Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion - Politics




If the technology didn't kill the ANP, what is left? The other factors involved in any major project are the social and political forces behind it. It must be from these areas that the force which killed the ANP arose. However, it is also these areas from which the forces which began the ANP came. The ANP began in an era when general attitudes towards atomic energy were quite favorable. In fact the type of attitude has been referred to as "Our friend the atom." The writers of the time made it seem as if the atom would be a welcome addition to everyone's life. The idea of an atomic airplane was made to seem quite attractive. At the time a number of books and articles aimed at the general public appeared, a few of which mentioned atomic aircraft.

An atomic airplane? This, too, can be built. --- The advantages of increased range and carrying capacity that make the A-ship so attractive apply as well to the A-plane - but more so. Ordinary airplanes can never really carry enough fuel, even though a big airliner loads more than fifty tons of gasoline into its tanks. Routes must be planned with carefully located alternate landing fields to guard against the disaster of running out of fuel in the air. Long flights over water are particularly worrisome. More than a few times an accumulation of small accidents - headwinds, engine failure, a fuel leak - has culminated in tragedy. Atomic fuel would solve these problems. A few ounces of uranium would keep an airplane aloft indefinitely.[32]

This may sound like a rosy review written by someone not involved directly with the field, but even aerospace professionals realized that atomic power gave aircraft something that no foreseeable chemical power source could, unlimited range.

Two of the pillars of the aviation community, Kelly Johnson and F. A. Cleveland, wrote in a 1957 paper; "After a half century of striving to make aircraft carry reasonable loads farther and farther, the advent of a type of power plant that will solve the range problem is of the utmost importance." [33] Later, when referring again to the unlimited range they wrote, "And this unique characteristic is one to be greeted enthusiastically."[34]

As I stated in the technology section, feasibility studies for atomic powered aircraft were begun in 1946. This was the year that NEPA was started up. NEPA ran until 1951 when it was dropped in favor of the ANP program. The ANP program was aimed at creating a strategic weapons system which eliminated the limitations of conventional powerplants. The ANP program ran until 1961, when it was cancelled by President Kennedy. The total amount spent on the development of atomic aircraft was $1,040 million. Of this sum $839 million was for operating costs and $201 million was for facilities and equipment. Funding was provided by the Air Force, AEC, and US Navy, each supplying $518 million, $508 million, and $14 million respectively.[35]

Throughout its life the ANP program was plagued by a lack of direction. Neither the Air Force nor the Department of Defense (DOD) maintained a set of goals for the ANP project. "The ANP program was characterized by frequent changes in emphasis and objectives, varying from a research and development program to an accelerated program to develop a weapon system for the Air Force."[36] Without a set of goals the project managers had a hard time deciding what research to support. This caused a great deal of waste, both of time and money. Test facilities were erected, such as the radiator test facility in Connecticut, which where never utilized during the life of the program. These facilities were built to fill perceived requirements which never materialized due to a shift in project orientation. They either ended up as expensive storage buildings, or worse, as abandoned, half-finished hulks. This cannot be blamed on the AEC and the project managers as "Our review disclosed various instances where it appeared that the Department of Defense (DOD) did not furnish sufficient and timely guidance to those responsible for carrying out the ANP program."[37]

The ANP program floundered many times during its life and without its very vocal proponents it is likely that it would have died sooner. "William L. Borden, --- a man Herbert York describes as 'a fanatic on the subject of nuclear weapons', --- strongly favored --- a package he called 'the ultimate weapon system' --- the thermonuclear weapon carried by a nuclear powered airplane."[38] The Air Force favored the development of an atomic powered bomber because they wanted to keep manned aircraft an integral part of the deterrent force. At the time missiles didn't show a great deal of promise, and there was an aversion towards the pilots of the fifties becoming the "silo- sitters of the sixties." In fact, the Air Force set the priority for the ANP much higher than that for strategic missiles. Herbert York wrote that General Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the time, placed the highest priority on the B-52H and B-70 programs. The ANP was slightly down his list of priorities, with long-range missiles at the bottom. [39] The politicians' ambitions were writing checks for the ANP program that the research couldn't cover. Despite the fact that at the time the research was nowhere near the point of producing flight hardware, in 1950 the Defense Department decided to fly a subsonic aircraft by 1957.[40] The JCAE called for the Air Force to either give the program sufficient support to insure success, or to cancel it.[41]

The ANP program did actually die in March of 1953. At that time Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson cancelled the program. However, the JCAE restarted the ANP program as a crash effort in April of 1954.[42] The program labored on burdened by an inefficient and ineffective command structure. There were redundant offices in the Air Force and AEC. A major program was undertaken to correct this situation. This resulted in a more streamlined command structure which could have been quite effective if utilized properly, unfortunately it wasn't. The program, while making definite progress, continued to meander across a wide variety of research fields, wasting time and money on the way. The program was again stuck in its own mire when a new boost rocketed onto the scene, quite literally. The Soviets launched Sputnik.

The launch of Sputnik not only started the space race, but also a general technological race. Representative Melvin Price, Chairman of the JCAE subcommittee, holding the hearings on the ANP, wrote a letter to President Eisenhower urging him to speed up the ANP program to produce operational atomic powered aircraft in answer to the Soviet's launch of Sputnik.[43] Many people involved in the project came out in favor of an early flight date, including the director of the ANP project Major General Donald Keirn, "who believes many important problems of flight can be solved thereby without delaying the installation of improved reactor cores."[44] "Dr. York said, however, that changing a reactor core in an airship 'is not a minor thing'. Secretary Gates adds that the proper time to fly an airframe would be 'when we have a reactor that is possible of greater growth than the reactor we would now have to use."[45]

Despite these words of warning the hysteria and paranoia caused by Sputnik continued to spread, and was in fact encouraged by some to help continue the ANP program. In a speech, General Keirn said that there was an increased drive for technological development, and proposals to accelerate the ANP program were part of this drive.[46] Both the budget for the B-70 and the budget for the ANP program were temporarily increased, despite there nearly nonexistent links to space.

The paranoia also spread to the public via the press and television. The rumor was spread that the Soviets had beaten us to the punch and had already flown an atomic powered aircraft.

Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia said in a television statement; 'The report the Russians have test-flown an atomic-powered aircraft is an ominous new threat to world peace, and yet another blow to the prestige and security of our nation and the free world. It follows in tragic sequence the Russian success of last fall in launching the first earth satellite.[47]

On December 1, 1958, Aviation Week magazine ran an editorial in which it was announced that the Soviets had flown an atomic powered bomber prototype.[48] This was accompanied by sketches, complete with large red stars, and supposed data on the aircraft. Time has shown all of this information to be false. It is likely that someone involved with the ANP program created these rumors to use the public to put pressure on Congress to continue funding the ANP program.

A short time after this scare, in 1959, the ANP program came under the control of then Director of Defense Research and Engineering, Herbert York. Dr. York, together with Arthur T. Biehl, set forth a new set of program objectives. They were as follows:

(a) continue the development of only such reactors and power plants as would be suitable for militarily useful nuclear flight; (b) increase the effort on the indirect-cycle program so as to determine its potentialities at an earlier date than previously contemplated, and (c) defer initiation of a specific flight program until one of the advanced powerplants was established as feasible and potentially useful, and until a flight program could be instituted without seriously interfering with the development of militarily useful powerplants.[49]

Unfortunately for the ANP program these new objectives came too late. The program had become so mired in bureaucracy that, despite the leaps in technology achieved, it wasn't productive enough to be sustained. The ANP program was clouded by political infighting and controversy.[50] The DOD and the AEC muddled about in each other's business. The JCAE continuously tried to take total control of the program. And through it all the contractors took advantage of the disarray. About the only thing that remained constant was that the Air Force continuously said that there was a definite need for nuclear aircraft and that important military applications would derive from atomic propulsion. The problem was that the Air Force never narrowed down what exactly their need was.

A couple of the decisions concerning the technical aspects of the program were made politically. Among the things examined were the danger to the public caused by a development program. Using accident experience gathered from other experimental jet programs, risk assessments as if those aircraft had been nuclear powered. It was decided that proper selection of bases and flight planning would limit the hazard to the public to risk levels no greater than those associated with the normal operation of other military aircraft. [51] This meant operating away from populated areas and flying in isolated corridors. These tactics would seem to defeat some of the originally perceived advantages of atomic aircraft, in particular the advantage of being able to fly anywhere, without being confined to strict flight paths. Another decision involved the crew, for although the shield tests accomplished all of their goals, it was still felt that some mildly harmful radiation may reach the crew. This begot a plan which in hindsight look rather ridiculous, although at the time it was quite serious.

While most of the intellectual effort devoted to solving these problems was of the usual serious and straight forward kind, occasionally some bizarre proposals arose. One which was discussed quite seriously was that older men (i.e., men beyond the usual age for begetting children) should be used as pilots so that genetic damage from radiation would be held to a minimum and because older people are generally more resistant to radiation than younger ones.[52]

In the end the program had simply been around for too long while producing too few results. Just prior to President Kennedy taking office in 1961, Herbert York and his staff again reviewed the ANP program. They decided to halt all further work on the direct cycle and continue the work on the indirect cycle at a reduced pace.[53] He discussed this recommendation with the incoming staff of the Kennedy administration. "If there was any difference between [President Kennedy's Special Assistant for Science and Technology, Jerome Wiesner's] views and mine, he felt more negatively about the program, and, as a result, ANP was cancelled in the first months of the Kennedy administration."[54] Low level work did continue for a time on the indirect system at P&W.

On March 28, 1961 President Kennedy issued a statement cancelling the ANP program. In it he wrote, "Nearly 15 years and about $1 billion have been devoted to the attempted development of a nuclear-powered aircraft; but the possibility of achieving a militarily useful aircraft in the foreseeable future is still very remote."[55]

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