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USNS Range Tracker (T-AGM 1) in a photo received in June 1965.

USNS Range Tracker (T-AGM 1) in a photo received in June 1965.
Click on this photograph for links to larger images of this class.

Design: SCB Project No. 205, conversion of MC VC2-S-AP3
Displacement (tons): 4,512 light, 15,200 full
Dimensions (feet): 455' oa, 444' wl x 62' e/wl x 28.5'
Armament: none
Accommodations: 14 officers, 76 unlicensed
Speed (kts.): 17
Propulsion (HP): 8,500
Machinery: Geared steam turbines, 2 boilers (465psi/750deg), 1 screw

1RANGE TRACKER21 Feb 1960Oregon SB6 Apr 194519 May 1945May 1961

AGMNameTInactStrikeDisposalFateMA Sale
1RANGE TRACKERT27 Sep 196928 Apr 197019 Feb 1970MA/T10 Jul 1970

Class Notes:
A need for shipboard range instrumentation was recognized very early in the U.S. space program, since many launches were made toward the ocean for reasons of safety. The first range instrumentation ships carried very simple equipment, mostly telemetry gear adapted from shore equipment. In some instances, for the sake of expediency, range equipment was not even installed in the ships but was brought aboard in vans. As requirements for precision and the complexity of tracking, telemetry, and control (TT&C) instrumentation became more demanding, range equipment was developed specifically for shipboard use. The first range ship with a fully instrumented TT&C system was the USNS RANGE TRACKER (AGM-1), which became operational on the Pacific Missile Range in late 1961, although three other converted Victory ships (AGM 3-5) preceded her on the Pacific range.

An internal BUSHIPS memorandum dated 18 June 1957 discussed the general design criteria for an instrumentation ship required to track missiles, receive telemetered data, and measure time and point of water impact of a nose cone or reentry vehicle. Such a ship was included in a Bureau of Aeronautics plan dated 9 April 1957 for the expansion of the Naval Air Missile Test Center (NAMTC) at Point Mugu, California. A series of conferences involving BUSHIPS and BUAER representatives on 2-5 July determined that there were two basic requirements for an instrumentation ship. The first was a specific request from the Air Force for a capability, by November 1958, to collect data on the time and place of impact of an IRBM nose cone and to receive telemetered data from the nose cone during the final 200 miles of travel down to an altitude of 3,000 feet. The second requirement was a more general one for West Coast tracking of missiles fired both from shore and at sea starting about mid-1959 including collection of the same types of data required by the Air Force plus accurate tracking of missiles or nose cones during certain phases of flight and the precise determination of the position of the tracking ship. The November 1958 requirement could be met by temporarily altering an existing active ship (DD, DE, DER or YAGR), but the 1959 requirement would require both a major ship conversion and extensive additions to shore based facilities. The ship would need precise navigation equipment, a dedicated tracking radar stabilized for shipboard use, elaborate telemetering equipment, and a helicopter platform. BUAER estimated that the controlling item, the modified tracking radar, could be procured in 15 to 18 months after a contract was let. A Victory type hull was felt to offer the most advantages for possible conversion. On 28 October 1958 the Deputy CNO for Fleet Operations and Readiness forwarded to CNO for approval a statement of missions and tasks for a Missile Range Instrumentation Ship (AG). At that time two were included in SECNAV's FY 1960 program, but only one was in the program as approved. This AG, a converted Liberty ship, was to provide an adequate mobile station for control, instrumentation and communications for a missile range, to include a mobile instrumentation station for the acquisition, tracking, and monitoring of missiles and satellites and facilities for the recovery of missile test vehicles. Approved characteristics for a Pacific Missile Range Instrumentation ship, probably SCB Project No. 205, were promulgated on 31 March 1959 with a final change on 12 June 1959. Of the Navy's Victory ship conversions, PVT JOE E MANN (later AGM 4) was on range in about October 1958, HAITI VICTORY and DALTON VICTORY (later AGM 3 and 5) followed in about July 1959, HUNTSVILLE and WATERTOWN (AGM 7 and 6) joined them in about January and March 1961 respectively, and RANGE TRACKER (AGM 1) was on range in about June 1961. WHEELING (AGM 8) joined them in 1964.

SKIDMORE VICTORY (MCV 685) was acquired from MARAD on 21 February 1960 and was renamed RANGE TRACKER and reclassified AG 160 on 12 July 1960. On 12 September 1960 the Commander of MSTS alerted his staff that SECNAV Instruction 5030.1B of 25 August 1960 had established a new classification, AGM, with the meaning "Missile Range Instrumentation Ship, and that a change of the classification of AG 160 to T-AGM 1 was pending in OPNAV. On 27 October 1960 effective 27 Nov 1960 SECNAV approved the new classification AGM 1 for this ship, the name having been approved on 12 July 1960. RANGE TRACKER was converted by Ingalls SB, Pascagoula, and was on range about June 1961. A key feature of the ship was her single multi-polarized RCA AN/FPS-16 antenna, which could be used for tracking, telemetering or command control of missiles and space vehicles and which at the push of a button could switch between the functions of four types of antenna; vertically and horizontally polarized and clockwise and counterclockwise helical. In 1962 RANGE TRACKER served as range safety ship for Operation FISHBOWL, a series of high altitude nuclear tests at Johnston Island in the central Pacific that were conducted to get the electromagnetic measurement data that would show whether or not an anti-ICBM system (NIKE-X) was workable. The program was under intense time pressure because a treaty banning such tests was about to be ratified. RANGE TRACKER was brought to Johnston Island in a great hurry, a channel was dredged, and the ship was lashed to pilings at a predetermined angle of heel to permit vertical range tracking of the THOR missiles that lifted the live warheads from Johnston Island to altitude. (For more on Operation FISHBOWL see AMERICAN MARINER, AGM 12.) In May 1963 she supported the Mercury program's Faith 7 flight. In January 1969 the Eastern Test Range planned for RANGE TRACKER to provide range safety for POSEIDON launches but she was instead taken out of service on 27 September 1969.

Ship Notes:

1RANGE TRACKER685(ex-SKIDMORE VICTORY, ex-PRESIDENT BUCHANAN 1958, ex-SKIDMORE VICTORY 1946, compl. 18 Jun 1945). FY 1960. (ex-AG 160 27 Nov 1960). To MA custody 12 Nov 1969. To buyer 23 Jul 1970.

Page Notes:
Compiled: 18 Oct 2021
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2021
Special sources: NARA: RG 19 Entry UD 1024-M box 2 file S1 Design of Vessel; "From the Sea to the Stars: A Chronicle of the U.S. Navy's Space and Space-related Activities, 1944-2009" (www.history.navy.mil)