There are a couple of answer here talking about, rockets collapsing under their own weight. One claims it actually happened another says it is possible.

I once saw a pic of a retired Atlas on display, but the air pump had failed and it crumpled like a soda can. Answer


Atlas family of launchers, are to be pressurized even during storage or they will collapse under their own weight. Answer

Is there any proof that this has actually happened?

  • $\begingroup$ I used to correspond with an engineer, alas now dead, who once worked on the Atlas program. He'd have confirmed the factuality of the claim based on comments he made long ago. Memory says that the Atlas "baloon tanks" were made of high tensile maraging steel to maximise strength per weight and that constant pressurisation was required. || There was (at least one) fatality due to this. When empty and pressurised the tanks were an explosion hazard and potemtially lethal. Screens were erected so that staff could safely move along the lengths of the tanks. At one stage a tank failed and .... $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 7:20
  • $\begingroup$ ... a fatality occurred due to a person passing between screens being struck by a fragment from the exploding tank :-(. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ In Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, Eric Schlosser writes about the 1980 Titan ICBM explosion in Arkansas, where the maintenance team fat-fingered a hole into the ICBM's aerozine tank, flooding the silo with an extremely toxic and explosive chemical and depressurizing the rocket, causing concern that the missile might just collapse on itself. In the end, the whole silo blew up, ejecting the H-bomb wherever. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ That's a great book indeed, but Titan ICBMs didn't use the balloon-tanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ The Atlas skin (therefore, tank) was stainless steel, because the AF was considering flat trajectories. (Maybe decrease warning time?) Stainless could take the extra heating from not clearing the dense atmosphere as quickly as practical. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 4, 2022 at 15:03

4 Answers 4


Sure, here's a video. May 11, 1963.

Pressure-stabilized tanks work better...with pressure.

There's a writeup on the specific failure here.

During fueling, a gas bubble developed in the propellant fill and drain system for the rocket. This created a hydraulic ram effect that shook loose the connection inside the vehicle where liquid oxygen flowed into the Atlas. The launch pad crew, hunkered down in the blockhouse, drained all of the liquid oxygen in the upper tank. But with the Agena D upper stage on top of it, there was pressure from above on the tank. The tank buckled and the Agena fell over, pivoting down and hitting the ground.

Here's yet another from here, the writeup states it was a facility test vehicle.

enter image description here

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Though I think that if you want to be technical, the rocket stage is not collapsing under its own weight, but the weight of the stages stacked on top of it. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 4:51
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf True, but the question was about the rocket as a whole, which counts. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 7:23

According to this Ottawa Citizen article, this is a photo of an Atlas on display that lost pressure and collapsed in 1986. The article itself is about a recently intentionally dismantled Atlas likewise collapsed.

enter image description here

Note the cone of the payload shroud, fallen off to the ground on the left.

The article says it was in Dayton; I assume that means the USAF museum, which claims to have an Atlas in storage, but not on display, currently. This article from 2017 seems to show an intact Atlas in their storage facility; I'm guessing it's not the same one.


Rockets such as the Atlas-Agena rely on pressurized gas to maintain their structure. In the 1962, Atlas-Agena depressurized, thus imploded and broke apart on the launchpad. Here is the footage:


Will some rockets really collapse under their own weight?


The following references "rather definitively" confirm the claim.

NASA document

The whole section, and indeed the whole document, is a "must read" for people who have got as far as reading this :-).

Chapter 7 - Materials for Launch Vehicle Structures Grant Henson, Chief Scientist, Invariant Laboratories LLC, Westlake, Ohio


  • . The next most common is the “steel balloon” design, which is very thin-walled and not structurally stable under the load of its own weight unless pressurized or stretched. Its stability before fill and pressurization is maintained by pressurization with an inert gas or by mechanical tension applied by a holding cradle. This design was most famously applied in the Atlas missile.


  • Balloon Tanks The Atlas vehicle designed by K.E. Bossart at Convair Division of General Dynamics in the early 1950s is exemplary of this type of design. The other notable application is the Centaur upper stage, also developed by General Dynamics. The Atlas maintained the balloon tank design through several ICBM variants, the early Atlas E and F space launch vehicles, and the Atlas I, II and III commercial space launchers. The Centaur stage still uses the balloon tank design.
    Balloon tanks require either mechanical tension (“stretch”) or internal pressure to keep them from collapsing under their own weight prior to operation. In operation, the pressure required for propellant feed is sufficient to keep the tank stable under flight loads.
    The following information is taken primarily from the review by Martin [65]

Everyone quotes this paper - when you find a copy please tell me :-)

  • Richard E. Martin, "The Atlas and Centaur 'Steel Balloon' Tanks: A Legacy of Karel Bossart

Surprisingly good discussion here with substantial mention of Atlas and how the SpaceX practices have evolved from them

Why SpaceX Built A Stainless Steel Starship

Page 93 - Atlas pressurisation needed here

And page 100 ref 7 here


Welding of maraging steels 43 pages.

WARNING - If you already own too many books DO NOT OPEN THIS LINK !!! :-)

To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the warning. "Own too many books, own too little time"... $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 11:47

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