Too Dumb to Meter, Part 5

As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. In this POWER exclusive, we present the sixth and seventh chapters, “The Bomber to Nowhere” and “The Road to Jackass Flats,” which begin the “Up in the Air: Flights of Radioactive Fancy” section.

In the first book of the Tom Swift Jr. series, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, young Tom designed and built a gigantic, atom-powered flying laboratory, which included a full-scale nuclear and chemical lab, sleeping quarters for a large crew, and a gourmet galley. The multi-floored aircraft also utilized jet technology for vertical takeoff and landing and could house and launch a small, jet-powered craft as well as a helicopter.

In building the nuclear flying laboratory, it took Tom about three months from conception to flight. Dubbed the Sky Queen, Tom’s nuclear craft could fly for months at 1,000 mph, at altitudes just short of outer space.

Understandably, Victor Appleton chose to start his postwar literary venture with flight. Flying has always fascinated Earth-bound man; children commonly dream that they can fly. In only fifty years, airplanes had grown from fantasy to flying flivvers to futuristic weapons systems that arguably delivered the war into American hands. Nuclear flight seemed to be the next logical step and perhaps the stepping off point for mankind to venture into space.

Unfortunately, while producing large amounts of radiation and consuming even larger amounts of taxpayer dollars, the development of nuclear flight, both atmospheric and stratospheric, remained firmly anchored to the ground.

6. The Bomber to Nowhere

An enormous building squats on the high desert of eastern Idaho, the most tangible artifact of one of the more daft and feckless federal research and development programs of the 20th Century. Built in 1959 for $8 million, the building looks like a giant oil barrel half-buried lengthwise in the sand. It spans a clear space of 320 feet by 240 feet, or two football fields side-by-side.

Tom Swift’s vision, scaled back to reflect some reality, was just what the Army Air Corps had in mind in 1946 when it launched the most ambitious and foolish nuclear project in U.S. military history, the nuclear-powered bomber. While Tom’s nuclear airplane was pure fiction, the Air Force A-plane was all too real. Tom won the race—his airship flew. U.S. taxpayers lost in the real world beyond boys’ books.

An enormous building on the high desert of eastern Idaho was designed to be the hangar for the nation’s nuclear-powered bomber, a government project that spanned fifteen years, cost at least $1 billion, and produced just that: a giant hangar in Idaho. Today, its ironic mission is to house depleted uranium, used in military munitions, particularly tank-penetrating artillery shells.

Had a runway been built for the atomic airplane, it would have run some twenty-three thousand feet (more than four miles) in order to get the behemoth off the ground. Whether the plane would have been able to land at the strip is unknown, and probably unlikely. But because of the risk of radiation from a crash, it would never have been allowed to land—on land.

Years of toil and countless dollars were spent attempting to achieve what was neither technologically achievable nor militarily useful. Clearly, from the start of the project, the Air Force simply didn’t understand much about nuclear physics. A version of Tom Swift’s pie-in-the-sky flying laboratory had emerged from largely impractical and hopelessly optimistic government and military fantasy, all the while providing plenty of laughs and much head-scratching along the way. It’s also a tale largely forgotten in the mists of nuclear history, which focuses on the successes of the government industry nuclear partnership following World War II.

It was clear from the start of the nuke airplane project that the Air Force simply didn’t understand much about nuclear physics, any more than did Tom Swift. Tom can be forgiven; he was an 18-year-old with no education in physics, a fictional creation of men of imagination with no known scientific or technical skills. The U.S. government cannot be forgiven. It hired the best physicists in the world. They were real.

A joint venture of the United States Air Force (originally the Army Air Corps); the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (predecessor to today’s NASA); and the Atomic Energy Commission—it classically illustrates postwar technological optimism, as policymakers in Congress and the executive branch viewed the project through rose-colored glasses for a decade and a half.

It’s also a classic case of fierce inter-service rivalries; conventional congressional pork-barrel politics tweaked to a high degree; and nasty turf warfare among various executive and legislative arms of the federal government.

The nuke bomber offers a model of how modern, earmarked politics can produce entirely irrational outcomes, such as the move by the Alaska congressional delegation in 2005 to build a “bridge to nowhere.”

Following World War II, Congress, the Air Force, and the AEC attempted—against sound scientific advice—to build a bomber to nowhere, and failed entirely. Science trumped politics, much to the dismay of the politicians, who moaned long after their failure that they weren’t to blame and that their vision wasn’t blurred by fantasy. The enthusiasts insisted, in the face of mounting evidence, that nuclear flight was just around the corner— if the taxpayers just had the will to stay on the runway.

The attempt to build an atomic bomber began as a radioactive dream among Air Force strategists and some nuclear energy experts not long after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. The impetus for both the Navy’s successful nuclear submarine program and the Air Force bomber-to-nowhere took off at the same time President Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act. This meant the services would have to work with the AEC, a civilian agency, to develop their atom-powered engines. That proved to be an easy obstacle to overcome, as the AEC was quick to endorse and support the military’s plans for use of nuclear power beyond blowing up cities and civilians.

The Navy promptly assigned an up-and-comer, the prickly-but-productive Capt. Hyman Rickover, to run its submarine program. Submarines made sense for the application of nuclear energy. Rickover was a hard taskmaster, a fine judge of talent, and a most practical engineer. He was not essentially a military man, but a man who would turn his engineering and organizing talents to a military end.

The Air Force was dominated by men who grew up dropping bombs and were military to their bones. Both Curtis Le May, the cigar-chomping, hard-charging head of the Strategic Air Command, who earned his chops as a bomber pilot, and Air Force chief Hap Arnold were strategic bombing enthusiasts. The Air Force also had a reputation of being less technically adept than its rivals in the Army and Navy. Military historian Stephen Budiansky, for example, wrote that Arnold “had often frustrated his more technically competent subordinates through his ignorance of basic science and mathematics (he didn’t know how to use a slide rule, one recalled, and would become manifestly impatient with technical explanations), but by the Second World War he had acquired a sort of layman’s admiration for scientific wizardry.”

Le May’s atomic aircraft, in his mind, would become the ultimate force in strategic bombing. The Air Force brass clung to the notion that strategic bombing would win the wars of the future, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. The vision of the nuclear bomber that beguiled him and the other proponents was a craft that could fly at supersonic speeds, staying aloft for weeks or months at a time without the need to refuel. The amount of fuel that conventional propeller-driven bombers carried slowed them down. High-speed jets burned fuel so fast they couldn’t stay up long. Flying nukes seemed to solve both problems.

Public notice of the atomic bomber program came in early 1947. A New York Times article in mid-February mentioned a ten-day, “non-publicized” (meaning secret) conference on nuclear aircraft at Oak Ridge that ended February 13. Oak Ridge was a center for reactor development for the AEC, dating back to the Manhattan Project. Insiders referred to the meeting as the “college of nuclear knowledge.” The Times article said, “Scores of high-ranking Army officers, top-flight nuclear scientists, and representatives of aircraft engine and airframe manufacturers and chemical companies were at the meeting.” The program they were creating, said the piece, would be known as NEPA, for Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft.

The Air Force and AEC’s confidence that they could accomplish this was stunning, given the daunting technical obstacles of the project. In October 1948, David Poole, an Oak Ridge engineer, told the Baltimore Society of Automotive Engineers that the “theory of an atom-driven airplane was 99 percent perfected. The time has come when we can no longer afford not to have atomic aircraft.” He was laughably off base.

The Air Force brass thoroughly embraced the leap of nuclear faith. In 1947, they were predicting it would only take five years to turn what were essentially paper nuclear-powered airplanes into demonstrated flight. Their motto was Fly Early.

There were notable skeptics, even in the early halcyon days of nuclear non-flight. Ironically, the first article printed on the topic in the New York Times, January 26, 1947, quoted noted radiation expert Ralph Lapp, then at the War Department, as saying that while a nuclear airplane was theoretically possible, the most difficult practical task would be shielding the crew against radioactivity. Lapp’s doubts were on the money.

Some of the people who best understood atomic power, the bomb builders, were very skeptical of the nuclear bomber. Oppenheimer, as chairman of the AEC’s General Advisory Committee, repeatedly ridiculed the plane, dismissing it as “hogwash.” The New York Times in 1953 quoted Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and an enthusiast of most things nuclear, expressing scorn for the atomic bird. With a thick eastern European accent, Teller observed that the plane “must not crash. A nuclear-powered airplane must not be flown near heavily populated areas.” Teller added sardonically, “But this is only assuming there will be nuclear-powered airplanes.” Those who knew Teller over the years can imagine his impressive eyebrows lifting in scornful emphasis.

In 1948, not quite a month after Oak Ridge’s Poole gave his optimistic views to the Baltimore engineers, Hanson Baldwin, the Times fine military affairs writer, poured very cold water on the Air Force’s hot atomic airplane fever. Baldwin wrote a long and perceptive article, referring to Poole’s Baltimore appearance. “This enthusiastic—but highly inaccurate and misleading—account in no way represents the actual progress made by NEPA or the present prospects,” wrote Baldwin. “The enthusiasm is well justified; there will be atomic-powered planes someday, but not soon. Atomic powered planes are not possible, regardless of the effort expended on them, within the near future, certainly not within the next three years, probably not for at least a decade. Not all the problems are fully known, much less answered. Stationary land power plants and atomic power plants for naval vessels are under study and these offer hope of considerably quicker development.” Even Baldwin’s pessimistic prognostication proved wildly optimistic.

With the Air Force, the AEC, and Congress backing urgent development of the atomic airplane, and high-profile critics such as Oppenheimer doubting its feasibility, a group of forty experts assembled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1948 to examine the issues, led by physicist Walter G. Whitman. Calling themselves the Lexington Project, they concluded that the plane would take at least fifteen years and a billion dollars to develop, by which time missile technology might make the atomic bomber unneeded. These experts pointed to a series of difficult technical obstacles the plane would have to overcome, including weight, shielding, the need for novel materials, and the like. Clearly, the group thought the atomic plane was a bad idea.

Nevertheless, the Air Force and the AEC pushed ahead with typical hubris and enthusiasm, claiming the Lexington Project had validated their vision of the nuclear bomber. Congressional support and funding followed, prioritizing the NEPA program. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy oversaw the project.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee was working on aircraft reactor designs. By then known as the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (ANP) project, the Air Force was contracting with air frame companies and reactor vendors in politically-important Congressional districts around the county. They appeared to make their contract decisions in such a way as to generate maximum support for their project. This, of course, was no surprise and characteristic of the way the AEC often developed its major projects.

General Electric built a large plant in Evendale, Ohio, near Cincinnati, to work on the reactor engineering. In mid-1952, the AEC announced it would spend $33 million at the National Reactor Testing Station in eastern Idaho, where the plane would be housed and tested. Other major contracts went to California and Connecticut. The Truman administration, working with the joint committee and a Democratic Congress, gave strong support to the Air Force project. Truman’s second defense secretary, Louis Johnson, was besotted with air power, buying in completely to LeMay’s doctrine of strategic bombing.

The election of Dwight Eisenhower as president in 1952 brought the first realistic policy review of the nuclear bomber. Eisenhower hired a crusty, straight-spoken automaker, Charles “Engine Charlie” Wilson, CEO of General Motors, to be his defense secretary. One of Wilson’s first acts called for a full-fledged look at Pentagon research and development programs, including the atomic airplane. Thus began a long and contentious endgame for the nuke-powered bomber.

Wilson’s inquiry revealed that the Air Force and the AEC had not even begun to solve the problem of how to shield flight crews from dangerous radiation. A high-thrust reactor would generate so much radiation that a crew could not operate the plane without risking major radiation doses.

The conundrum proved incapable of resolution. A 1961 postmortem in Science magazine described the problem well:

The shield requirement, if power is constant, goes up roughly with the square of the diameter of the reactor. This means that an engine that can be put into an airplane must be driven by a very small reactor releasing a great deal of energy. This meant that, to keep the weight of the shielding down to a point where the plane could fly, reactors had to be built that could operate at temperatures about 500 percent higher than those that would be required in the first atomic submarine, another project begun about the same time. To keep the cost of the plane down to something that would not be entirely unthinkable, these materials in the reactor had to be able to survive the intense heat and radiation for a reasonably long time.

Radiation shielding was ultimately the physical dagger in the heart of the nuclear airplane program. Air Force, AEC, and GE engineers were never able to solve the problem. Ultimately, the shielding paradox resulted in a steady degradation of the estimates of the capability of a nuclear bomber, which further eroded the political support for the project among military planners and the Pentagon hierarchy.

The Wilson review led the Eisenhower administration to decide to dramatically scale back the flying reactor, focusing on further design while stopping all work on actually building the bomber—a political decision to kill the atomic airplane, albeit in slow motion. Wilson let this nuclear cat out of the Eisenhower administration’s policy bag at a June 1953 press conference focused on the Korean War. Wilson noted that the current Air Force–AEC nuclear aircraft program would have to be redirected because it was sacrificing speed for weight (in other words, the Air Force was backing a slower, less militarily-capable aircraft in order to get it into the air).

At a press conference in January 1954, defending the Eisenhower administration’s proposed 30 percent cut in the AEC budget, Wilson acknowledged that the nuclear bomber was an illusion. He said, “There’s no use letting the Air Force say, we built the first one, unless that first one had definite military utility and was not merely a mechanical and technical curiosity.” “If everything had worked out perfectly,” said Wilson, “it still would have been a bum airplane.”

But the Eisenhower administration quickly found itself in political distress at the hands of the joint committee, aided by back channels from the Air Force to the committee. While the committee was nominally headed by Republicans in 1953 and 1954, under the chairmanship of Rep. W. Sterling Cole (R-NY), there was strong bipartisan JCAE support for the nuclear airplane and against the Eisenhower position.

The JCAE champion for the nuclear plane was Rep. Melvin Price (D-IL), who regularly put public pressure on the White House and Pentagon. His tool, which he used with practiced skill, was the press. Born in East St. Louis, IL, in 1905, Price worked for years as a sports writer before getting a staff job with Rep. Edwin Schaefer (D-IL) in 1933. He was elected in his own right in 1944 (and served in Congress until his death in 1988).

Former journalist Price had an easy rapport with reporters in Washington. The JCAE most often met in complete secrecy, but when meetings concluded, Price would hold impromptu press conferences. When the Democrats recaptured the House and Senate in the 1954 election (setting the stage for forty years of Democratic dominance), Price became chairman of the joint committee’s research and development subcommittee, where he endlessly promoted the nuclear airplane. He also made sure the Appropriations Committee kept the project funded well above the level set aside in the Eisenhower budgets.

While the Eisenhower administration was inclined to kill the ANP project, the Air Force, pushed the AEC and the joint committee to keep the program alive and named Gen. Donald Keirn, who had been the Air Force liaison to the Manhattan Project, to run the nuclear bomber program, in a joint Air Force–AEC position.

Le May’s colorful henchman, Gen. Roscoe Wilson, oversaw Keirn’s day-to-day handling of the program and its progress. Wilson and Keirn, while working with the Manhattan Project, had persuaded LeMay in 1946 to launch the A-bomber project at Oak Ridge, granting a basic contract to Monsanto, then the prime Oak Ridge contractor. Appointed to the Manhattan Project in 1943 to oversee the special interests of the Army Air Force, Wilson took Keirn, his classmate at West Point, under his wing.

Working as the power plant technology chief at the Wright Patterson air base in Dayton, Ohio, early in the war, Keirn was instrumental in getting Great Britain to turn over jet engine technology to the United States (some accused him of stealing the technology from the Brits). Keirn persuaded Wilson of the need for the nuclear-powered bomber. The Air Force brass initially brushed Wilson off, but he made the sale to Le May in 1946.

While Keirn’s dual Air Force–AEC appointment was the same arrangement as the Navy had with Rickover, Keirn was a far different character. The admiral was a genius for publicity as well as possessed of a driving desire to succeed. Rickover was performing brilliantly with the nuclear submarine. The Nautilus triumphed in its sea trials in January 1955, while the nuclear bomber crew floundered over their atomic engine technology.

A New York Times profile described Keirn in May 1955: “The man behind the atomic plane is almost unknown. He would like to keep it that way.” The Times added, “At the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission, where the general works, officials recently found to their surprise that they lacked any biographical data about him. Yet, he has been connected with the commission since 1946.”

Mad-bomber Le May was also keeping up his interest in the atomic plane, now from his position as commander of the Strategic Air Command. Wilson became a key Air Force staff officer shortly after the war, overseeing technology developments. LeMay told the JCAE in 1956 that an early flight of the nuke plane was possible. The next month, Keirn told the committee that there would be a ground test in 1959, with flight in 1960. That was characteristic of the unfounded optimism that pervaded the nuclear bomber program.

Herbert York, a Pentagon nuclear analyst and physicist who began his career at the University of California–Berkeley’s Livermore radiation laboratory, working for Edward Teller, wrote that “a review of the technical progress in the program and subsequent budget cuts by the Defense Department led to postponing the flight target date by eighteen months. In December (1956) an experimental reactor operated a turbojet in a laboratory for several hours, but not at a temperature suitable for flight propulsion.”

After serving as the first director of the Livermore National Laboratory under the legendary Earnest Orlando Lawrence, York became head of engineering and research at the Defense Department in 1958, an Eisenhower appointee, while only thirty-seven years old. He worked briefly on the White House science staff before his Pentagon appointment. A dozen years later, he wrote, “The political pressure to put a plane in flight as soon as possible eventually proved fatal to the program. The part of the program which was supposed to develop reactor materials had by no means reached the point where it could be certain of coming up with something suitable.”

York was a major arms control advocate. He strongly supported killing the nuclear bomber. But it took nearly four years to accomplish the task and didn’t happen on his watch.

The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board had repeatedly recommended that the nuclear airplane program should stop pushing for early flight and concentrate on reactor development. In May 1957, another advisory board recommended a low-flying plane, a repudiation of Le May’s vision for the manned aircraft. York commented, “The reason for specifying a low-level plane was simple: no one knew how to design a reactor suitable for any other kind of flight.”

The political tug-of-war over the nuke bomber continued through the Eisenhower administration, with the president and his top Pentagon advisers trying to slow down the program while the Air Force, the AEC, and the JCAE pushed for rapid progress. In Congress, Mel Price started playing the Russians-are-coming card as often as he could. The Soviet Union had recently put Sputnik in orbit, ahead of the U.S. space program, badly spooking the United States and undermining its self-image as the world leader in all things scientific.

The Russians looked invulnerable. Price repeatedly asserted that the Russians were developing the nuclear bomber, and the United States would be beaten again if it didn’t speed up the program. With the Republicans in control of the White House and the Democrats holding Congress, the nuke plane became a political issue, as the Democrats hammered the administration over the Russian atomic bomber program.

No evidence supported the assertion that the Russians had such a program. The definitive history of the Soviet nuclear program, Red Atom, by Paul R. Josephson, makes no mention of the bomber program. A February 2006 Washington Post obituary of Robert B. Hotz, the legendary editor of Aviation Week magazine, observed, “Mr. Hotz had occasional missteps, such as a 1958 story claiming that the Soviet Union had perfected a nuclear powered bomber—which never existed.” Eisenhower, who had access to all the intelligence, said of the Aviation Week story shortly after it appeared, “There is absolutely no intelligence to back up a report that Russia is flight testing an atomic-powered plane.”

Nevertheless, the proponents of the nuclear bomber, including Mel Price and a majority on the JCEA, continually voiced the notion that the United States was in a race with the Russians to develop nuclear-powered bombers. As is often the case with Congress, facts never seemed to interfere with the impetus of politics.

There was also concern over the impact of the nuke plane on public health and safety. It would require an enormous runway for takeoff, and the Pentagon decided it could not fly over land, for fear of the consequences of a crash. There was also the issue of what would be blasting out of the rear end of a nuclear-powered jet engine. Convair, one of the major contractors for the bomber, initiated a project to try to characterize the tailpipe emissions from a nuclear jet engine. They called it, apparently with some sense of humor, Project Halitosis.

At the same time, other military aircraft and missile technologies were making great strides, undermining the original mission for the nuclear bomber. Le May’s SAC was flying B-47 and B-52 strategic bombers and routinely filling up on jet fuel in flight. The Navy was well on the way to developing solid-fueled sea-based ballistic missiles in nuclear submarines.

Meanwhile, the expectations for the atomic bomber steadily diminished. So-called mission creep, where engineers keep adding functions and capabilities to new weapons systems, is typical of the U.S. military research and development enterprise. The A-plane suffered from mission retreat. In March 1958, Newsweek reported, “Last week, Air Force Secretary James H. Douglas said an engineer told him the more one works on a nuclear plane, the more one is convinced ‘she will not fly high, she will not fly fast, and she might not fly at all.’”

The Air Force, with no obvious awareness of the irony, was now calling the nuclear airplane project CAMAL, for Continuously Airborne Missile Launcher and Low Level System. While trying to attach itself to the politically potent missile program, the new moniker also acknowledged, in the “low level” description, that the aircraft would be severely limited. The moniker led to a wisecrack in Washington that a camel is a horse designed by committee and a CAMAL is a plane designed by a joint committee.

In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, blasted the Eisenhower administration for a “missile gap”. With the focus on missiles, the nuclear war bird was rapidly losing political altitude. An article in Science in September 1960 described the A-bomber program as “the most controversial in the Defense Department.” The article said Price and the JCAE “would like to see a plane in the air, any plane. They are willing to settle for what is called a ‘flying platform’—that is, a machine that may have no function beyond demonstrating that it can get off the ground.”

Rep. Dan Flood (D-PA), a flamboyant former Shakespearian actor from northeastern Pennsylvania, known for his ostentatious mustache, cape, cane, and temper, demonstrated the lowered expectations for a nuclear airplane. At a House appropriations hearing, Flood exploded, “I do not care how big it is, and I do not care how much it costs. I want the Defense Department to propel an airframe with nuclear power fifty feet off the ground, 20 mph if need be. This is a horse race.” Of course, it wasn’t. It was a CAMAL race, with no real entrants and no prospects that any animal would make it to an airborne finish line.

Kennedy narrowly won the 1960 election against Republican Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy’s administration immediately focused on their perceived need to expand the missile program to address the alleged gap. York stayed on in the White House for a couple of months to help in the transition. He suggested cutting the nuclear airplane. Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner of MIT, also a physicist, quickly agreed.

The White House signaled its intent in March 1961, when the New York Times reported, “White House advisers say that President Kennedy has expressed concern and amazement at the cost and time requirements of the project. Since it was started fifteen years ago, slightly more than $1 billion has been spent. The general estimate is that it will take at least $700 million more and up to ten years before a plane can be put into operational use.”

The ax fell on March 28, when the Kennedy administration announced its first defense budget, calling for major increases for the Polaris sub-based program and the Minuteman land-based missile. Kennedy proposed killing the B-70 conventional bomber and the nuclear bomber.

Price was apoplectic; he had not only guzzled the atomic Kool-Aid, but had cooked it up from the beginning. Price tried to mount a rear-guard action in Congress, arguing against all evidence that the atomic bird was about to soar. He was unable to challenge the popular, newly-elected president from his own party.

In November 1962, speaking to the Atomic Industrial Forum, the nuclear industry’s lobby, Price claimed history would prove him right. “Americans someday will have a nuclear-driven airplane,” he predicted. “The program to build one will start again the day after Russia has put a squadron of such atomic-driven ships in the air.” He was wrong about the Russians and wrong about the U.S. bomber to nowhere. Today, some 50 years later, neither the U.S. nor the Russians, the former Soviet Union, have a nuclear powered airplane. Why? Such an airplane makes no sense.

7. The Road to Jackass Flats

A large, remote portion of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Test Site (now euphemistically called the Nevada Nuclear Security Site) is formally known as Site 400, part of the larger Area 25. It is, like almost all of the land in the vast, 1,350-square-mile test site, dry, barren and, most important, remote and unoccupied.

After examining several locales in search of a secure place within the borders of the United States, President Truman in December 1950 designated the Nevada ordnance test area, some sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, for the nation’s nuclear bomb tests. The White House publicly announced the selection in January 1951. Time magazine reported in May 1951, “With its customary air of guarded caution, the Atomic Energy Commission last week announced that it would begin a new series of tests ‘in the near future’ at the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range in Nevada. The site is now on ‘permanent’ status, said the AEC, and will be used for both atomic and ordinary explosives.”

Site 400 is at Latitude 36.854 N and Longitude 116.2926 W, in the south-central portion of the test site. It can be found at the foot of Skull Mountain, next to Death Valley. Among the few locals, and later among the scientists and engineers trying to invent a nuclear rocket engine for manned flights to the moon and Mars and a ramjet for unmanned bomb-tipped missiles destined for Russia, the area was best known by its colloquial moniker: Jackass Flats.

Polymath physicist Freeman Dyson, possessed of the clearest mind and the most lyrical of the scores of prominent scientists intoxicated with the concept of atomic space flight, visited Jackass Flats in 1959. He wrote twenty years later: “Jackass Flats was as silent as Antarctica. It is a soul shattering silence. You hold your breath and hear absolutely nothing. No rustling of leaves in the wind, no rumbling of distant traffic, no chatter of birds or insects or children. You are alone with God in that silence. There in the white flat silence I began for the first time to feel a slight sense of shame for what we were proposing to do. Did we really intend to invade this silence with our trucks and bulldozers, and after a few years leave it a radioactive junkyard?” The AEC located all three of its major attempts at utilizing nuclear power for missiles and rockets—projects Rover, Pluto, and Orion—at Jackass Flats.

Although the ax got wielded in the cool, marbled halls of Washington, DC, the dream of nuclear flight expired in the remote Nevada desert. Nuclear fuel’s great energy density enticed many of the proponents of atomic rocket propulsion. Uranium atoms packed a lot of wallop into a small package, much more than chemical fuels. The difficulty lay in releasing the energy in a controlled fashion. In practice, the atomic beast never got properly unleashed and domesticated enough to push vehicles through the air or space. The nuclear boffins were convinced that chemical rockets were too heavy, too weak, and too expensive to represent an ideal way to explore the skies. But those relatively anemic chemical rockets put men into orbit and on the moon, and powered the workhorse space shuttles for decades.

One postmortem of the atomic rocket program noted, “The advantage of a nuclear rocket is that it can achieve more than twice the specific impulse of the best chemical rockets. For a Mars mission, a 5,000-MW engine would burn less than an hour to provide the necessary velocity for the mission.” Nuclear engineer James Mahaffey defines “specific impulse” as “a measurement of the change of momentum per unit of propellant, commonly noted in units of seconds.” According to Mahaffey, the maximum specific impulse of a chemical rocket engine is 453 seconds. The best specific impulse the AEC rocket scientists were able to achieve at Jackass Flats was 850 seconds in an engine developing 4,500 MW of thermal energy.

The developers of nuclear flight—for air-breathing jets as well as rockets and other space engines—could never clear one major hurdle: the intensely, fatally radioactive exhaust. Still, the prospect of spewing radioactivity over wide swaths of countryside did not deter the nuclear scientists, engineers, and politicians from spending wildly on the experiments.

The AEC and the Air Force approached nuclear rockets with a mind to develop a light-weight, high-temperature reactor to heat a working fluid, generally hydrogen, moving through the core of the reactor. This design, known as a “solid core” rocket, would provide the propulsion needed to push the rocket forward. A veteran of the Rover rocket program described the basic engine in a 1991 retrospective: “The Rover test reactors utilized a solid core fission reactor. The basic concept employed a graphite-based reactor, loaded with highly-enriched uranium 235. Hydrogen was used as the coolant/propellant due to its low molecular weight. Early tests utilized gaseous hydrogen whereas liquid hydrogen was subsequently used for all tests conducted after 1961.”

As in the case for the atomic bomber, the push behind the nuclear rocket engine and its earthly companion, the ramjet missile, began shortly after the end of World War II, amid the red-hot enthusiasm for all things atomic, and as the various government nuclear laboratories and their contractors began looking for work to replace the radioactive gold mine of the Manhattan Project. Nuclear rockets had been an unrealistic dream since before the war. A Boston Globe article in May 1940 breathlessly said, “Just add cold water, fly to the stratosphere. One pill of U-235, miracle substance just announced, would drive an automobile for a year.” The claims were nonsense, but the enthusiasm was real.

In June 1946, the newly-created AEC asked Johns Hopkins University’s famed Applied Physics Laboratory outside Washington, DC, for a feasibility study of nuclear space propulsion. Six months later the APL concluded that space rockets were feasible, but the technical obstacles were daunting. The idea languished at the AEC for several years, as the commission faced more pressing matters, such as the need to transition from a single-focus military body to a civilian and military enterprise with multiple goals and myriad projects. Additionally, one early crisis—the Soviet Union’s August 1949 detonation of an atomic bomb several years before most inside and outside the government expected—resulted in the crash program to develop the Super, Edward Teller’s hydrogen fusion bomb. An official history of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory commented, “The Soviet A-bomb changed everything. To Teller (and many others), an American H-bomb seemed the best response to the new Soviet threat.”

By the mid-1950s, undeterred by the serious technical challenges the Johns Hopkins report raised, the AEC began to pursue atomic rocketry and nukes in space. A paper by a brilliant young rocket scientist at the Oak Ridge laboratory proved an important milestone in the program. In 1953, Robert W. Bussard wrote a monograph titled “Nuclear Energy for Rocket Propulsion,” arguing for the technical advantages of nuclear-powered engines in getting into and exploring space.

With the Bussard analysis giving the agency technical comfort, the AEC began launching its space rocket program. Noted space historian and aerospace engineer Thomas A. Heppenheimer says Bussard’s paper “stirred interest, and led to the initiation of an experimental effort called Project Rover at Los Alamos, New Mexico.”

The AEC launched Project Rover in 1955 under the direction of Los Alamos. Following the successful testing of the hydrogen bomb in 1951, the New Mexico lab began broadening its base of scientific and engineering activities beyond explosives into what one contemporary described as “other areas of national interest,” including rocket engines. As was customary for AEC programs, Los Alamos contracted with major firms to carry out the work on Rover. The early contracts were with Aerojet General, for its rocket expertise, and Westinghouse, a source of much experience on nuclear issues.

The AEC also hooked up with the newly-named Air Force (formerly the Army Air Corps) on the Rover project, with the goal of tactically useful missile. The Air Force was a willing partner, but was placing most of its atomic bets on the A-plane, consistently doubling down on the bomber to nowhere. Ultimately, the Air Force lost both bets.

The U.S. program had its roots in German rocket technology. Germany pioneered the idea of missiles as military weapons with the primitive Fieseler Fi-103, or the V-1 Flying Bomb, also known as the “Buzz Bomb” or the “Doodlebug—essentially an unmanned and largely uncontrolled air-breathing pulse-jet plane flying at low altitude and designed to crash into random targets.

The military virtue of the V-1 was that it was cheap to make, equivalent to what it cost to produce a Volkswagen car in Germany. Thus, the Germans could make a lot of the missiles and throw them at the only reasonably close target, Britain. Over the course of five months, from June to October 1944, Germany had flown nearly ten thousand Doodlebugs willynilly at British targets, mostly in southeast England.

The V-1 was a crude weapon designed for inspiring fear, rather than a weapon serving military tactical aims. It flew low and slow, closer to what we think of in modern rocketry terms as cruise missile. The V-1 was not a true ballistic missile—defined as a missile that, after launch, follows the laws of gravity and motion that apply to falling objects such as shells or bullets fired from guns.

When the ballistic missile has burned off its fuel and reached the peak of its trajectory, it is largely on its own—with onboard guidance, but without external directions on how to hit its target. Once the missile is in its bullet mode, it follows a path, or azimuth, drawn by the laws of physics. Webster’s defines “azimuth” as “an arc of the horizon measured between a fixed point (as true north) and the vertical circle passing through the center of an object, usually in astronomy and navigation clockwise from the north point through 360 degrees.”

The ominously-named Vergeltungswaffe-2 (Reprisal Weapon–2), commonly called the V-2, succeeded the Buzz Bomb. This weapon, designed by a team of true rocket scientists led by the legendary Wernher von Braun and located at Peenemu?nde in the Balkans, was based on early rocket science by the American Robert Goddard and was a true ballistic missile.

The V-2 was a spectacular scientific and engineering accomplishment, tainted by the Nazi regime that invented it and produced it using slave labor. The missile lifted a one-ton explosive warhead, powerful enough to destroy a city block, 60 miles high and 250 miles downrange at 3,300 mph (nearly four-and-a-half times the speed of sound) to its target. It even had a primitive guidance system using a gyroscope to add precision to its ballistic course. The V-2 was designed to be a game-changing technology for Germany, which, by the fall of 1944, was clearly on the verge of losing the five-year-old war. Perhaps, if the missile had been developed earlier in the war, it could have transformed the face of the war. But the V-2 came too late and ate too much of Germany’s stressed and dwindling resources. Despite their tremendously advanced technology, the V-2s were not very effective. While their speed and altitude of attack made them invulnerable to antiaircraft weapons (unlike the low and slow V-1), the V-2s were notoriously inaccurate. The V-2 was also expensive, costing as much as a four-engine conventional bomber, which had a greater payload of destruction and was slightly more accurate.

Freeman Dyson wrote a typically charming assessment of Germany’s V-2 campaign in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe. Dyson wrote that the V-2 was a “technically brilliant” device that

made no economic or military sense. I became aware of the success of the Peenemu?nde project in the fall of 1944, after the V-1 bombardment of London had ended, when I heard the occasional bang of a V-2 warhead exploding. At night, when the city was quiet, you could hear after the bang the whining sound of the rocket’s supersonic descent. At that time in London, those of us who were seriously engaged in the war were very grateful to Wernher von Braun. We knew that each V-2 cost as much to produce as a high-performance fighter airplane. We knew that the German forces on the fighting front were in desperate need of airplanes, and that the V-2 rockets were doing us no military damage. From our point of view, the effect of the V-2 program was almost as good as if Hitler had adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament.

While the V-2 failed to rescue the doomed Nazi regime, the Allied victors well understood the future importance of German rocket wizardry. The fall of Nazi Germany set off a scramble between the Soviets and the Allies to seize the remnants of the German program. The United States mounted Operation Paperclip to capture as many V-2 missiles and parts as possible, as well as the key scientists. Von Braun and many of his colleagues decided they would rather be captured by the Allies than the Russians or assassinated by their Nazi overseers to prevent their capture. The von Braun team went into hiding until the fighting was over. He then arranged to turn himself and much of his team over to the United States. He subsequently became a leading light in the U.S. missile program. The United States also seized some three hundred trainloads of V-2 missile and parts. With seizure of the German hardware and, more important, the wetware represented by von Braun and others, the U.S. missile program catapulted into existence.

In the early days of U.S. military rocketry, a fierce rivalry broke out between the Army and the Navy over missile development. Both services (the Air Force was still part of the Army) vied for supremacy in developing land-based, ballistic missile strike capability, based on the liquid-fueled V-2 technology. The Army program was built around von Braun and headquartered at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

When the Air Force split off from the Army and became a separate service in 1947, the former siblings and now rivals began squabbling over rockets and missiles. The Air Force argued that missiles should be part of its strategic mission, built around long-range bombers such as the B-29, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the later six-engine, propeller-driven B-36 behemoth. The Air Force constructed its program around the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann and the Atlas missile, a V-2 spinoff. The Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp., also known as Convair, was the chief Air Force contractor, and the service had a missile launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Navy was interested in submarine-based missiles, something the Germans were exploring when the war ended. But the Navy was also putting money into land-based missiles, centering its program at the Naval Research Laboratory outside Washington, DC, around the ill-fated Vanguard rocket. The liquid-fueled Vanguard had the imprimatur of the Eisenhower administration as the foundation of the nation’s missile program. Early in the 1950s, the Navy also forged a strategic alliance with the Army to share the Army’s Jupiter missile technology as the basis for the submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The development of Teller’s H-bomb gave great push to missile development. The thermonuclear weapon promised a smaller, lighter warhead that could deliver far greater destruction in an easily handled and lifted package. An intercontinental missile tipped with the threat of national destruction promised to be the ultimate weapon of war. The Air Force, betting heavily on the atom to power its next generation of bomber, decided to make a parallel wager on unmanned atomic flight, with atom-powered rockets to hoist ballistic missiles and ramjets for low-altitude missiles. Thus, the alliance arose with the Atomic Energy Commission in the Rover and Pluto programs. But by most accounts, it was a second-class Air Force effort, located organizationally in the Air Force’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Office, the same institution running the high-profile atomic bomber project.

On October 4, 1957, the world changed—the Soviet Union announced to a surprised world (although it was no surprise to the Eisenhower administration) that it had successfully put into Earth orbit a two-hundred pound metal beach ball called Sputnik. Its beeping elliptical path around the planet, taking ninety-eight minutes per circuit, shocked and fascinated the world and set off a furious space race between the United States and the Russians. Consequently, it propelled the AEC’s atomic rocket program to national priority.

Before Sputnik, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, chartered in 1915) managed the U.S. non-military space flight effort. Both the Russians and the United States were attempting to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite during the 1957–1958 International Geophysical Year. The U.S. effort, run by NACA, was built on the Navy’s three-stage Vanguard. That rocket demonstrated the feeble nature of the U.S. missile program by spectacularly exploding in December 1957, having been rushed in an attempt to emulate the Soviets.

The Eisenhower administration and Congress turned the largely low-key NACA into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on October 1, 1958, almost exactly a year after Sputnik. NASA inherited much of the Air Force and Army missile programs, and saw the atomic rocket engine as well-suited for long-haul space missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond. NASA soon began discussions with the AEC over the atomic engine.

In essence, the Sputnik launch turned the military rocket program aimed at the Russians into a large civilian-oriented space race, although the military component remained important. In addition to the well-funded Rover program, the Atomic Energy Commission was also working on the Orion project, a plan to use explosions to push manned vessels into and through space, and the diabolical Pluto project, a planned hypersonic, low flying, H-bomb-tipped cruise missile designed to irradiate and destroy everything in its path. Rover, Orion, and Pluto never made it out of Jackass Flats.

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or and is serialized by permission.