America’s Cold War-Era Doomsday Weapon Will Scare the Crap Out of You
MAD is one of the world’s most powerful acronyms. It stands for mutually assured destruction. That means that if you launch a full-scale nuclear attack against us, we’ll launch one against you. Out of that doctrine came one of the largest and longest arms races in human history.
Through that arms race came the scariest doomsday weapons ever conceived. This is the story of one of the worst.
When bombs become too big
After the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the size of nuclear weapons grew and grew. At one point, the Russians detonated the largest bomb in history: The Tsar Bomba. The mushroom cloud rose 35 miles into the air and could be seen for hundreds of miles. The destruction radius was about 22 miles.
But a bomb like that isn’t very strategic. Sure it leaves a mark, but it only targets one spot. That’s when some mad scientists thought “cluster bomb, but too much.”
Next: Introducing Project Pluto.
The Tsar Bomba had two problems: It almost took out the bomber that dropped it, and it only targeted one location. So scientists in the U.S. military came up with an ingenious hyper-sonic cruise missile that could deliver multiple bombs to multiple locations unmanned. On top of it dropping nuclear bombs, it would also be nuclear powered.
You read that right. This was a plan to have a nuclear powered Super-sonic Low Altitude Missile, otherwise known as a SLAM. More interesting is how much destruction this locomotive-sized missile could bring … in more ways than one.
Next: This thing could hold a lot of nukes.
The missile could hold 16+ Hydrogen Bombs
The payload for a missile this size is ridiculous. Most nuclear subs don’t even carry that many bombs. This single missile could kill as many as 50 million people if it targeted the most populated cities in Russia today. But that isn’t the only way this doomsday weapon kills.
Next: The ramjet that came from hell.
A nuclear-powered ramjet
For those of you who don’t know what a ramjet is, it’s a jet that compacts air by scooping it in a funnel and jettisons the exhaust out of the rear to create thrust. The hotter you can get that compacted air, the more powerful the thrust will be. Now throw an unshielded nuclear reactor in the middle of it.
For the SLAM, the 500-megawatt reactor had to be super small and lightweight and the only way to do that was to leave it unshielded. It could reach temperatures of 2,500 Fahrenheit which would melt most metals but provided enough energy to really get the thing going. That required a special ceramic made from a little company called Coors.
Next: Here’s how this weapon can still kill you between dropping bombs.
What happens when you break the sound barrier?
Anytime you go faster than the speed of sound, you create a sonic boom. That is a real tangible shock wave that only gets stronger the faster you go. Now take a hypersonic missile traveling just above the tree line and imagine the impact it would have on you. Your eardrums would most certainly rupture, but it is thought that this missile could have such a powerful sonic boom, it could kill you.
Next: One missile could kill more people than the bombs it carried.
If the bombs don’t kill you, the exhaust will
If it didn’t pop into your head before, that exhaust is highly radioactive. Not only do you have a missile dropping hydrogen bombs like it is the Pied Piper, but the exhaust is leaving behind a trail of nuclear waste everywhere it goes. One engineer proposed that the missile just flew around the country until it crashed. It could fly indefinitely with a nuclear engine.
Next: Here’s why the project ended.
The death of Pluto
The death of Project Pluto came after realizing how problematic the missile actually is. If you dismiss the moral issues it already creates, it presents some other challenges as well. If it were to remain undetected by our enemies, it would have to fly below the radar and that means flying through allied territories and all that implies.
Add to that, the government was able to create cheap and effective ICBMs and they nearly lit the Earth ablaze during the Cuban missile crisis. At that point, the missile was deemed too sinister to continue developing.
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