nuclear weapons

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.

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: Photo Source RKK Energia and russianspaceweb.com.

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 Sputnick 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.