Heating Up The Cold War
It was mid-June of 1952, and President Harry Truman was at the Electric Boat Company shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. Off to his side lay a huge, bright yellow steel plate that was to become part of the keel of a new submarine. Truman gave a speech, and then a crane lifted the plate and laid it before him. He walked down a few steps and chalked his initials on its surface, whereupon a welder stepped forward and burned them into the steel. The USS Nautilus , the world’s first nuclear submarine, was under construction.
At that moment the Korean War was under way. For the United States the struggle was proving to resemble the Pacific war of nearly a decade earlier. Jet planes ruled the skies, but otherwise the weaponry was essentially the same. The B-29, with its four piston-driven engines, was still the standard Air Force bomber, and the massive air raids against Pyongyang recalled the destruction of Tokyo. At sea the Navy was operating the battleships, cruisers, and submarines of the last war.
Yet less than a decade later, the basic principles of American defense would be undergoing the most sweeping of transformations. The nuclear sub would be on its way to becoming the Navy’s most important craft, supplanting even the aircraft carrier, and—equipped with long-range Polaris missiles- would provide a means to destroy the Soviet Union that could not be countered or even detected. On land the Air Force’s ballistic missiles—Atlas, Titan, and Thor—would offer a similar prospect of sudden and devastating strikes. Meanwhile, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the first of an even more advanced type of missile, the quickfiring, solid-fueled Minuteman, would be undergoing flight tests.
The shift would be under way from delivering ordnance near the point of attack from planes, ships, and artillery to delivering it from subs and silos hundreds or thousands of miles away. Although America’s armaments of the early 1950s, and the strategies behind them, were those of World War II, within ten years they looked very much as they do today.
This shift took place during the Presidency of Dwight Elsenhower. Yet there would prove to be great symbolism in the fact that it was Truman laying that keel plate. His administration had prepared much of the technical groundwork for the weapons revolution, sowing the seeds that Ike would reap. And the Nautilus , the work of the Navy’s Capt. Hyman Rickover, would be more than just an essential component of these changes. It would stand as a demonstration of how a few brilliant people could creatively seize vast opportunities.RICKOVER
Nothing as specific as a nuclear submarine was in the minds of the Navy’s senior commanders immediately after World War II, when they began to consider the possibilities of atomic fission. They envisioned only a succession of experimental projects, at least for some time into the future. But an advance at flank speed, leading to real fighting ships powered by the atom, quickly became Hyman Rickover’s personal agenda.
Rickover knew that a nuclear-powered submarine would have enormous advantages over conventional ones. The submarines of World War II ran on a combination of diesel and electric power. The diesel engines were fired up upon surfacing, and they both propelled the craft and charged its batteries. Below the sea a submarine had to rely on battery power. This limited underwater speeds to a maximum of eight or nine knots; more important, it meant that a submarine could stay submerged only until its batteries ran out. At peak speeds this could be as little as one hour.
A nuclear submarine, its reactors driving steam-turbine engines, not only would go faster—cruising at speeds of twenty knots—but would be able to stay submerged for weeks at a time, with purification equipment providing oxygen for the crew to breathe. Few had the vision to see that far ahead, but Hyman Rickover did, and he had the tenacity to make his vision a reality. His start came in 1946 with an assignment to the Oak Ridge nuclear laboratory, where he was to take part in designing an experimental reactor. (Many scientists from Oak Ridge would later follow Rickover to his submarinereactor group.)
Rickover was an Annapolis graduate, but definitely not one to play the social games of the officers’ club. He was already known as a plainspoken man who would set his own standards of excellence and insist that they be met. He had made his name during the war as head of the electrical section in the Bureau of Ships (BuShips), a post that in other hands might have involved no more than administering contracts and keeping track of schedules. He had built up a staff of the best engineers he could find, both naval and civilian. He inspected every war-damaged ship he could visit, to learn how electrical equipment was standing up to combat, and he uncovered scores of deficiencies: circuit breakers that popped open at the firing of a ship’s guns, cables that leaked and carried water to switchboards, junction boxes that emitted poisonous gases in a fire.
His staffers not only designed new types of equipment but even developed basic engineering data on such topics as shock resistance. Rickover picked the contractors who would build the equipment, worked with them closely, and made sure that their products would be ready on time and meet his demanding specifications. He would use the same methods as head of the Navy’s nuclear program.
Of course no such program existed right after the war, and no one anywhere had even built the kind of reactor a Navy nuclear program would need. The wartime Manhattan Project had used low-power atomic piles to produce plutonium. A high-power reactor, capable of driving a ship, would be a completely different matter, requiring new engineering knowledge. Rickover thus had a threefold task: to set up a department with the necessary authority; to gain the technical understanding that would make his reactors feasible; and to overcome bureaucratic inertia, pushing ahead far more rapidly than many of his superiors thought possible. And he would have to do these things while holding no higher rank than captain.
It helped that he had strong support from the chief of BuShips from 1946 to 1949, Vice Adm. Earle Mills. In August 1948, after a year of militarycivilian bickering and turf wars, Mills set up within his bureau a new Nuclear Power Branch, which would develop into the core of Rickover’s organizational empire. But this naval office could do little on its own; the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 had specified that the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a civilian agency, would have the prime responsibility for developing nuclear power. The AEC originally tried to concentrate on peaceful uses of nuclear power, but the needs of the military were pressing; it soon established an office to develop reactors for submarine propulsion, while the Navy designed the submarines themselves. By early 1949 the AEC’s Naval Reactors Branch was in business, and Rickover was running it. He thus was wearing two hats, naval and civilian.
Such an arrangement might have diluted his authority amid endless committees, but characteristically he made it into a source of strength. If he ran into an obstacle within the Navy, he could always don his AEC hat and try anew within that agency. He found that the AEC would give him considerable leeway as a Navy man, and vice versa. He would even draft letters for his boss at the commission to sign, requesting naval help, and then draft the approving letter for Mills’s signature at BuShips.
Within this dual office Rickover sought to sweep away distinctions based on hierarchy, whether military or civilian. He knew only too well how naval officers could pull rank to get their way, and he wanted to ensure that all decisions were based on technical merit. He thus sponsored a major educational program for his staff, arranging for courses in nuclear science. He also encouraged vigorous debate over technical issues at free-for-all staff meetings and made sure that everyone had the license to declare that the emperor had no clothes. If you worked for Rickover, you had no time for protocol or organization charts; what mattered was what you knew and how much responsibility you could take.
From the outset Rickover had to watch out for two pitfalls. The first he knew from his wartime days: not to assume that industrial contractors were fully capable, His people would have to do far more than merely sign off on routine paperwork. The second pitfall was peculiar to the nuclear community. It was top-heavy with physicists more interested in research than in practical engineering. Thus, when the principal AEC contracts went to such monoliths as General Electric and Westinghouse, Rickover took care to direct some of their effort into accumulating data for engineering handbooks that would form a foundation for the technology. His reactors would rely on exotic materials—zirconium, hafnium, beryllium, liquid sodium—and he made sure that the necessary know-how would be as solidly established as the production facilities.
Under traditional procedures Rickover would have had the AEC build a succession of test reactors, eventually using one in an experimental vessel. The Navy, in its own good time, might then have gotten around to setting forth requirements for an actual nuclear-powered fighting ship. But Rickover insisted that there must be only a single test reactor, Mark I. (In fact, Rickover’s group pursued two independent prototypes, Mark I and Mark A. The former was water-cooled; the latter got its power from more energetic neutrons and used liquid sodium as a coolant. Mark A ultimately formed the basis for the Seawolf class of submarines, but it took longer to develop.) As far as possible Mark I would be the same as the succeeding operational version, Mark II; in Rickover’s words, “Mark I equals Mark II.” This focus on Mark I would cut years off the program and would enable Rickover, with his two-hat management, to put the Navy on the spot. There would have to be a hull ready to receive Mark II when it was built.
That vessel was to be the Nautilus , and Rickover insisted that it be a real fighting ship, complete with torpedoes. Moreover, to meet his schedule, he wanted the necessary highlevel approvals ready by the spring of 1950. Events lent him a hand, for in August of 1949 the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb. Truman, told of the news, shook his head and asked, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” Finally he said heavily, “This means we have no time left.” Early in 1950 he approved a top-priority effort to develop the hydrogen bomb, a project that had Air Force written all over it. Rickover’s submarine offered the Navy a chance to hitch its own wagon to the nuclear star, and in April the Navy’s general board, which had responsibility for shipbuilding plans, decided that the Nautilus would proceed as Rickover wished.MISSILES
While the Navy was working on submarines, the Air Force and Army were nurturing the concepts that would lead to the long-range missile. The point of departure was the wartime German V-2 rocket, which had struck London by the hundreds during 1944 and 1945. Its designers, led by Wernher von Braun, were guests of the Army at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where in 1946 they began firing captured V-2s while dreaming of better things. They constituted one of three principal groups working in this area.
The second group was at North American Aviation, in the Los Angeles area. It pursued a concept called Navaho, which in its earliest versions was to resemble a V-2 fitted with wings and ramjet engines. The wings would allow it to glide, increasing its range; the ramjets would extend its range further still. The Navaho project was eventually canceled by the Air Force, but it formed the basis for several other types of military and scientific rockets.
The third group was at Convair, in San Diego. Its leader, the Belgian-born Karel Bossart, had a particularly farreaching plan involving three interrelated projects. First there would be an unmanned jet aircraft to test a guidance system. This would be Teetotaler, the only one of the three projects that would not burn alcohol as its fuel. Next would come Old Fashioned, a missile incorporating many new features but still in many ways resembling the V-2. The third project, Manhattan, would be an intercontinental rocket and carry the atomic bomb.
Teetotaler never got anywhere, and Old Fashioned quickly emerged as the centerpiece of the effort. Whereas the V-2 had been built in aircraft fashion, with a framework covered with sheet metal enclosing propellant tanks, Old Fashioned would eliminate the framework and have internal bulkheads walling off sections to serve as the tanks. Nitrogen gas, pressurizing the interior, would give it rigidity and strength, like an inflated automobile tire.
The V-2 had flown in one piece, hurtling through the atmosphere like an arrow. Old Fashioned, by contrast, would carry its payload in a nose cone that would detach from the rest of the missile once fuel ran out, avoiding the drag of the empty rocket. Its engines would steer the missile by swiveling on gimbals, to give steady thrust. That would improve on the V-2, which had steered by dipping graphite vanes into its exhaust, a procedure that reduced thrust by up to 17 percent. Old Fashioned was to combine light weight and high performance, using technical features that could later be employed in Manhattan.
There was enough money in the budget for Convair to build three Old Fashioneds, and all of them flew at White Sands during 1948. Hopes were high that the rockets would reach an altitude of a hundred miles, but premature engine cutoffs kept them from topping thirty. Still, the flights sufficed to show that Bossart’s design was basically sound.
Nevertheless, the Air Force, which had been funding the work, declined to follow it up. The reason was that the guidance systems of the day were too inaccurate. Vannevar Bush, the wartime head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, had summed up the matter as early as December 1945: “People have been talking about a 3,000-mile, high-angle rocket, shot from one continent to another, carrying an atomic bomb … which would land exactly on a certain target, such as a city. I say, technically I don’t think anybody in the world knows how to do such a thing, and I feel confident it will not be done for a very long period of time to come. I wish the American public would leave that out of their thinking.”
The first challenge to this conviction emerged in December 1950, when an Air Force study concluded that such significant advances were under way in both rocket engines and guidance systems that a long-range missile might indeed be practical. The report brought new life to Convair’s Manhattan concept, and the following August Manhattan was rechristened Atlas. Atlas, according to Bossart’s new studies, would have the capability of being the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)—one that could cross oceans on an accurate path. It was eventually to carry an 8,000-pound bomb 5,000 nautical miles and strike within 1,500 feet of its target. Under various proposed designs, the rocket would stand as much as 180 feet tall, lifting off with a million pounds of thrust provided by seven engines.
Such a behemoth was far too large for a practical weapon, but there was hope that emerging technology would enable it to be scaled down. Under the Navaho program, North American Aviation was pursuing an alcoholfueled engine of 120,000 pounds’ thrust, which was likely to become an industry standard. And advances in weapon design were promising to shrink the atom bomb to as little as 3,000 pounds. The size and thrust of Atlas could then decrease concomitantly. Between 1952 and 1954, as Elsenhower entered the White House, these hopes were realized to the fullest.THE H-BOMB
Ike’s election coincided with the first test of a true hydrogen bomb, in November 1952. The experiment was called Mike. Its fireball reached a diameter of several miles, spreading so far and fast that it terrified observers who had seen many previous tests, even though the nearest of them were forty miles away. In the words of the weapons physicist Theodore Taylor, it “was so huge, so brutal—as if things had gone too far. When the heat reached the observers, it stayed and stayed, not for seconds but for minutes.” It blew an island completely out of existence as it delivered its yield of 10.4 megatons, nearly a thousand times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
For advocates of Atlas, Mike meant that bombs of arbitrarily great destructive power were at hand. That could vastly ease the problem of missile guidance, because such a warhead might miss by several miles and still wipe out its target. But Mike was not a practical weapon; it was more like a railroad tank car, 22 feet long, 5.5 feet wide, and weighing more than 40,000 pounds. It also required refrigeration apparatus weighing 65 tons to keep its liquid tritium and deuterium cold. Could such megaton yields could be had from a design small enough to fly atop an Atlas of reasonable size?
It fell to John Von Neumann, one of the world’s leading mathematicians and physicists, to answer this question. He was an old nuclear hand, having been among the principal designers of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He gathered a review panel that reported in June 1953 that a halfmegaton H-bomb could be made to weigh just 3,000 pounds and could fit in a missile. In September the Air Force Special Weapons Center revised this estimate, stating that bombs with that yield could weigh only 1,500 pounds. That meant Atlas could be reduced to a three-engine rocket of little more than one-third the weight of the 1951 design.
Events quickly accelerated, driven by a new urgency: the Soviets had exploded their own hydrogen bomb, and intelligence estimates pointed to a Soviet lead in missile development. Trevor Gardner, a special assistant to Air Force Secretary Harold E. Talbott, responded by having Von Neumann head another panel to review the entire strategic-missile program. The group, codenamed the Teapot Committee, declared that the required accuracy “should be relaxed from the present 1,500 feet to at least two, and probably three, nautical miles.”
The committee’s report came in February 1954. Its message was strongly underscored on March 1 with a test of Bravo, a new lightweight, high-yield H-bomb using lithium deuteride, which needed no refrigeration. Bravo yielded fifteen megatons, more than even Mike, and could be delivered by air. It was abundantly clear now that small bombs could become destructive enough to make pinpoint accuracy unnecessary. Armed with this knowledge, less than three weeks later Talbott directed an immediate and major step-up in Atlas development. Gardner described this as “the maximum effort possible with no limitation as to funding.” In mid-May the Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, granted Atlas the Air Force’s highest priority for funding. The break from World War II weapons had been made.
There was more. Wilson decided that the need for an ICBM was so great that the nation could not risk putting all its eggs into the Atlas basket; there would have to be a second ICBM program. This emerged as Titan. The Titan missile would be built with aircraft-type structures rather than Atlas’s pressurized steel shell and by a completely separate set of principal contractors, led by the Glenn L. Martin Company.
Defending against an unknown but potentially terrifying Soviet threat was so urgent that even in a crash program Atlas and Titan would take unacceptably long to build. So the government instituted two more programs to build stopgap missiles of 1,500-mile range more quickly. These missiles, to be based in Europe, were the Air Force’s Thor, built by Douglas Aircraft, and the Army’s Jupiter, designed by von Braun’s group, which had moved from White Sands to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.
Thus by 1954 the United States was going full throttle with four nuclearmissile programs: intercontinental Atlas and Titan (both Air Force) and intermediate-range Thor (Air Force) and Jupiter (Army). In both categories the government was banking on diversity and competition, hoping that having separate programs would create interservice and intercompany rivalries and spur project workers to greater achievement.PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
The development of these projects called for far more than just money; there were wrenching technical difficulties. At the top of the list was the re-entry problem. Near the end of its flight a warhead would re-enter the atmosphere at up to 16,000 miles an hour, carrying enough energy to vaporize five times its weight in iron. Its front end would face temperatures hotter than the sun’s surface. How could it survive?
An initial answer came in 1951 in a classified document from two scientists, H. Julian Allen and Alfred Eggers, of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. They calculated that if a nose cone was blunt enough, the adjacent airflow would carry away virtually all the heat, leaving only one part in two hundred to sink into the warhead. Soon Arthur Kantrowitz, a Cornell University physicist who would be dubbed “Mr. Nose Cone” by Time magazine, gave experimental data leading to the “heat sink” concept, in which a missile’s front end would be made of solid copper—heavy but able to absorb the heat. Kantrowitz later developed a lightweight “ablative” nose cone that carried away the heat by actually letting its outer layers slowly vaporize. But heat-sink designs were good enough for the early missile flights.
Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Jupiter were all liquid-fueled. They ran on kerosene (or similar hydrocarbons) and liquid oxygen, which offered high energy and accurate control. But rocket engines were a plumber’s nightmare, and the propellants took time to load, time that would be in very short supply during a Soviet attack. (Liquid oxygen could not be stored in the rockets because it would evaporate.) A solidpropellant rocket, on the other hand, would come with its fuel in place, ready to be fired at a moment’s notice, and would theoretically be far simpler to design and operate.
Such weapons had been in use for centuries; fueled with black powder, they had produced Francis Scott Key’s “rockets’ red glare” during the War of 1812. The propellants of World War II often used a potent solid mix of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose, but the resulting charges of fuel tended to develop cracks and then explode. This could be prevented only by fabricating the charges in modest sizes, and so the largest such rocket of the war, Germany’s Rheinbote, had no more than 539 pounds of fuel in a single chunk.
The path toward solid-fueled rockets of large size proved to lie in a liquid polysulfide polymer called Thiokol, produced by a struggling firm known as Thiokol Chemical Corporation. It could easily be cured into a solvent-resistant synthetic rubber, and during World War II it had found use sealing aircraft fuel tanks. After 1945 this market disappeared, and business was so slow that almost any small order would draw the attention of Thiokol’s president, Joseph Crosby. When he learned in 1946 that the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was buying five- and tengallon lots in a steady stream, he became interested enough to fly out and see what its people were up to. He found that a rocket-research group was mixing the polymer with an oxidizer and adding powdered aluminum for extra energy, then using the result as a propellant. What was more, the group was on its way toward using this propellant in ways that would make possible long-range solid-fuel rockets.
Crosby soon decided that with help from the Army, he would go into the rocket business himself. The Army could spare only $250,000 to help Thiokol get started, but to him this was big money. Then in 1950, at the start of the Korean War, Army Ordnance awarded Thiokol a contract to build a rocket called Hermes with 5,000 pounds of propellant. Hermes was a demonstration project, meant to show that solid fuel could work in a large-scale rocket. It was successfully fired the following year, and with this the prospect was at hand for solid fuels that could challenge the liquids.MISSILES AT SEA
The Army and Air Force were still fully committed to liquid fuels, but within the Navy a few people were open to the new possibilities presented by solids. The Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) was developing submarinelaunched cruise missiles—small, unmanned aircraft that would fly over short ranges under the control of advanced autopilots. In 1954 two BuAer scientists, Robert Freitag and Abraham Hyatt, decided to lobby for a ballistic-missile program with long-range rockets. Such a program could give the Navy a striking power comparable to the Air Force’s. And with the missiles carried in nuclear submarines, such a force could stay at sea for long periods—mobile, difficult to detect, and nearly invulnerable.
Freitag and Hyatt soon won support from James R. Killian, president of MIT and an influential adviser to Eisenhower. They also gained strong backing from their superior, the chief of BuAer, Rear Adm. James Russell. Then, in August 1955, these two were joined by the heaviest of naval guns, Adm. Arleigh Burke, a wartime destroyerman who took over as chief of naval operations and endorsed the new con- cept within a week.
The next move lay with Defense Secretary Wilson, who promptly put the Navy in bed with the Army. Amid furious interservice rivalries, he wanted to keep budgets under control, and he and Ike agreed that no new rocket programs must be started beyond the four already being funded. In November Wilson approved the Navy’s ballistic-missile proposal but directed Burke to use someone else’s rocket. The only choices were the two 1,500mile missiles, Thor and Jupiter. The lesser of these evils was the Army’s liquid-fueled Jupiter, not for technical reasons but because Army officials feared that Wilson would cancel their program. This encouraged them to hold their noses and work with the admirals.
Navy officials were frank in stating that they would switch to solid fuel as soon as such a move was technically feasible. The first step, completed early in 1956, was to commission a study of a solid-fueled missile with the performance of Jupiter. It proved to be a monster, 44 feet long and 10 feet in diameter, weighing 160,000 pounds. A follow-up study examined the feasibility of shrinking major components, including the nose cone and guidance system. This produced a far more encouraging conclusion: Such a missile could weigh 30,000 pounds. The question then was the same that had faced Atlas: Could the missile’s nuclear warheads be similarly shrunk while preserving a useful yield?
The physicist Edward Teller, a coinventor of the hydrogen bomb, believed that while such shrinking was not yet possible in 1956, the trend of nuclear development would permit it in due time. Early in September the AEC confirmed Teller’s prediction, stating that a suitable warhead could weigh as little as 600 pounds. With this estimate the Navy could make a new pitch to Secretary Wilson. This time, though, it had a sweetener: a projection that the new missile program would save half a billion dollars over the continued use of Jupiters. In December the Secretary gave his approval, ensuring that the nation would now have a fifth long-range missile to go along with Atlas, Titan, Thor, and Jupiter. Its name would be Polaris.
Polaris drew on the technologies supporting the other programs, but it faced a problem peculiar to its alliance with the submarine. Nuclear subs, navigating beneath the sea for long periods, would have to rely on inertial guidance, a system of determining motion and position by using sensitive accelerometers and exquisitely precise gyroscopes. Developing such guidance systems for the missiles themselves was a high priority, and work was under way in that area at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. But missile guidance systems would need to work for only a few minutes; a Ships Inertial Navigation System (SINS) would have to maintain its accuracy for weeks.
Fortunately, the necessary precision could be had by making SINS larger than its missile-borne cousins, because a submarine would offer plenty of room. The first version of such a system made its debut late in 1953. It was tested by being carried in a truck from Boston to Washington, and it gave an error of sixteen miles during the nineteen-hour run, which wasn’t much to brag about. Tests in ships followed, demonstrating some improvement, but it still wasn’t good enough, and it never got past the testing phase. However, there was another major source for inertial guidance, the Autonetics Division of North American Aviation, which had been developing such a system for the Navaho missile program. Navaho would be canceled in 1957, as Secretary Wilson decided that it could not compete in performance with the ICBMs. But by early 1958, with help from Autonetics, SINS was navigating with an accuracy of an eighth of a mile during a sixty-day cruise.
In both the Navy and the Air Force, the emphasis was very much on accomplishing things in a hurry with a minimum of fuss. (The Army placed less emphasis on missiles, so its lone program had lower bureaucratic priority.) The drama and challenge of these projects attracted the talented and capable, and as Gen. Bernard A. Schriever, who headed the Air Force effort, later recalled, “we did not always have lawyers at our elbows, and every time we decided to do something, we did not have a long legal brief to contend with. I could tell any contractor, do this or do that, and the paperwork would follow.”
Rear Adm. William F. Raborn, the head of the Polaris project, ran his program virtually as a navy within the Navy. His authority came from Admiral Burke, who had written him in a letter: “If Rear Admiral Raborn runs into any difficulty with which I can help, I will want to know about it at once, along with his recommended course of action.… If more money is needed, we will get it. If he needs more people, those people will be ordered in. If there is anything that slows this project up beyond the capacity of the Navy and the department, we will immediately take it to the highest level and not work our way up through several days.” With this authority Raborn was able to seize the crown jewels from Rickover himself, who remained in charge of naval reactors. Raborn needed a submarine, and he learned that a successor to the Nautilus was approaching completion at Electric Boat’s yard in Groton, Connecticut. Raborn took charge of it, cut it in two, inserted a 130-foot bay in its midsection that would hold the Polaris missiles, and had it in commission by the end of 1959 as the USS George Washington .
“We used a philosophy of utter communication,” Raborn said later. “There was no such thing as hiding anything from anybody who had an interest in it. And there was nothing that got a person into trouble, whether he was a civilian contractor or in uniform or in civil service, quicker than to delay reporting potential trouble. And, boy, if he waited until he had trouble, then he really had trouble.”
To run their programs, though, Raborn and particularly Schriever needed more than lavish funds and overriding authority; they needed raw courage. Their developmental policy was literally to shoot first and ask questions later: to fire off unarmed test missiles knowing full well that they would explode, then pick through telemetered data and recovered wreckage to seek the source of the failures. Since figures used for stresses and forces within the engines were often no more than estimates, engineers had to see what parts would fail before they could fix them. As one veteran of those days put it, “It wasn’t that the first vehicle that flies must be a demonstrated success and capable of being advertised to the world at large.”
But the project directors were living in a political goldfish bowl, and what people could see were the testmissile explosions. Fortunately, the spirit of total communication extended to Congress as well as to the contractors, and Raborn and Schriever, along with Rickover, found they were being relied on as national resources.
It also helped that Congress and the President offered all the money that was needed. In an odd twist this policy kept costs down, for overruns occur when large numbers of people draw salaries for long periods of time while producing little of value. Professional challenges drew in a generation of the best managers and technical people, and their only mandate was to get the job done quickly.A KICK IN THE PANTS
Then came October 1957, and the biggest shock yet: the launch of Sputnik , the first Soviet satellite. Its effect within Washington was cataclysmic, for it pointed all too sharply toward a substantial Soviet lead in the development of the strategic missile, which was the means for launching such spacecraft. A month later Moscow struck again with Sputnik II , which carried a live dog and weighed a shocking 1,120 pounds, compared with 21 pounds for the corresponding American satellite, which was still very much on the ground. “How long, how long, O God, how long will it take us to catch up with Russia’s two satellites?” wailed Lyndon B. Johnson, chairman of the Senate Preparedness Subcommittee. Styles Bridges, a Senate Republican leader, was equally apocalyptic: “The time has clearly come to be less concerned with the depth of pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin on the new car and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat and tears.”
Eisenhower had raised the longrange missile to the highest national priority in mid-1955; now even further attention and emotion would be the order of the day. Projects and plans were re-evaluated. The Army’s poky Jupiter program, limping along amid the likelihood of cancellation because it duplicated the Thor, now went forward like a Sherman tank. Polaris had been scheduled for deployment in 1963, using an energetic solid fuel to achieve a range of 1,500 nautical miles. But it needed heat-resistant materials to cope with the hot exhaust, and these were not yet ready. By substituting a less energetic fuel, Polaris could be built with available metals. Its range would be limited to 1,200 miles, but it would be ready by 1960.
The time was also right to start yet another missile program, the Air Force’s Minuteman. That would be the nation’s sixth missile overall, the Air Force’s fourth, and its third ICBM, along with Atlas and Titan. Like Polaris, the Minuteman would use solid fuel. Its advocates said it would be the ultimate landbased weapon, able to hide for years in a hardened underground silo while remaining ready to fly at a moment’s notice. Minuteman was the concept of Col. Edward Hall, a propulsion expert, program manager on the Thor, and a member of Schriever’s staff. Hall was all too familiar with liquid-fueled rockets and was. convinced that solids were the answer. In 1955 Schriever had directed a committee to determine whether anything like the Minuteman was feasible, and in February 1958 this program, too, received its go-ahead.
Finally, after years of furious design, testing, and preparation, the various long-range missile projects began to bear fruit. During little more than two years, between November 1958 and February 1961, the Atlas, Polaris, and Minuteman programs all came through with successful tests at full range. Atlas was first, flying 6,300 miles from Cape Canaveral to a spot in the South Atlantic near the island of St. Helena. In July of 1960 it was Polaris’s turn. The submarine George Washington lay submerged off the cape with Raborn aboard. At a signal it ejected a missile that breached the surface like a dolphin, ignited, and soared downrange to its full distance. Then the skipper launched another one, just to show that it was all routine.
Minuteman’s turn came the following February, twelve days after President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Its guidance system had never flown before, nor had any of its three stages. It didn’t matter; they all worked, and the nose cone hurtled 4,600 miles to the South Atlantic. Schriever himself had ordered this all-up test; its success cut a year off the schedule for deployment.THE CONTINUING REVOLUTION
By the time JFK entered the White House, Atlas, Thor, and Jupiter were all in the field and ready for war. Titan and Minuteman became operational in 1962, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. With Minuteman’s numbers scheduled to grow to a thousand, it was clear that big liquid-fueled missiles were already on the way out. The short-range Thors and Jupiters, which were based overseas, came home during the months that followed the Cuban crisis. The Atlas and Titan ICBMs were also soon deactivated, for in the rapid pace of postwar technology both proved to be no more than interim weapons. Liquid-fueled rockets found a niche only by imitating the characteristics of Minuteman. And so the Titan II, a follow-up to the original version, was built to use storable propellants that could be held in the missiles’ own tanks without evaporating like volatile liquid oxygen. Titan II then could be held down-hole like Minuteman, ready for quick action. Fifty-four Titan Us served in this fashion until 1987. (See “Postfix” in this issue for a description of the Titan II and its base.)
The intervening quarter-century saw just one more major advance in missilery: multiple warheads, each aimed at a separate target. These emerged in the late 1960s and reflected further work in cutting down the sizes of both bombs and guidance systems while improving their accuracy. The original Atlas, in late 1954, had been designed to carry a single one-megaton bomb with a miss distance of three miles; the latest submarine-launched missile, Trident II, can carry up to fourteen 150-kiloton warheads, each with more than ten times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb, and place them on target to within 400 feet. The range is 6,000 nautical miles, five times that of the early Polaris. A Trident sub could launch a strike against a target as distant as Moscow while moored in South Carolina.
The nuclear sub has indeed become the Navy’s mainstay, and it has since been supplemented by the nuclear carrier. The Nautilus joined the fleet in 1955, and following its successful first missions, naval officials decided to build no more diesel-powered subs. Instead, they would pursue only nuclear-powered designs. During the Reagan Presidency more than a hundred were in commission, counting both attack and missile-carrying versions, and they had advanced considerably in both size and quietness. The Skipjack class of the late 1950s, which incorporated the lessons of Nautilus , had a submerged displacement of 3,500 tons. The Ohio class, which carries the Trident missile, weighs in at 18,700 tons, which puts it on a par with some World War II aircraft carriers. As for its silence, two Ohios could reportedly pass within a thousand yards of each other, each listening with sensitive sonar, without detection.
The nuclear sub also gave rise to the civilian nuclear-power industry, as the Nautilus brought the power reactor into existence for the first time. The influence of the early naval designs remained pervasive, even as the reactors’ power grew a hundredfold, from 11,000 kilowatts in the Skipjacks to nearly 1.1 million kilowatts at such major installations as Browns Ferry, Alabama. And that influence was more than technical; it involved people as well. Following the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, a number of Rickover’s men went in to set things right by doing them the Navy way. This permitted a second reactor at TMI, undamaged in the accident, to resume service in 1985. Industrywide, the nation’s utilities were turning to a new Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to keep their nuclear plants up to the mark. Its founder, Vice Adm. Eugene Wilkinson, had been the first skipper of the Nautilus .
Moreover, despite their early obsolescence as weapons, the Atlas, Titan, and Thor missiles found new life as space launchers. They acquired upper stages to carry payloads into orbit and solid-fuel boosters to help them lift the heavy weights.
In 1961 Air Force spy satellites launched by Thor showed that the Soviets were lagging in their missile programs. This ended the decade-long fear that the Russians were ahead of us. More recent payloads have included communications satellites that provide worldwide television and telephone service. Reconnaissance satellites keep a wary eye on potential trouble spots. Planetary missions have landed on Mars and turned Jupiter and Saturn into subjects for stamps and posters. Beyond those services, these rockets and their successors have carried astronauts as far as the moon, nurturing dreams of a new age of exploration and discovery.
These have been the legacies of the postwar military revolution: weapons that helped win the Cold War, nuclear power as an energy source, rockets for space flight. Their influence has not been as pervasive in our lives as that of the jet airliner or electronics, but they certainly are among the more noticeable of the postwar technologies. All grew up in the shadow of Hiroshima as responses to the dangers and opportunities that had loomed beneath the mushroom cloud.
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” a quote from the Bhagavad Gita , was the thought of J. Robert Oppenheimer on seeing the first detonation of his atom bomb. The commentator Edward R. Murrow put it differently: “Had we walked through midnight, toward the dawn, without knowing it?” Such thoughts today have not lost their pertinence. Yet from the perspective of nearly a half-century, we can say that the true consequences of Hiroshima, manifested in rocketry and nuclear power, have been far more modest. They have not ushered in new worlds, but neither have they brought death on even a small scale, let alone a large one. The shadow of the atomic bomb, which in our time has loomed so fearsomely, has thus far yielded consequences that deserve to be viewed not with sweeping emotion but with irony.
There is irony in noting that nuclear power has found no more than a modest role within an electric-power industry that remains dominated by the burning of coal. Irony also lies in that other cynosure of attention, the space program, which has found few markets and whose uses have been even more specialized. And the weapons of the Cold War, built with such passionate ingenuity, today appear likely to succumb to arms-control agreements. Such are the results that have flowed from those postwar years when feelings ran so high and when, for good or ill, all things seemed possible.