Thursday, August 23, 2012


I have recently acquired a collection of documents on the General Electric Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion (GE-ANP) program, an ill-fated 1950s effort to build a nuclear-powered airplane.   Someday I'm going to write an entire TMMAM - or a book - about the project, but here's the short version: the project was initiated in 1946 as NEPA, Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft, a feasibility study run by Fairchild.   Despite the skepticism of many in the atomic science community, NEPA, along with an independent review board called the Lexington Project, concluded an A-plane was feasible.   In the early 50s NEPA was phased out and replaced by ANP, a joint USAF-AEC effort to develop such a plane.

There were two main contractors, GE and Pratt & Whitney, each with a different approach.   GE focused on developing a direct-cycle engine in which air from the turbojet would pass directly through a reactor to produce thrust.   Pratt & Whitney aimed to develop an indirect-cycle engine, in which a liquid-metal coolant would carry heat from the reactor to a heat exchanger in the turbojet.   Most of the information I've found so far relates to the GE effort, which got quite a bit further, including running several atomic-powered turbojets in static tests.   Pratt & Whitney, among other things, developed a reactor design that would eventually evolve into the Molten Salt Reactor, better known today as the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor.

The project, after many ups and downs, was eventually shuttered in 1961 for a variety of reasons.   When the program was shut down GE produced a series of 21 comprehensive technical reports, detailing every phase of the project, as a sort of cheat sheet in case the government ever decided to reactivate the project.   What I've acquired is two of those reports and two-thirds of a third: APEX-901, Project Summary; APEX-910, Application Studies; and Parts B & C of APEX-908, the XNJ140E nuclear turbojet, the final incarnation of the system.   I've gotten these through the "adopt-a-doc" system, so two of them are already available on the Department of Energy's Information Bridge server (APEX-901, APEX-908C), and the other two should show up tomorrow.   Be warned: these are big pdfs!

So what's in these documents?   Let's take a look!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Congratulations to Curiosity

Congratulations to Curiosity and the team at NASA for a successful landing on the Red Planet!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Nation's Cockpit

Those Magnificent Men and their Atomic Machines

The Nation's Cockpit: The DUCC and Decision-Making Under Nuclear Attack

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and the world changed forever.

Sputnik was not just a technological and political triumph; it was a military threat. A rocket that can carry a satellite into orbit can also carry a nuclear weapon to the United States. The American military and public had known of the theoretical possibility of a nuclear-armed intercontinental rocket since 1945, but the threat had been abstract, unreal, until the Soviet's bleeping aluminum ball passed overhead.

Before the ICBM, the United States could rely on the Distant Early Warning RADAR line to provide at least two hours of warning time of an attack. There would be enough time for the president to be woken from sleep, briefed, and evacuated. More importantly, there would be enough time for the president to decide – to decide if the US was going to war. In two hours, equipment can be checked and errors corrected; explanations can be demanded of the Soviet embassy. Even if a mistake was made, the Strategic Air Command B-52s took hours to reach its targets and could be recalled.

An ICBM would arrive 15 to 25 minutes after being spotted on RADAR. Fifteen minutes to decide the fate of millions. And ICBMs cannot be called back – once the president ordered a counterstrike, it could not be rescinded.

This was wholly unacceptable. What if there was a mistake? What if the launch was accidental, or a rogue general, or even a third party trying to provoke a war? The president had to survive long enough to reach a measured decision. The issue was not the personal survival of the president. The issue was the continuity of the national decision-making system, ensuring that SAC would be neither paralyzed nor forced into automatic retaliation.

Two solutions were considered: mobility and hardness. Mobility meant keeping the president on the move, on plane or train or ship, so that the Soviets could not find and kill him. Hardness meant burying the president, deep under ground, deeper than even a nuclear weapon could reach.

The ultimate “hard” proposal was the Deep Underground Command Center, or DUCC. Buried a full 3,500 feet under Washington, D.C., the DUCC was designed to survive multiple direct hits from 300 megaton nuclear weapons. Deep under the charred remains of the nation's capitol, the president and his advisors could assess the situation, communicate with our allies, and direct our military forces to an appropriate response.