Pioneer alumnus inducted into Space and Missile Hall of Fame

Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. -- Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Air Force Space Command commander, inducted the command's 2009 Space and Missile Pioneers during an official ceremony, Aug. 11, 2009, at the AFSPC Headquarters Building. This year's inductees included Benjamin P. Blasingame, a 1970 Distinguished Alumnus of Penn State who was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and graduated in 1940 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering.

Blasingame was a pioneer in the development of the Air Force's early Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Systems. He won approval for using inertial guidance as a backup for radio guidance on the Atlas ICBM and as the primary guidance system on the THOR Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. He left the Air Force ballistic missile division for an assignment at the newly constructed U.S. Air Force Academy, where he created the department of aeronautics and astronautics.

In 1954, when the Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee recommended acceleration of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program, General Schriever was appointed to lead that effort as commander of the newly established Western Development Division (WDD, later renamed the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division, or AFBMD). Schriever identified Blasingame as one of his first four choices. Reporting to WDD in July 1954 as chief guidance and control project officer, Blasingame soon became an in-house advocate for equipping ICBMs with inertial guidance, which put him at odds with many experts, who considered it too experimental and too heavy compared to radio guidance. He was convinced that AC Spark Plug Division of General Motors Corporation, backed by MIT, could produce a workable inertial guidance system for the ICBM. He won approval for using inertial guidance as a backup for radio guidance on the Atlas ICBM and as the primary guidance system on the Thor intermediate range ballistic missile.

From 1956 to May 1958, he served as the first program manager for the Titan ICBM. Blasingame left AFBMD for an assignment at the newly constructed U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo., where he created the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In a September 1958 interview with New York Times reporter Clayton Knowles, Blasingame explained that his objective as the first chair of the Astronautics Department was to “turn out future commanders of ballistic missile squadrons -- not space cadets.”

Blasingame resigned his commission in 1959 to become director of engineering, later manager, at AC Spark Plug, the Electronics Division of General Motors Corporation in Milwaukee, Wis. In April 1959, AC Spark Plug had received an Air Force contract to build the guidance system for Titan II, the first all-inertial Air Force ICBM. AC Spark Plug subsequently received a NASA contract to build the Apollo guidance and navigation systems for both the command module (CM) and the lunar excursion module (LEM). In October 1964, Blasingame informed NASA Administrator James Webb that after more than 2,000 hours of testing, the first Apollo guidance system was found to be “remarkably reliable, accurate and simple to operate.” As a member of the Apollo Executive Committee voting in November 1968 on whether to proceed with the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission, Blasingame confidently stated, “G&N hardware is completely ready. Generalizing to the mission as a whole, when we risk the lives of people, we ought to get something for the risk. A lunar orbit flight looks like the right size of step to make.”

Blasingame later moved westward to manage the Santa Barbara, Calif., operations of the Delco Electronics Division of General Motors. There, he worked to advance so-called “rotorcraft” or helicopter technology. Even after his official retirement, he continued to serve on National Research Council committees and panels that advised NASA on its role in development of rotorcraft technology. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1971, and the Institute of Navigation presented him its prestigious Hays Award in 1978.

The Air Force Space Pioneers Award was first given under the sponsorship of the National Space Club in Washington D.C., which in 1989 honored 10 key military and civilian leaders in the Air Force space program. In 1997, the program was revitalized and established as an official Air Force award under AFSPC.

Last Updated November 18, 2010