Though the United States took a keen interest in the development of ballistic missile technology after World War II, it was not until the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik in October 1957 that a new urgency arose. Within a matter of months the Navy launched its own satellite (Vanguard 1) into orbit, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created, and the U.S. Air Force was spurred to invest in a series of ships.
Since 1950, the Air Force had 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 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 was needed were mobile instrumentation ships and other craft to track and retrieve their missiles. And so the Air Force acquired several decommissioned World War II Victory cargo ships and outfitted them with huge arrays of equipment.
The ships served under Air Force control for several years, tracking missiles and the early space flights before being transferred to the Navy's Military Sealift Command in 1964. This selection of images from the U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive that follows showcase some of the Air Force ships.
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.
The 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 on astronaut John Glenn's space capsule in 1962 as he became the first American to orbit the earth. She was decommissioned by 1968.
Before becoming the USAFS Twin Falls Victory (ORV-1886), also known as the Uniform, this ship participated in the Korean War's Inchon landing with a merchant marine crew. Reactivated from the Reserve Fleet 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. Decommissioned in 1969, she 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 to 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.