From Western Development Division in 1954 to Space Systems Command Today: Securing the Highest Frontier

  • Published
  • By Lisa Sodders & Linda Kane, SSC Public Affairs

The U.S. Space Force (USSF) will celebrate its 5th anniversary this December, and Space Systems Command (SSC) will mark its third anniversary as a USSF Field Command in August. But before all of that, there was the Western Development Division, SSC’s original predecessor organization.
On July 1, 1954, the Western Development Division, or WDD for short, was activated by the U.S. Air Force to work on an urgent mission: developing our Nation’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a race to catch up with – and outpace – the Soviet nuclear threat.
The nascent division, and the responsibility for its monumental task, was assigned to Brig. Gen. Bernard Schriever. Born in 1910 in Bremen, Germany, Schriever immigrated to the United States as a child and became a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot in 1933. He flew 63 combat missions in B-17 bombers in the Pacific during World War II. But he is best known as the force behind the foundational space architecture that, to this day, continues to enhance our national security and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our armed forces. 
At SSC headquarters, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, an eight-foot bronze statue of Schriever is an iconic landmark that connects SSC’s historic space legacy with its present mission and ongoing sense of urgency.
“Many “firsts” transpired under Brig. Gen. Schriever’s command; many amazing feats of ingenuity and discovery that continue to influence the work we do today,” said USSF Lt. Gen. Philip Garrant, SSC Commander. “The Great Power Competition we are in today with space is not unlike the race we were in seventy years ago. Today, we are positioned to move faster and to partner with our allies and industry more effectively. Today, through the U.S. Space Force, we continue to be the leader in space, keeping it secure, stable, and accessible for military space power and new waves of innovation.”
As documented by the National Museum of the United States Space Force, Schriever oversaw the development of the Thor, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missile systems, all key elements in fulfilling the deterrence strategy so effective during the Cold War. He also directed USAF support to the NASA Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. It was during this period that the USAF also developed, demonstrated, and deployed key weather, warning, reconnaissance, and communications satellite systems. 
During the Cold War, the WDD delivered the Thor, Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman missile systems, all key elements in fulfilling the Nation’s deterrence strategy. This period also saw the development and delivery of key weather, warning, reconnaissance, and communications satellite systems as well as USAF support to the NASA Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.
“SSC has operated under a variety of names and much of the work done in our earliest years was classified, so people are generally unfamiliar with all that we’ve accomplished throughout our 70 years,” noted Ms. Layesanna Rivera, director of the SSC Heritage Center located at the command’s Los Angeles Air Force Base headquarters. “Over the years, we have been able to share much more about our history – a history we can all be very proud of.”
In addition to SSC’s Heritage Center, artifacts, models and exhibits tracing SSC’s history can also be found at Vandenberg Space Force Base at Patrick Space Force Base, and the National Museum of the United States Space Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Visitors to these locations can learn more about SSC’s history and ground-breaking accomplishments, which include:  

  • The world’s first audio broadcast from space: President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1958 Christmas greeting.
  • The Nation’s first polar-orbiting satellite, Discoverer 1, launched on February 28, 1959.
  • The first successful reconnaissance satellites, launched in 1960.
  • Vela, the first space system to accomplish nuclear surveillance, developed to monitor Russia’s compliance with the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban.
  • Ten manned spacecraft launches for NASA’s Gemini program from March 1965 through November 1966.

As the U.S. kept pace with the Soviets, Schriever streamlined Air Force research and development by introducing the concept of "concurrency" (also known as the "systems" approach), which transformed traditional step-by-step design, production, testing, facilities preparation and training into a simultaneous, time-saving process. By integrating all the functions needed to create new systems, Schriever obtained results faster than many experts predicted.
Like its predecessor, today’s SSC is also in a race. But the threat driving today’s space race encompasses far more than nuclear. It includes hypersonic glide vehicles, anti-satellite weapons, GPS spoofers, signal jammers, and more. Building on Schriever’s systems approach, SSC has embraced bold changes to deliver capabilities even faster. Initiatives like “Buy Before Build” and “Allied by Design” are accelerating the pace of innovation through industry and allied nation partnerships.
Recent key achievements include:

  • Putting a National Security Space Launch satellite on orbit in less than 27 hours from notification to launch.
  • Collaboration with 28 allied nations.
  • Issuing 160 commercial start-up awards.
  • Funding more than 70 prototypes from non-traditional industry partners.

With each emerging threat, and burgeoning developments in technology, SSC’s mission has grown increasingly complex and its operating footprint has expanded from a single location in Inglewood, California, to operating in more than 29 locations across the country including two spaceports responsible for managing the Eastern and Western launch ranges.
“Space Systems Command proudly continues the work started by the Western Development Division to protect and defend our nation’s security and prosperity through space-enabled capabilities,” Garrant said. “We honor our past and celebrate our future. Our actions today are making the world a better space for tomorrow.”