Milestones of Innovation 12: Overflight Of Russia’s Ultimate Weapons

Opinion

Sixty years ago, on the Fourth of July, 1956, the American President gained a capacity that has never been lost: clear pictures from above of Russia’s thermonuclear weapons delivery system. Because the images ended up shrinking the world’s appetite for tools of ultimate destruction, it is hard to think of a more significant innovation.

The feat was done by an ultra-high-flying aircraft called the U2, soaring above the range of the surface-to-air missiles of the day, but not above the scrutiny of Soviet radar. Over the next few days, U2 flights from Wiesbaden, Germany, criss-crossed western Russia several times and brought back horizon-to-horizon swaths of photos The most significant of these “picture postcards for Ike” showed 30 “Bison” intercontinental bombers lined up at the Engels airbase outside Leningrad. Americans who were building a total of 600 B-52s were stunned to discover that those 30 were all the Bisons the Soviets built. A year later, the U2 captured another stunner: images of tall, liquid-fuel missiles in central Asia – designed to hit targets as far off as New York. The missiles were ready to be launched for their first tests; the third of them launched Sputnik and the Space Age.

The glider-like U2’s development at Kelly Johnson’s famous Lockheed “Skunk Works” in Burbank, CA, had gone into high gear only two years before, leading to a first test flight from a secret field in Nevada in the summer of 1955.

Now, this epochal platform for reconnaissance was taking the Cold War from a fantasy-land of worst-case imputations to solid knowledge of the ultimate war-making power of what was then the Soviet Union.  Knowing the true size of the Soviet effort, the United States had definite information about what it would take to meet it — at a price tag perhaps a third of what the U.S. Air Force and its political allies were demanding. President Lyndon Johnson once claimed that America’s entire $20 billion moon program cost less than the money that was saved.

Meeting the Soviet threat meant constructing an array of deterrents – bombers, missile-launching submarines, and land-based ICBMs — so fearsome that the East-West superpower duel became a matter of “mutually assured destruction.” President Dwight Eisenhower could firmly clamp the lid down on the thermonuclear cauldron.

Only nine years after Hiroshima, that cauldron was boiling. Anguished public discussion of thermonuclear weapons had burst forth in 1950: President Harry Truman said the U.S. would develop a thermonuclear bomb – with 1,000 times the explosive power of an atomic bomb — to maintain U.S. military pre-eminence. The Russians had just exploded their first nuclear device in the summer of 1949. Exactly copying the plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in August 1945, they broke the U.S. nuclear monopoly in four years flat. We only knew it because some U.S. planes had been equipped to trap atomic test fallout in filter paper.

The H-bomb sped toward reality. A test version exploded on Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands on Nov. 1, 1952, produced a force of nearly 11 million tons of TNT. Just 16 months later, on March 1, 1954, Americans were ready to test a dry version of the concept, using lithium deuteride. Weighing only 1,500 pounds, it was designed to be carried either by a bomber or a rocket. When detonated at Bikini, another atoll in the Marshalls, the device developed 15 megatons of force, three times more than expected. Before the end of the month, the chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission admitted to a press conference attended by President Eisenhower that such a bomb would obliterate the New York metropolitan area.

World opinion East and West was horrified. So was Eisenhower. He knew he could not do without precise information on the Soviet threat. On Saturday, March 27, 1954, on his way to the Augusta National golf course, the President dropped by the National Academy of Sciences to see the scientists advising his Office of Defense Mobilization. He told them his biggest fear: an attack by an aggrieved wannabe (a second-rate economic power consumed by fear of democracy), that is, a nuclear Pearl Harbor. He asked the scientists to allay that fear.

The scientists pulled together a committee under MIT President James R. Killian to study offense, defense, and intelligence, and rapidly developed a plan to build an intercontinental strike force by 1961, filling the gap with intermediate-range missiles launched by land and sea. But the scientists also focused heavily on avoiding surprise attack. A subcommittee headed by Edwin Land of Polaroid stumbled across the high flyer project at the Skunk Works, devised a powerful camera system to fly on it, and strong-armed the CIA to develop and operate it.  The Air Force didn’t believe in a warplane that not only carried no weapons but might provide evidence that fewer weapons would be enough.

It was understood from the beginning that the U2 was but a temporary expedient. Eisenhower kept the project top secret to avoid public humiliation of the Soviet Union and insisted on approving every U2 flight. He green-lighted a top-speed, equally secret project to move the reconnaissance flights to space, far above the range of anti-aircraft rockets that surely would knock the U2 down someday.  On May Day 1960, a Soviet rocket from the Russian city of Sverdlovsk (now reverted to its earlier name of Yekaterinburg) blasted close enough to Gary Powers’ plane to bring it down, create a global scandal, and disrupt plans for a U.S.-Soviet summit in Paris.

But only three months later, the first successful U.S. Corona satellite went into orbit from California over the poles. It flew 17 tracks across the Soviet Union at times of day when objects on the ground threw good shadows. The Corona craft then sent a nose cone containing spooled, exposed film down through the atmosphere to a point above the Pacific. There, parachutes would carry the capsule down to the water near a recovery ship (better still, on later flights, a Boxcar aircraft would grab the parachute cords and reel the cone into its belly).  Days later, in the White House, Edwin Land would roll a spool of images dramatically across the floor in front of President Eisenhower.

On Jan. 21, 1961, when Kennedy’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara entered his Pentagon office for the first time, he saw on his desk a Corona photograph of a small ring of Soviet intercontinental missiles. That’s all there were.

A few months later, I October 1961, the U.S. announced publicly that it had a thermonuclear pistol-duel “drop” on the Soviet Union. Khrushchev abandoned his demand that the western powers withdraw from Berlin by the end of the year.

[Editor’s note: This is the twelfth of a series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. Earlier notes have highlighted the invention of Kevlar and the New York blackout of 1965. You’re invited to suggest other Milestones of Innovation for the Xconomy Forum.]

Further reading:

Michael Beschloss, May Day: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair, Harper and Row 1986.

Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Simon and Schuster, 1995, Sloan Technology Series

Ben R. Rich and Leo Janos, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed, New York, Little, Brown, 1994.

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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