Though the United States took a keen interest in the development of ballistic missile technology after the close of World War II, it was not until the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik in October 1957 that a new urgency in the matter. Within a matter of months the Navy launched its own satellite (Vanguard 1) into orbit, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created, and spurred the United States Air Force to invest in a series of ships.
Since 1950 the Air Force had exclusive jurisdiction over the Long Range Proving Grounds — the Atlantic and Pacific Missile Test Ranges — headquartered at Patrick and Vandenberg Air Force Bases. The Atlantic Range itself stretched from Cape Canaveral (the former Banana River Naval Air Station) through the Caribbean and down past Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. With focus now on the development of manned space flight and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Air Force needed a way to track and gather data on its missile tests. Land-based tracking stations could only do so much; what they needed were mobile instrumentation ships and other craft to track and retrieve their missiles. And so the Air Force acquired several decommissioned Victory Ships and outfitted them with huge arrays of equipment.
The ships served under Air Force control for several years, tracking missiles and the early spaceflights before being transferred over to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command in 1964. The selection of images from the Naval Institute archive that follows showcase some of the Air Force ships in our collection.
The USAFS Coastal Crusader (ORV-1851), also noted by her international phonetic designation Whiskey, was originally to have been the USS Wexford (AK-220), but the cessation of hostilities in 1945 meant she was sold to commercial service. She later served as an Army transport before being acquired by the Air Force as an Ocean Range Vessel. Acquired by the Navy in 1964, she served as the USNS Coastal Crusader (T-AGM-16) and the USS Coastal Crusader (AGS-36) until 1976.
USAFS Rose Knot (ORV-1850) served as the primary tracking station for the Gemini Program off the coast of Brazil and also gathered telemetry data astronaut John Glenn’s capsule as he became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. It was decommissioned by 1968.
Before becoming the USAFS Twin Falls Victory (ORV-1886), also known as Uniform, this ship participated in the Inchon Landings in Korea with a Merchant Marine crew before being placed in the Reserve Fleet. Reactivated in 1960 for the Air Force, she was manned by civilian crews and equipped with the latest in tracking radar and navigation systems, tracking astronaut Gordon Cooper’s Mercury-Atlas 9, mission in 1963, the last flight in that program. She was decommissioned in 1969, but later served as a training ship for the City of New York’s Food and Maritime Trade High School before being scrapped in 1983.
The USAFS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg (ORV-1907) was launched in 1943 as the USS General Harry Taylor (AP-145). She served from 1963-1983 as an instrumentation and tracking ship before her decommissioning. She was sunk as an artificial reef in 2009.
In addition to their larger ships, the Air Force operated (and still operates) several smaller ships and boats. The image below shows a USAF boat serving in the Military Air Transportation Service.