Extrait de: Science in Flux
The NASA History Series
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA History Division
Office of External Relations
Washington, DC
June 2006
NASA SP-2006-4317
NASA's Nuclear Program at Plum Brook Station 1955 ­ 2005

The Soviet Atomic Plane Illusion

In the 1950s the technological "race" with the Soviet Union included many types of weapons systems, like missiles and tanks. Soon the nuclear airplane was added to the list. The genesis of the program emerged from a letter Anatolii Alexsandrov wrote to Igor Kurchatov. Alexsandrov earned his reputation with the Soviet nuclear submarine program and later lost much of his status because his government blamed him for the faulty design of the Chernobyl reactor. Kurchatov headed the Soviet atomic bomb project and established the Kurchatov Institute, which housed an important research reactor. On August 14, 1952, Alexsandrov wrote to Kurchatov, "Our knowledge in the area of atomic reactors allows us to raise the question of the creation of atomic engines in the coming years which can be applied to airplanes."14 The Soviet government at first opposed the project because it believed nuclear airplanes to be too costly and technically difficult. The Soviets realistically acknowledged that the technological problems associated with the plane were daunting and that success would be at best 15 to 20 years away. They believed that a nuclear airplane could only be achieved with a long-term technological commitment and a great deal of funding.

However, knowledge of this Soviet skepticism never made it to the West; only rumors of stunning progress. In 1953 the first reports of a Russian atomic plane surfaced in the United States. Soviet engineers were rumored to have solved the difficult shielding problem with a mysterious material called "LOSK," unknown to anyone else in the world. In 1955 newspapers across the United States began carrying reports about the Soviet atomic plane. One story told of a Communist broadcast from East Germany claiming that the Russian atomic-powered, supersonic airplane would make its maiden voyage in the near future. In January 1955 NACA Chairman Jerome C. Hunsaker claimed that the nation needed a strong effort in order to achieve a nuclear airplane, and that the United States was in "a technological race with the Soviet Union" to first achieve nuclear flight.15 In October 1955 a former AEC staff member said that because of these Soviet efforts, "the heat is on to get [the United States] an atom plane in the air."16 That same month, General Thomas D. White, Air Force vice chief of staff, became one of the first Air Force officials to publicly discuss progress on the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program. He confidently predicted that the "point of uncertainty" had been crossed and that the public would see an atomic plane flying "within the next decade."17 National magazines and newspapers in the United States began reporting on this development one year later. In January 1956 the Washington Post stated that the Eisenhower administration believed that "our national security may well depend on research in atomic energy for aircraft propulsion."18 In June, Newsweek ran a cover story on the "Coming Atomic Plane" and called it the "Fight for an Ultimate Weapon." While conceding that the "best brains" in the scientific community and the most powerful politicians in Washington had ridiculed it since its inception, the fear that the Soviet Union might actually create a nuclear airplane spurred the United States into costly research and development. Newsweek reported that if the "Soviet boast of a Russian A-Plane has any validity, the U.S. designers are obviously in a race, and working under the gun."19 The article listed several reasons why the Soviet claims should be taken seriously. First, Russian abilities in developing advanced aircraft had already been demonstrated by the Soviet Mig. Second, Soviet reactor design knowledge was improving. Third, the Soviets appeared to understand the urgency of developing an atomic plane more so than their American counterparts. Finally, Newsweek also speculated that the Soviets probably cared less for the safety of the pilots and civilians on the ground, and this enabled their scientists and engineers to make bolder technological advances. The successful Soviet launching of Sputnik in October 1957 dramatically increased America's fears that it was falling behind the Soviets in the space race. Many believed that the first orbiting satellite would soon be followed by a second Soviet "first." Congressman Melvin Price, a Democrat from Illinois and chairman of the Joint Atomic Energy Subcommittee on Research and Development, made a personal visit to the Soviet Union in October 1957 and claimed that Russians would soon be flying an atomic-powered airplane. He said, "The Russians know the tremendous psychological value of startling military 'firsts...' Their plane probably won't be perfect, but I have little doubt that it will be flying. The U.S. has been puttering along in the hope of eventually developing the perfect atomic plane."20 An Aviation Week editorial said that Sputnik just represented another in a "long chain of Russian surprises in the development of atomic airpower weapons ranging all the way from jet bombers [to]... hydrogen warheads."21 One year later Aviation Week claimed that the Soviets were already flight-testing a nuclear bomber. This was an exclusive story, and it generated a great deal of controversy over the ensuing years as politicians, the press, the public, and President Eisenhower debated its veracity. The article reported that a Soviet plane had been flying over Moscow for about 60 days. The sources of the story were unnamed "foreign observers" (though others claimed it originated from Air Force leaks) from both Communist and non-Communist countries who had apparently seen the airplane in flight.22 To increase the validity of the report, Aviation Week published schematic diagrams and an artist's conception of the airplane. It had a 195-foot fuselage and a 78-foot wingspan and was powered by two direct air cycle nuclear reactors and two conventional turbojet engines. The plane weighed 300,000 pounds. Although American observers were unable to learn about the shielding system the Russians used, Aviation Week claimed, "Soviet technical literature has been studded with brief but positive references to a major 'breakthrough' in shielding techniques."23 Many Western observers speculated that the Soviets would soon stage a nonstop, nonrefueled flight around the world to demonstrate its new military capability. A follow-up editorial in Aviation Week said that these developments were a "sickening shock" and that it was another example of the "technical timidity, penny-pinching and lack of vision that characterized our own political leaders."24 The editorial questioned, "How much longer can we 'afford' this kind of leadership and still survive as a free nation?" There was widespread reaction to this story. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal supported the article's claims, and a Defense Department spokesman said that he was under orders "not to deny confirmations of the story."25 However, some government officials discredited the story and argued that the reports were untrue. Defense Secretary Neil H. McElroy said that he remained "highly skeptical." In a news conference Merriman Smith from United Press International asked President Eisenhower about the Aviation Week story. Smith asked, "Do we have any reason to believe such a report and, second, how do you feel generally about these unofficial reports of rather extensive Russian accomplishments?" Eisenhower responded by saying, "There is absolutely no intelligence, no reliable evidence of any kind, that indicates that the Soviets have flown a nuclear-powered aircraft."26
While he said that America was a long way from flying an atomic airplane, he assured the reporters that "we do not abandon the basic research" that will enable a nuclear airplane to one day fly. Of all the comments swirling around rumored Soviet flight, Eisenhower's was the most accurate. The Soviet reports were all based on rumors by observers on the ground watching a plane fly overhead. Much like the also popular UFO sightings during the 1950s, there was also no direct evidence of a Russian atomic airplane. Likewise, the United States was no closer to its own atomic plane, and the focus of the effort in both countries was confined to basic research. The primary tool that scientists used in both nations to explore this potential was the research reactor.

Mark D. Bowles

14 Alexsandrov, in, Paul R. Josephson, Red Atom: Russia's Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2000), p. 129.

15 Robert C. Cowen, "A-Powered Bombers Forecast," Christian Science Monitor (28 January 1955): 3.

16 "Heat on to Get A-Plane Up Into Air," The Sandusky Resister-Star (15 October 1955).

17 "AF Official Sees Flight in Decade," The Sandusky Resister-Star (8 October 1955).

18 "Ike Stresses A-Power for Planes," The Washington Post (24 January 1956): 6.

19 "The Fight for an Ultimate Weapon," Newsweek (4 June 1956): 57. Newsweek also published artists' conceptions of Russian and American atomic airplanes on 23 April 1956 on page 68.

20 Melvin Price, quoted in Katherine Johnsen, "Congressmen Fear Second Soviet 'First,'" Aviation
(28 October 1957): 29.

21 Robert Hotz, "Sputnik in the Sky," Aviation Week (14 October 1957): 21.

22 Arthur M. Squires, The Tender Ship: Government Management of Technological Change (Boston: Birkhsuser, 1986): p. 97.

23 "Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber," Aviation Week (1 December 1958): 27-29.

24 Robert Hotz, "The Soviet Nuclear-Powered Bomber," Aviation Week (1 December 1958): 21.

25 "Nuclear Plane Details Spur Wide Reaction," Aviation Week (8 December 1958): 28.

26 "Eisenhower's Nuclear Bomber Comment," Aviation Week (15 December 1958): 27.