With the signing of the Nuclear Treaty by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, I thought I would bring up another little known trivia subject of the Atomic Age. So gather around children, Grandpa’s got another Atomic Aesop tale to tell…..bwahhhahahah!!!
The year was 1957. The Soviets had just launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. Circling the earth in orbit. Reminding panicked Americans everyday with its “beep… beep… beep” radio signals. Fearing that the Soviets were way ahead in the missile technology, Pentagon planners felt that they needed something spectacular, stupendous, something to leapfrog way ahead in delivering death and destruction to the enemy.
So they came up with this nightmarish weapon so hideous and evil that it was the named after the Roman mythological god Pluto, the ruler of Hades. It’s purpose would be to deliver hell on earth.
Project Pluto, also known as S.L.A.M, was a pilot-less supersonic low altitude missile, a locomotive-size missile with a flying range of over 2 times around the world. It would travel at near-treetop level at three times the speed of sound, tossing out megaton sized hydrogen bombs as it roared overhead, something akin to a newspaper delivery boy delivering papers to homes along his newspaper route.
Pluto’s designers calculated that its sonic boom shock wave alone would kill people on the ground as it flew overhead. In addition, because the engine of this hell-machine was an unshielded nuclear powered ram-jet releasing gamma and neutron radiation from its unshielded nuclear reactor, Pluto would leave a trail of radiation that would kill everything underneath its flying path long after its flight was finished, sort of like how the Romans salted the earth so nothing would grow. When the missile finally ran out of nuclear fuel, long after delivering it’s megatons of H-bombs along its 12,000 miles zig-zag path, it would be sent crashing into its final target as a highly radioactive coup de grâce.
On January 1, 1957, the U.S. Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission picked the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located just over the hills from Berkeley, California, as Pluto’s home. Since Congress had recently given a joint project to build an atom-powered rocket to Livermore’s arch rival, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the assignment came as welcome news.
Because of its combination of high speed and low altitude, Pluto promised to get through to targets that manned bombers and even ballistic missiles might not be able to reach. What weaponeers call “robustness” was another important advantage. “Pluto was about as durable as a bucket of rocks,” says one who worked on the project. It was because of the missile’s low complexity and high durability that physicist Ted Merkle, the project’s director, called it “the flying crowbar.”
Because the efficiency of a nuclear ramjet increases with temperature, “the hotter, the better” became Merkle’s motto for the reactor, code-named “Tory.” So Tory’s operating temperature was established at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. But a problem was that even high-temperature alloys would become white-hot and lose structural strength at that temperature. So Merkle asked a Colorado-based porcelain company named Coors to manufacture ceramic fuel elements that could stand the heat and provide even temperature distribution in the reactor. Coors porcelain company had been making porcelain for large brewing vats. They later would get into the actual beer brewing business.
Pluto’s reactor would become intensely radioactive when given a test run, so a fully automated railroad had to be constructed to move the reactor the nearly two miles that separated the static test stand from the massive disassembly building, where the “hot” reactor would be taken apart and examined by remote control. Scientists from Livermore would watch the reactor tests on television in a tin shed located far away from the test stand and equipped, just in case, with a fallout shelter containing a two-week supply of food and water.
Finally, a test of nuclear powered engine, Tory-IIC, shattered the desert calm. Tory-IIC was run again the following week for five minutes at full power, producing 513 megawatts and the equivalent of over 35,000 pounds of thrust; less radiation escaped in the reactor stream than had been expected. The test was witnessed — at a safe distance — by dozens of admiring AEC officials and Air Force generals.
Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Pluto’s sponsors were having second thoughts about the project. Since the missile would be launched from U.S. territory and had to fly low over America’s allies in order to avoid detection on its way to the Soviet Union, some military planners began to wonder if it might not be almost as much a threat to the allies. Even before it began dropping bombs on our enemies Pluto would have deafened, flattened, and irradiated our friends.
The noise level on the ground as Pluto went by overhead was expected to be about 150 decibels; by comparison, the Saturn V rocket, which sent astronauts to the moon, produced 200 decibels at full thrust. Ruptured eardrums, of course, would have been the least of your problems if you were unlucky enough to be underneath the unshielded reactor when it went by, literally roasting and radiating everything underneath.
Pluto had begun to look like an unleashable monster, something like a modern day Kraken….with rabies!
Another concern was that if something went wrong with the guidance system, because it flew so low and was fully automated, there would be nothing they could do to stop it until it went the distance. Accidentally becoming a flying Frankenstein monster, dropping 40 or so H-BOMBS and radiating a wide path all over America would probably get somebody fired at the Pentagon.
On July 1, 1964, seven years and six months after it was born, Project Pluto was cancelled by the AEC and Air Force. At a country club near Livermore, a “last supper” was given for those who had worked on the project, where SLAM tie tacks and bottles of “Pluto” mineral water were handed out as souvenirs. The total cost of the project had been $260 million, in the pre-inflationary dollar of the day. At its peak,Pluto had employed some 350 people at the lab and an additional 100 at Nevada’s Site 401.