nuclear weapons

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

October 23, 1957 – Vanguard’s TV-2 Launched From Cape Canaveral

Vanguard Rocket Launch. Photo: United States Navy

On October 23, 1957, the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Vanguard program successfully tested a three-stage rocket designed to send an American Earth satellite into orbit.  The recent launch of the Soviet Union’s rocket bearing the first Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, created a sense of urgency for the U.S. to catch up with their Cold War nemesis, and the original timetable for American satellite deployment was put on a fast track.

In 1955, the United States government announced plans to create and successfully place an Earth satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year, running from July, 1957 through December of 1958.  Consequently, three branches of the armed services – the Army, Air Force, and Navy – all independently pursued their own rocket-development programs.  The Army’s Redstone project and the Air Force’s Atlas ballistic missiles were military in nature and of a top priority.  The NRL was always viewed more as a scientific organization and Vanguard was emphasized as a non-military project.

Two NRL program launches took place before October 23rd’s blast-off.  TV-0, launched December 8, 1956, tested telemetry systems, and TV-1 on May 1, 1957, tested the separation and subsequent second-stage ignition capabilities of the two-stage rocket design.  Several abortive attempts occurred over the summer of 1957, before TV-2 was able to test the 75 feet tall, 3.74 foot diameter, 22,156 pound, three-stage version.  TV-2 successfully demonstrated Vanguard’s ability for first-second stage separation and “spin-up” of the third stage.  Stages 1 and 2 were steered by gimbaled engines.  The third stage was “spin-stabilized, the spin being imparted by a turn-table on the second stage before separation”.  The engines worked, the turn-table worked, the telemetry and separation systems worked, but American rockets were still incapable of packing a satellite aboard.

Fast-tracking the Vanguard project in response to the threat posed by Sputnik resulted in disappointments and set-backs before achieving its ultimate goal.  Next test reservation date for Cape Canaveral’s LC-18A pad would be December 6th.  The suspense was mounting.

October 12, 1957 – General George Kenney on the Mike Wallace Interview Show

General George Kenney. Photo: US Air Force

General George Kenney. Photo: US Air Force

On October 12, 1957, Mike Wallace opened his Interview television broadcast with the following dramatic words:

“Tonight we had planned to interview one of the great fighters of our time, Sugar Ray Robinson.  But because of the alarming turn in world events this week, Sugar Ray has consented to a postponement of his interview so that tonight we can go after the story of the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for control of outer space.”

Instead of a champion of the boxing ring, Mike hosted a champion of World War II’s war on Japan: retired Air Force General George Kenney, Commander of Allied Air Forces under General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific.  MacArthur said about Kenney: “General Kenney has no superior as an air commander.  His creative imagination and his brilliant leadership mark him as one of the unique figures in aviation.”  Wallace also credited Kenney with “a reputation as a fearless military analyst”.

The alarming world event Wallace was referring to was the recent successful launch of the USSR satellite, Sputnik 1.  Mike lost no time in getting right to the point with Kenney: How serious was the threat posed by Sputnik, and how should the United States – and the world – respond?

Kenney, his words and manner confirming him to be a principled man of demonstrated ability, succinctly and persuasively made the following points:

  • The successful launch of Sputnik 1 proves that the USSR has developed the rocket technology necessary to propel an ICBM into United States air space, posing a serious threat to the security of our nation.
  • America has been too complacent and apathetic about the Soviet ability to develop weapons and produce them in quantity.
  • The day the Soviet political and military staff decide they can win a nuclear war, they’ll pull the trigger.  They follow the teaching of Marx and Lenin, which confirm this world mission.  Khrushchev reiterates this point in every speech he makes.
  • A preventive first strike (Wallace repeatedly proposed this option) is not the answer.  Like the sheriff of our western heritage, don’t shoot the bandit on first sight.  Warn him he has so much time to get out of town, and if he doesn’t leave and reaches for his gun instead, beat him to the draw.
  • We are behind the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons development because the American public has not taken the threat seriously enough.

Kenney, while not eager to lay blame anywhere for the United States’ having fallen behind in the Cold War arms race, stressed that US leaders mostly followed the desires of the electorate, based on the average voter’s priorities.  “If the people of this country really want defense they can have it,” he asserted.  “All they’ve got to do it demand it.  The feeling in Washington is that they wanted the budget balanced, want taxes reduced, they want bigger Social Security benefits,  more pensions, better roads, and all kinds of things.”

Kenney went on to make insightful and cogent remarks on a variety of issues related to American military defense, the performance of key government and military officials, and recent scientific research.  He shared his views on the stance the United Nations should take with member nations headed by dictatorships and explained why, in his opinion, the Russian government newspaper Isvestia had labeled him a “high ranking lunatic”.

General Kenney concluded the interview with a glimpse of his personal integrity.  He explained why he chose not to work for defense contractors after his retirement from the Air Force – “they would expect me to be down in Washington to help them sell their stuff and I couldn’t do that if one of the competitors of the company that I was working for had a better missile or a better engine or a better airplane”.  Kenney, instead, chose to spend part of his retirement contributing his time and talents to a cause he felt passionate about – the Arthritis Foundation.

September 29, 1957 – The Kyshtym Disaster

Map of the Mayak and Kyshtym area, USSR. Image: Jan Rieke, NASA World Wind Screenshot

 

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.