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12 January, 2005

Flying crowbar

Ralph C. Merkle, son of the project leader* of the truly chilling Project Pluto, republishes a 1990 article about the US scheme to produce a supersonic low-altitude missile in 1957.  This wasn't a cruise missile as we'd understand it now, but a locomotive-size ramjet powered by an unshielded nuclear reactor, able to drop multiple nuclear warheads anywhere along its flight path.  Passing at near-treetop level at Mach 3, those on the ground (including in friendly countries on the way to its Soviet targets) would have been deafened by 150 dB, and received a radiation dose sufficient to roast chickens.

I mention it because it's simply a fascinating article, about the age of 'heroic', state-sponsored science, combining the grand and the improvised: the US government bought a whole aggregate mine just for material to build concrete walls at the test centre, whilst ordinary mothballs were used as spacers during reactor assembly; they evaporated after having served their purpose. It also reveals that a porcelain company owned by a certain Adolph Coors, commissioned to manufacture ceramic fuel elements able to withstand the reactor operating temperature of 2,500°F, later became a brewer.

*: Incidentally, when diagnosed with liver cancer, Ted Merkle became impatient with medical technology, so invented his own prototype CT scanner. In those days, project leaders led projects.

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