nuclear weapons

September 29, 1957 – The Kyshtym Disaster

Map of the Mayak and Kyshtym area, USSR

On September 29, 1957, an explosion in a steel storage tank containing liquid nuclear waste led to the release of a massive 2 MCi of radioactive material in the eastern Ural Mountains of the Soviet Union.  Spent nuclear waste generates heat, and when tank cooling systems failed, containment of the material failed and a non-nuclear explosion occurred on the order of 70-100 tons of TNT.  The Kyshtym Disaster, as it came to be called, was the third worst nuclear disaster in history, dwarfed only by the Chernobyl reactor explosions and fire in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi multiple reactor meltdowns in 2011.

The incident occurred at Mayak, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant sequestered in the closed city of Ozyorsk, near the town of Kyshtym.  Within ten hours of the release, the radioactive cloud traveled 300-350 kilometers in a northeast direction.  Fallout contaminated an area of approximately 800 square kilometers later called the East-Ural Radioactive Trace (EURT).  Secrecy surrounding Mayak and its operations led to the suppression of information about the danger to the local population; it was a full week before people began to be evacuated, without explanation.  According to an article in Critical Mass Journal by Richard Pollock, people “grew hysterical with fear with the incidence of unknown ‘mysterious’ diseases breaking out.  Victims were seen with skin ‘sloughing off’ their faces, hands, and other exposed parts of their bodies.”

Knowledge about the event could only be gathered indirectly.  An estimated 200 people died from cancer as a direct result of the explosion and release; massive amounts of contaminated soil apparently were excavated and stockpiled; and an off-limits “nature reserve” was created in the EURT to isolate the affected region.  Studies of the effects of radioactivity on plants, animals, and ecosystems later conducted and published by faculty members of the Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow eventually confirmed the rumors of a major radioactive release.

At the time, the Soviets were hurrying to catch up with American nuclear weapons researchers.  In their desire to produce sufficient quantities of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, they proceeded without full understanding of the safety measures necessary to protect citizens and the environment.  Their lack of concern led to open dumping of highly radioactive waste into rivers and lakes.  The level of radioactivity in the town of Ozyorsk is currently claimed to be within safe limits, but the “East-Ural Nature Reserve”, as the EURT was deceptively renamed in 1968, is still heavily contaminated.

Image Credit: Jan Rieke/NASA World Wind Screenshot

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 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

Vintage 1957 – Vintage 2018

Two questions to ponder:

How is life in America significantly different than it was in 1957? How is it significantly the same?

First, a significant difference: our political climate in 2018 is hyper-polarized. Politicians and pundits pride themselves on their strongly-held views, whether liberal or conservative. They stress their unwillingness to compromise, seeing it as a matter of integrity and dedication to principle. Voters use litmus-test issues to guide their choice of candidates. Tendencies for media outlets to lean left or right have led to charges of “fake news” and growing distrust in reportage in general.

In 1957, President Eisenhower was serving his second term, having been elected in 1952 on a deliberately moderate ticket. He promised to “get things done” by working cooperatively with those in his party and across the aisle. Strong anti-Communist Richard Nixon was added to the ticket as Vice President in a token nod to the more conservative side of the Republican party. Eisenhower did not particularly like Nixon nor seek his input. The memory and record of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was still widely respected by the public. Americans counted on the news – think Walter Cronkite – for fair and impartial information.

Next, a significant similarity: advances in technology were both eagerly welcomed and deeply feared. Today, new Apple products and other high-tech gear are embraced quickly. Brand loyalty and identification create communities of adherents. Social media, online banking, self-driving cars, drones, video-streaming, and fitness trackers all have a following. And yet, we are wary of what might happen with our digital footprint if bad actors gain access. How safe are we? Who is listening and watching and what will they do with what they learn?

In 1957, Americans were also eager adopters of new high-tech products. Food industry innovation responded to the consumer desire for convenience foods. New packaged products included Minute Rice, canned tuna, Jif peanut butter, and Tang. New cold-processing technology made frozen dinners, fruit and vegetables, waffles, and turkeys ready to purchase year-round. Developments in the space program were counting down to putting a man in orbit. Television broadcasting expanded into almost every living room and kitchens began humming with appliances. And yet, it was the Atomic Age of nuclear weapons – and there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. More powerful bombs were being developed and tested and stockpiles were growing. The Soviet Union was a direct Cold War threat, looming over the Artic pole. The potential for incoming ICBMs had everyone practicing “duck and cover”.

Would the Americans of 1957 be surprised that we haven’t found a way to better cooperate politically? Would they also be surprised that we still haven’t better resolved our love-fear relationship with science and technology?

Image Credits: Swanson; Apple

 

August 2, 1957 – Dulles’ Dramatic Proposal in Open Skies Negotiations

President_Eisenhower_and_John_Foster_Dulles_in_1956

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1956

On August 2, 1957, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a dramatic proposal at the U.N Disarmament Subcommittee conference in London. Negotiations over U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Open Skies plan, first proposed at the July 1955 Geneva summit between leaders of the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, were bogging down over and hopes for a nuclear disarmament agreement were fading.

The original Open Skies plan included two stipulations intended to slow the arms race. First, the Western powers (primarily the U.S.) and the Soviets would exchange maps indicating the exact locations of each of their military installations. Next, each nation would be allowed to conduct aerial surveillance of those installations to verify compliance with any agreements on nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev rejected the proposal, refusing to allow Western surveillance of his country in what he termed an “espionage plot”. Eisenhower wasn’t surprised. He had never expected the Soviets to agree to the plan. By their non-cooperation, he hoped to paint the Soviet Union as the aggressor in the Cold War conflict. In truth, the Soviets didn’t want the West to find out how far behind they were in nuclear weapon development.

Negotiations continued and stalled. Then, at the U.N. conference in London, Secretary of State Dulles made a startling offer sweetening the deal. The Daily News-Telegram of Sulphur Springs, Texas ran the following from the Associated Press wire:

 “Secretary of State Dulles has submitted a new and far-reaching proposal in an attempt to break the East-West deadlock at the London disarmament conference.

“Dulles proposed in London today that all of the United Stated, all of Russia, and most of Europe be open to aerial and ground inspection against a sneak nuclear attack.

“Under the Western – and basically, American – plan, Russian planes would be permitted to fly over the U.S. and Western territory. Russian ground inspectors would be permitted to check U.S. seaports, rail junctions, main highways, and air fields.

“The Western powers would have similar rights throughout the Soviet Union.”

Khrushchev also rejected this new proposal for inspections on the ground. An Open Skies plan would remain up in the air until March of 1992, when a revived proposal spearheaded by President George H. W. Bush was approved by members of NATO and the Warsaw pact. The Open Skies Treaty took effect in 2002, with currently 34 nation-states participating in, as former President Ronald Reagan phrased it, a process to “trust, but verify”.

Image Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

July 30, 1957 – The First Pilotless Helicopter Flight

Kaman HTK-1K Drone

Kaman HTK-1K Drone, the “Yellow Peril”

On July 30, 1957, a modified Kaman HTK-1K helicopter successfully lifted off under remote control.  Nicknamed the “Yellow Peril”, the copter was manufactured by Kaman Aerospace of Bloomfield, Connecticut.  It was developed as part of a continuing program by the United States military and its aerospace contractors to create drone helicopters capable of delivering weapons such as torpedoes.

The HTK-1K was 14 feet high, 38 feet long, and had a rotor with a 40-foot span.  It was powered by a single 450-horsepower Lycoming engine and had a top speed of 72 mph.  The series of tests the US Navy conducted with the HTK-1K led it to develop the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter program, or DASH.  The Gyrodyne Company of Long Island eventually won the contract to develop the DASH, which would become a cheap and unmanned method to deliver conventional and nuclear anti-submarine weapons at great range and without risk to military personnel.

Image Credit: W. Mutza/National Museum of Naval Aviation