Utah’s Rocket Economy

In short

After World War II (WWII) the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) changed from being wartime allies to postwar enemies in the Cold War, which lasted from 1945-1991. The two countries competed to spread their ideas around the world and be more powerful than the other. Both built up their militaries and nuclear arsenals, but mostly avoided an outright “hot” war with each other. The Cold War turned into real fighting during the Korean War from 1950-1953. After the Korean War, America and the USSR were locked in an “arms race,” each one trying to develop the best weapons. Then in 1957 the USSR launched the first satellite into space. The two enemies were now in a serious space race, too.

A Minuteman ICBM, made in Utah by Thiokol, during a successful flight on the Atlantic Missile Range. Utah State Historical Society.

WWII and the Cold War brought major changes to Utah. During WWII, the US Department of Defense built or expanded several military installations in the state, such as Hill Air Force Base and the Dugway Proving Grounds. During the Cold War, Utah installations made weapons, trained soldiers, and more. The Tooele Ordnance Depot went from storing arms to building, repairing, and shipping out things like combat vehicles and guns. More orders for tanks and guns meant more jobs for Utahns and their neighbors. 

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Companies that created weapons for the military were also part of Utah’s defense industry. The Minuteman—an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM—was the major missile made in Utah. By 1962, several companies were making missiles in Utah, such as Sperry Rand Corporation, Thiokol Chemical Corporation, and Hercules Powder Company. 

Thiokol searched around the American West and chose to build a factory near Brigham City because the area had a lot of open space and enough workers, plus it was close to railroads and highways. Thiokol completely changed the economy in northern Utah, especially Box Elder County. For around ten years, about three million dollars a month went into the local economy because of the missile company.

Because Utah had so much open space, some people thought it would be a good place to test missiles. That would be easier to think if missile parts didn’t fall on your land or animals—but what if they did? During the 1960s, the US military operated missile test sites near Green River, Blanding, and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Many people in those areas were proud of their part in defending the United States, but missile testing was also dangerous for them and their livestock. 

In 1979, when the US Air Force wanted to build storage facilities for the new MX missile near Milford, some Utahns began to worry. Building places to keep all of the missiles would bring thousands of jobs to Milford, but what if it also used up the water, polluted the environment, or made Milford a target for nuclear war? 

What rights and responsibilities did Utahns have to think about when they became part of America’s defense industry?