape Canaveral. He was one of 30 brought to Vandenberg to help launch the last vehicle, but died suddenly earlier this month.
In an interview on the eve of the Cape's final Titan launch in April, Freels spoke about his plans to retire after seeing the last one fly.
"I'm looking to go out and support the B-26 mission at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and looking seriously at retirement after that. Titan has been a good run and I don't know there is anything else in the industry that would fulfill me as much Titan has."
Their names were placed on the rocket's second stage, which now orbits the Earth in peace.