Science & Technology

August 31, 1957 – Plumbbob’s “Smoky” Leaves a Troubled Legacy

On August 31, 1957, Operation Plumbob’s “Smoky” test flamed into the sky over busy Yucca Flat, 65 miles north of Las Vegas.  Area 8 of the Nevada Test Site played host that day to the third test of the UCRL TX-41 –  a three-stage, thermonuclear weapon design.  After two previous tests of 3.5 and 5.0 megatons (Redwing Zuni and Tewa), “Smoky” was probably a partial, two-stage test with a decreased yield of 45-50 kilotons.  The MK-41 nuclear device eventually developed from the TX-41 test series became the largest-yield nuclear weapon ever developed or deployed by the United States.  Its yield of 25 megatons was also the highest yield-to-weight ratio for a US nuclear weapon, at about 6 kilotons per kilogram.

Smoky became famous – notorious, even – for its tragic consequences.   Over three thousand servicemen had been in the vicinity of ground zero shortly after the blast, practicing maneuvers as part of the Desert Rock exercise.  Their exposure to radiation from the test eventually became the subject of a Congressional investigation and epidemiological evaluation.  A 1980 study found statistically significant increases in leukemia cases among the 3224 participants.  Instead of the expected four cases, ten were found.

August 27, 1957 – Underground Nuclear Test Launches Giant “Manhole Cover”

On August 27, 1957, a four-inch-thick steel plate weighing several hundred pounds shot into the stratosphere over the Nevada Test Site, never to be seen again.  Operation Plumbbob’s Pascal-B was an underground test of a nuclear safety device designed to limit the amount of destructive energy released by a bomb in the event of an accidental detonation.  Buried at the bottom of a 500-foot shaft and sealed with an over-2-ton plug of cement, Pascal-B generated sufficient energy – the equivalent of a few hundred tons of dynamite – to vaporize the concrete plug.  The concrete vapor expanded and raced up the shaft, propelling a massive steel plate sealing the shaft opening into the sky.

According to the February 1992 issue of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine, astrophysicist Bob Brownlee was in charge of designing the Pascal-B test.  “He knew the lid [steel plate] would be blown off; he didn’t know exactly how fast.  High-speed cameras caught the giant manhole cover as it began its unscheduled flight into history.  Based on his calculations and the evidence from the cameras, Brownlee estimated that the steel plate was traveling at a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth’s gravity when it soared into the flawless blue Nevada sky.  ‘We never found it.  It was gone,’ Brownlee says, a touch of awe in his voice almost 35 years later”.

Even though the eventual whereabouts of the steel plate forever remained a mystery, it’s unlikely, according to the laws of physics and the character of the Earth’s atmosphere, that the plate headed into outer space.  Unable to maintain escape velocity on its own (not being equipped with mini-rocket engines), it would not retain sufficient speed to pass completely through the layers of nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases surrounding our planet.  Most likely it either vaporized in the explosion, disintegrated in the atmosphere, or landed somewhere far from the Nevada Test Site.  It’s also possible it became some innocent person’s “close encounter”, or enormous fish story.

August 21, 1957 – The Russians Launch the R-7

August 21, 1957 Launch of the R-7

On August 21, 1957, the Soviet Union carried out the first successful test launch of their prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the R-7.  The two-stage, 112-foot-long, oxygen- and kerosene-fueled rocket blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and carried a dummy warhead 3500 miles.  The Soviets described the R-7 as a “super long-distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket.”  It was the “super long-distance” part that alarmed the United States, and the world at large, during the Cold War era of the 1950s.  Russian R-7 ICBMs were intended ultimately to be “tipped” with nuclear devices – weapons – capable of delivering the equivalent of almost 3 megatons of TNT.

At this time, the United States’ ICBM program was producing nothing but “spectacular failures.”  Initially, each branch of the armed services worked independently and in competition with one another to develop an American ICBM.  The success of the R-7, a version of which was used in October to launch the Sputnik satellite, redoubled the efforts of American scientists and military to win the Race to Space and prevent the spread of International Communism.  In the late fifties, the Atlas program began to make significant progress toward parity with the Russians.  In July of 1959, the first fully-operational Atlas ICBM lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Image Credit: RKK Energia & russianspaceweb.com

August 19, 1957 – Dr. David Simons Sets New Altitude Record

On August 19, 1957, Air Force physician and space flight researcher Dr. David Simons reached a record altitude of 102,000 feet (over 19 miles) above the earth in a telephone-booth-sized, air-conditioned capsule suspended from a helium balloon.  Dr. Simons had conducted earlier experiments with monkeys, mice, guinea pigs, and human volunteers to investigate reactions to weightlessness and the hazards of exposure to primary cosmic radiation.  But in August of 1957, as part of the Air Force’s Man High Project, it was Simons’ turn to experience the world from a vantage point beyond 99% of the earth’s atmosphere.  Life published an article about the historic flight, “A Journey No Man Had Taken,” during which Dr. Simons conducted  25 experiments armed with cameras, a 5-inch telescope, a tape recorder, a microphone taped to his chest, and photographic cosmic ray bombardment track plates taped to his arms and chest.  He observed the moon and Venus, aurora borealis and cloud formations.  He stated that his most important finding was that with the right equipment, humans could survive at the very edge of space.

Simons took off from a deep, open-pit iron mine in Crosby, Minnesota and landed, 32 hours and 10 minutes later, in a field in South Dakota.  In his Life article, Dr. Simons described seeing a “purplish-black” sky, etched with thin bands of blue.  Thin shells of dust “hovered over the Earth like a succession of halos.”  He later wrote a book, with Don A. Schanche, about his experiences, titled “Man High.”  A sign he posted on the inside of his capsule warned, “Have all the fun you want, but don’t jump up and down.”

In the days after the “high point” of his career, as his commanding officer Col. John Paul Stapp jokingly put it, Dr. David Simons was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  He continued to conduct research, including studies on radio telemetry for in-flight medical monitoring.  After his retirement, he became fascinated with and researched pain and myofascial trigger points, co-authoring in 1983 a still-standard text on the subject.

Image Credit: Life magazine

August 18, 1957 – “The Next World War Will Be Decided in a Matter of Hours”

 

On August 18, 1957, the New York Times ran a commentary by military editor Hanson W. Baldwin covering the recent military budget negotiations in Congress. In his article, Hanson extensively quoted the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Clarence Cannon, D-Missouri. Cannon, a fiscal conservative, argued for defense budget cuts:

“The next world war will be decided in a matter of hours. There will be a period of mopping up and taking over but the war will be decisively fought on one afternoon or less. . . . The Army is no longer of any use in war except in occupying territory taken from the air and in enforcing martial law. . . . Could the Navy protect us? Ridiculous! . . . The imminence of war is receding. An age of nuclear stalemate is dawning.”

Baldwin had his response ready, measured and authoritative. A Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and author of scores of books on military and defense issues, Baldwin graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, reported from the South Pacific, North Africa and Europe during World War II, and was now in his twentieth year as the Times’ military editor.

“The picture drawn by Mr. Cannon is black-and-white and hence fallacious. Nuclear weapons alone are not sufficient. We cannot provide security solely by big bombers and bigger bombs. . . . The threat of nuclear bombardment may deter world wars but it obviously has not deterred small wars. . . .

“The problem of United States – or world – security in the nuclear age is as complex as the technology that is supposed to be its servant. It is, in the first place, a political and psychological problem, the problem of the nature of man; it is only secondarily a military problem. As long as men want things that other men have, as long as men quarrel, as long as they are aggressive, just so long will there be conflict in all the broad interpretations of the word.”

Image Credit: Library of Congress, U.S. Army

Vintage 1957 – The Wonder Boy X-100

 

Power_Mower_Deluxe

Can technology change the lives of suburban husbands and wives? You bet!

In 1957, Simplicity Manufacturing Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin rolled out its first riding tractor – the Wonder Boy X-100. This was no ordinary riding tractor, however. Packed under its metal hood and plastic dome resided an all-purpose lawn system for mowing, weeding, fertilizing, seeding, and pest spraying. It could be used as a snow plow and as a tractor for hauling other equipment. Its on-board electric-generating system provided the driver air-conditioned comfort from atop an air foam cushioned seat, along with a radio telephone and drink-chilling system. Savings in lawn maintenance time could allow its lucky owners to get in an early round on the links. Just snap on the Wonder Boy’s running lights and drive it off to the course as a golf cart.

Simplicity’s promotional photo illustrated not only the mower of the future, but something of gender roles of the future. While a man relaxes with his pipe and a drink, a stylish woman confidently pilots the marvel from a space-age cockpit.

Image Credit: AP Images

August 8, 1957 – A Success for the Missile Re-Entry Test Program

Re-Entry Test Vehicle Nose Cone Assembly

 

On August 8, 1957, the Re-Entry Test Vehicle Project of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency achieved a successful atmospheric re-entry of its Orbiter stack.  The International Geophysical Year, declared on July 1, 1957, included a competition for the first successful satellite launch in its Race to Space agenda.  American scientists hoped to work collaboratively with the U.S. military to develop new technology for rockets with space exploration and research benefits, as well as military and strategic roles.  The challenge facing rocket development programs included not only how to design engines capable of freeing a large, heavy object from the clutches of earth’s gravity, but also how to enable a portion of that heavy object to return to earth without burning up as it passed back through our atmosphere.

The Army’s Re-Entry Test Vehicle Project, started in 1955, progressed in stages.  The Army Ballistic Missile program’s overall goal: develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of accurately delivering a nuclear warhead, with all necessary tracking and control systems technology.  From the start, researchers knew that nuclear warheads would need to be protected from the intense heat generated while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.  Theoretical studies and laboratory tests pointed to the use of glass-fiber-based materials for use in warhead shields.  The glass-fiber shields – also referred to as “ablative technology” –  would protect the payloads by gradually burning away during re-entry.  The re-entry project designed rocket telemetry (tracking) systems, a nose cone assembly to hold the glass shields which would float on water, enabling recovery and analysis, and the ablative technology.  The Orbiter stack, or rocket, had already been developed as part of the Redstone and Sergeant missile programs and consisted of four stages of rocket motors and boosters.

The first test flight , held September 20, 1956, demonstrated that the vehicle design and tracking systems were fully functional.  The second flight, May 15, 1957, was the first to include the ablative technology.  The tracking information indicated to the researchers that the heat shields had worked, but because of a guidance system failure, they were unable to recover the nose cone post-splashdown for confirmation.  They needed to know how much of the glass material had eroded, in order to make an efficient warhead design.

President Eisenhower with recovered nose cone assembly, press conference November 7, 1957

 

The final test, on August 8, 1957, was the success they were hoping for.  The rescue and salvage ship USS Escape recovered the nose cone and analysis of the heat shield showed that only a small amount of material had burned away, confirming an effective design.  The United States was one step closer to an arsenal of nuclear ICBMs to train on the USSR.

Image Credits: U.S. Army; NASA