During the early days of the Atomic Age, it seemed like a healthy dose of nuclear power could make everything better. From 1945 until the late sixties, a bold new world powered by the unlimited cheap energy of the atom seemed perpetually just around the corner.
|Image: A is for Atom, Sutherland Productions|
Of course, reality fell a bit short of expectations, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. There were some pretty outlandish experiments that went on, often at secret labs in far-away places. In the middle of it all was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy. They were in charge of the country's nuclear materials, and played a central role in all of the big atomic experiments of the time. Some of the experiments got pretty extreme.
5: Nuclear Fracking
|Another Plowshare shot, Sedan, tested to see if a nuclear|
bomb could be used for different kinds of mining
and earthmoving. Instead, radioactive contamination
spread across the country.
Image: Department of Energy
It wasn't the first time the AEC had tried such a swap. They'd been working on the overarching Operation Plowshare since 1961, which tried developing peaceful uses for the atomic bomb. They wanted to see if it could supplant dynamite as the ultimate earthmover. One untried proposal suggested blowing out an artificial harbor using several massive explosions.
The AEC tried extracting natural gas with bombs three times, twice in Colorado and once in New Mexico. Though the bombs did a fine job of shaking loose methane from underground reserves, but the tests were ultimately failures because the extracted gas was too radioactive to use.
4: Nuke the Sky
First came a series of high altitude tests in early August of 1958. Part of Operation Hardtack, the three tests shot bombs as high as 76 kilometers high over the South Atlantic. Later that month, Operation Argus went even higher. Missiles carried small bombs as high as 530 kilometers into the air and created a new layer of radiation around the planet for a few weeks.
|The aurora caused by the radiation of Starfish Prime.|
Image: Department of Energy
The explosion and resulting radiation also created an artificial belt of radiation in space. It ringed the planet and irradiated a many of the low-orbiting satellites of the day. The radiation wreaked havoc with the first communication satellite Telstar, cutting short its operational life to less than one year.
3: Atomic Jetplanes
|A B-36 bomber specially modified to test if it could safely carry a nuclear reactor.|
Image: U.S. Air Force
|In the direct drive nuclear jet engine, compressed|
air would flow directly over the hot reactor.
Lightweight, but very dangerous.
Image: The Department of Energy.
engine, air flowing into it would be compressed by turbines. Once it entered the engine's combustion chambers, extreme heat caused the air would expand quickly and be forced out the back, pushing the plane forward. In the nuclear version of the engine, white-hot nuclear rods would take the place of exploding jet fuel .
In this first design, compressed air would flow directly over the hot reactor. This one was was lightweight but left behind a trail of potentially deadly radiation. The second design was heavier, but much safer. It used liquid metal to transfer the heat from the reactor to the air in the engine's combustion chambers, without needing to directly expose the reactor core to the atmosphere directly.
No airplane was built that was actually powered by a nuclear reactor, but they did conduct tests to see if a plane could lift a reactor, and still have enough shielding to protect the crew from radiation. The Air Force modified a B-36 bomber in 1955 to carry a small nuclear reactor in its cargo bay. It wasn't hooked up to anything and didn't power the flight, but it showed that it could be carried and the crew could be protected. The program was canceled in 1962 once rocket technology started to supplant the need for continuously flying airplanes.
2: Atomic Powered Rocket
|Schematic of a nuclear powered rocket engine. Image: NASA Archives|
|Kiwi was the name of one of the nuclear rockets|
successfully tested in the 1960s. Image: NASA Archives
The idea is remarkably simple. First, a white-hot nuclear reactor core would be pumped full of liquid hydrogen. The liquid would heat up, rapidly expand while converting into a gas, and shoot out of the nozzle of the rocket, pushing the spacecraft forward. Hydrogen is the lightest element, so it can be propelled out the back faster than the heaver elements from the exhaust of chemical explosions. The faster gas shoots backwards, the more the rocket thrusts forward.
And it all worked surprisingly well. Tests of the full size engines showed that nuclear rockets had almost double the efficiency of chemical rockets. Altogether, the various designs racked up 17 hours of firing time.
Though the engine worked, the need for it evaporated by the early '70s. It was clear that there weren't going to be Mars missions any time soon, so the program was shut down for good early in 1973.
1: Atomic Bomb Powered Rocket
|Plan for a nuclear bomb propelled rocket.|
Image: NASA Archives
The crazy thing is that using H-bombs to push a spacecraft is basically sound. The ship's design called for a giant "pusher-plate" with huge shock absorbers to catch the thrust of the exploding bomb. If built right, each blast would only incinerate a millimeter of the plate, which could be replaced with a new thick coat of paint every little while. The tricky part was building a gigantic 70-foot wide space craft full of H-bombs and putting that into space.
The design team was headed by maverick physicist Freeman Dyson working at General Atomics in La Jolla California. They boasted they could reach Saturn by 1970. Of course, no one ever got close to building the full sized space ship, but they went as far as contacting the Coca-Cola company to design a mechanism for vending the hydrogen bombs. They also conducted lots of small scale tests using ordinary chemical explosives as a proof of concept.