Friday, July 20, 2012

Happy Moonwalk Day

43 years ago today, a human being stood for the first time on the Moon.

This should really be a national holiday, so I've decided to treat it as one.   Didn't think of it until too late to do anything fancy, but we went out for ice cream, and I'm watching the Japanese rocket launch of the HTV-3 cargo vehicle on NASA TV.   And I'm having fun thinking about what to do next year.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Atomic Subterrene

Those Magnificent Men and Their Atomic Machines

The Atomic Subterrene

The Atomic Subterrene is a very atompunkish name. It sounds like a gadget Tom Swift might invent, and which would then be stolen by vaguely Slavic communists. It doesn't help that, if you google it, you'll find several hundred webpages of nonsense using pictures of the New York subway to explain how the elites are building secret underground clubhouses to ride out 2012.

But, for all the silliness that seems to attach to the name, the atomic subterrene was a very real, very serious idea, developed by Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) in the 1970s. It was a startlingly simple proposition: rather than drill through rock, the atomic subterrene would use heat from a nuclear reactor to melt through it, digging wider tunnels faster and more efficiently than a conventional Tunnel-Boring Machine.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Nukes on Ice

Those Magnificent Men and Their Atomic Machines

Nukes on Ice: ICEWORM and the Army's Quest for Strategic Nuclear Weapons

In the late 50s and early 60s, the US military faced a major problem. The Soviet Union had begun to deploy nuclear-armed ballistic missiles with intercontinental range. The ICBM was the dreadnought of the early Cold War: a radically new technology that made the previous methods of delivering hellfire, via cruise missiles and manned bombers, obsolete.

The US built its own ICBMs in response, Atlas and Titan, and eventually Minuteman. But, in the eyes of the US Army, these missiles had two major failings. First, they were deployed in relatively “soft” shelters that were vulnerable to a near-miss from a nuclear warhead, and only protected by the enemy's inaccuracy. Missile accuracy was only going to improve, and it was clear that, if the missiles remained as they were, the USSR would eventually be able to target and destroy them in a first strike. Second, and even more worryingly, Atlas and Titan were marked with a blue SAC stripe, which struck the US Army as completely unacceptable.

This question of ownership may strike the modern reader as a petty complaint, but it was a matter of the utmost importance to the Army. The 50s were the years of Massive Retaliation and nuclear everything, when the US built an atomic arsenal so we wouldn't need a conventional one. The Army's missile programs, like the Jupiter Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBMs), were being taken away and given to the Air Force and NASA. The Army's budget had fallen to less than a quarter of total defense spending, and the service feared being reduced to security guards for missile bases. Or worse: according to some analysts, the Army's only real purpose was to be killed in a Soviet invasion of Europe, thereby ensuring the Soviets wouldn't be able to use nuclear blackmail to keep the US from intervening. Dying ingloriously did not appeal to the Army leadership as a military strategy.

Therefore, if the Army aspired to be more than a speedbump, they needed their own strategic nuclear weapons. The Army had tactical nukes in plenty, but it needed a way back in to the field of long-range, strategic missiles. Enter ICEWORM.

ICEWORM was proposed by the Army Engineer Studies Center in 1960. ICEWORM would consist of 600 “ICEMAN” Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) stationed in thousands of miles of tunnels to be dug under the Greenland ice cap. The ice would both keep the Soviets from locating the missiles, and act as armor even if they did. ICEWORM would, according to the Army, be less vulnerable than the Air Force's missile silos, have more secure communications than the Navy's Polaris submarines, and be more accurate and have greater yield than any of its service competitors.

Monday, July 2, 2012

To Peoria by Atom

Those Magnificent Men and their Atomic Machines

To Peoria by Atom: Atomic-Powered Locomotives

It was 1954, nine years since the birth of the Atomic Age, three years since the first electricity was generated by atomic energy. The US Navy would launch the world's first atomic submarine next year, and the US Air Force would soon test the first atomic turbojet for aircraft propulsion. Other programs aimed to build atomic-powered aircraft carrierscargo shipsrockets – and trains.

In the early years of the atomic age, atomic energy was seen as a technology analogous to the steam engine or the internal combustion engine, a new source of power that would naturally make its predecessors obsolete. Shielding requirements might make atomic-powered cars or kitchen appliances impractical, but it undoubtedly could and would be used for propulsion. First there would be ships and submarines, where size and weight was less of an issue. Then there would be planes and trains. This was simply the natural progression of technological development. Safety was a solvable problem, and cost would go down as more experience was gained and atomic reactors began to be mass-produced. The future was bright, lit by the atom's friendly glow.