Thursday, September 25, 2014


Imagine the worst idea in the world.

I don't mean a merely bad idea, like trying to rob a bank or investing in a viatical settlement. Those are bad ideas, but they're not world-ending. When I say "the worst idea" I mean something well and truly diabolical. The worst idea is something that is not only dangerous and ill-conceived but can threaten to kill on a scale as of yet unheard of.

But the worst idea doesn't necessarily have to be ill-conceived or poorly thought-out. In fact, it could be the product of sheer genius. The finest minds of a generation could come together and pool their knowledge to create the single worst object the world has ever seen. Because remember, this isn't just a bad idea; it's the worst creation our species has to offer. It's going to take billions of dollars and millions of man hours to bring this monstrosity to life.

The Cold War was a hotbed of terrifying new doomsday devices, some of the worst ideas we've ever had. On either side of the Iron Curtain, nestled away in their secret research bases, the most brilliant minds of the 20th century were at work building new and exciting ways to end all life on Earth. The USSR had the Dead Hand, an autonomous defense system that would deploy their entire nuclear stockpile if the Soviet leadership was otherwise occupied or dead. They also built the infamous Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated. If a Tsar were dropped on Washington D.C. it would destroy every building within a 3.5 kilometer radius from the fireball alone. The resulting shock wave would topple every structure for hundreds of miles as the sheer heat incinerates the entire landscape. And then, the Tsar would kick up a cloud of fallout large enough to render much of the east coast uninhabitable for the next hundred years. In all, a single Tsar Bomba, if dropped on the right population center, would accumulate close to seven megadeaths worth of damage. (Doubly so if dropped on Paris.)

Meanwhile the Americans were busy building their own bigger and better bombs, happily vaporizing the Bikini Atoll in their quest for the perfect thermonuclear device. They also developed such strange novelties as the M28 "Davy Crockett" nuclear artillery, a kind of recoilless rifle designed to fire a small nuclear bomb over a distance of just over four kilometers, making it the smallest nuclear weapon ever devised.

They also worked on plans for a variety of enhanced radiation weapons, bombs designed to have a smaller explosive yield while spreading much more radiation than a "conventional" thermonuclear weapon. Included in this were plans for neutron bombs, which were intentionally designed with thin radiation cases in order to allow neutrons to escape and irradiate the blast site. There were also salted bombs, which came packed with easily irradiated material such as cobalt or gold, which would be spread in the form of deadly, radioactive dust when the device was detonated.

Either of these proposals had the capability to destroy all life on Earth if enough of them were detonated.

And these doomsday devices are certainly impressive. Their potential for destruction is harrowing. But can we really say they're the worst product of Cold War engineering? Because as horrible as these weapons were they lacked the certain pointless cruelty needed to bridge the gap between "terrifying" and "nemesis of all life and creation".

No. There's something even more sadistic than the Dead Hand or cobalt bombs. There is an area-denial weapon more pointlessly cruel and over-engineered than any of those...

There is the SLAM: Supersonic Low Altitude Missile; officially the worst thing mankind has ever set out to build.

The SLAM was developed in the early 1960's as part of Project Pluto, a government program to develop nuclear powered ramjet engines for cruise missiles. At the start of Project Pluto the Air Force was relying on long-range bombers like the B-52 to deliver nuclear munitions. ICBMs were still an emerging technology and military analysts were concerned that the missiles wouldn't be ready in time. So the Air Force started work to bridge the gab between bombers and missiles, hoping to create a cruise missile that could fly under enemy radar and deliver a nuclear payload with virtual impunity. Thus, the SLAM was born.

The SLAM's reactor was developed as a joint venture between the Air Force and Atomic Energy Commission. Together they approached the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design Pluto's reactor. The lab gladly accepted the offer since before then most nuclear engineering contracts where handed over to their rival, Los Alamos. What the Air Force wanted was a compact, lightweight reactor that they could put in an aircraft. This was a tall order to fill since every reactor built up to that point had been encased under several feet of concrete. Never mind powered flight, precious few reactors had been built to even be portable. What Project Pluto needed was several leaps and bounds in metallurgy, a material that could withstand the near 2330 °F expected to be pulsing through the reactor. The sort of metal used in jets and missiles before then could only be expected to liquify in the presence of such extreme operating conditions.

Not even the exotic compounds used in the X-15 hypersonic jet were expected to be able to withstand the the stresses the SLAM was expected to endure. This missile would have to pass through wind and rain, enduring salty ocean air, not to mention the extreme heat and radiation produced by the reactor. Before long it was decided to use ceramic to construct the fuel elements, much like how ceramic would be used in the construction of the space shuttle years later. So, Livermore ended up approaching the Coors Porcelain Company (yes, that Coors) to construct the hundreds of pencil-shaped fuel elements for the reactor. As time went by it started to dawn on the scientists just how durable this missile would be, leading to project director Ted Merkle giving it the nickname "The Flying Crowbar".

And keep in mind this was all uncharted territory. While simple in theory, ramjets are notoriously difficult to test in the air. This difficultly is surely compounded when the ramjet in question is spewing radiation every which way. And yet, progress was slowly being made. Chance-Vought was commissioned to design the airframe and the shape of SLAM, which had come to encompass all of Project Pluto, was slowly coming together. Soon enough, there was a complete picture of what SLAM would look like and what it would be capable of.

Besides the rudders, the Pluto would have virtually no moving parts. It's fuel elements were arranged like a honeycomb and kept subcritical until just before take off. After that, the only thing protecting it's electronics and nuclear payload was a thick shadow shield. The ground crew were basically on their own.

Once take off was authorized the SLAM would be launched from a ramp using a cluster of rocket boosters. These would be necessary to get it up to the speed needed to force air into the ramjet. After take off the missile would navigate using an early TERCOM computer, using radar and radioed commands to map out it's surroundings.

Once the rocket boosters broke away the missile would be left flying under it's own power; drawing air into it's inlet which was then heated by the reactor, creating thrust. The missile would continue to fly at high altitude approaching Mach 4.2 before making a rapid descent as it approached Soviet airspace. From then on, the SLAM would level out and fly at extremely low altitudes, just barely above tree top heights, weaving around enemy radar as it closed in on it's target.

The missile came equipped with an enormous payload of up to sixteen thermonuclear warheads, each one capable of incinerating a city and all it's people. The SLAM would come careening across the landscape, dropping it's bombs on all manner of military bases, munitions stores, hospitals, anything that could aid the enemy in the coming post-apocalypse. It would then tear off into the sunset to vaporize the rest of the country. Relying on it's TERCOM navigation system, the missile would be able to snake it's way up the coast dropping bombs on a multitude of preprogrammed targets and making course corrections as need be.

And if Pluto's nuclear stockpile somehow wasn't enough to destroy the offending hemisphere, don't worry. Because researchers working on Project Pluto quickly realized that having the missile flying a crisscrossing pattern over the enemy country was more than enough to leave it an irradiated wasteland. Remember, the Pluto's nearly 600 megawatt reactor was almost entirely unshielded, meaning it would leave a plume of deadly radiation in it's wake wherever it went. Merely having a SLAM fly overhead would be enough to give a lethal dose of radiation to any would-be communist sympathizer. The neutron radiation would be enough to poison the land, indiscriminately killing all plant and animal life and leaving a trail of destruction wherever it went. Or if you were anxious to get this thing out of the air as soon as possible you could deliberately crash it, making a nice radioactive crater out of whatever unfortunate satellite nation it plunges into.

And if even that somehow wasn't enough, the SLAM could kill with noise alone. Remember, the missile was proposed to be around fifty-two feet long and weighing twenty-five tons; about the same size and weight as a steam locomotive. This very large missile would fly at Mach 3, just slightly higher than most rooftops. The shock wave left by it's passing would be strong enough to wreck all sorts of havoc, smashing windows, bursting eardrums, outright demolish buildings. Imagine the sound of a typical passenger jet taking off. Now imagine that same sound, magnified ten times, being made by a passing missile that's spewing gamma rays in every direction.

If the SLAM didn't vaporize you it would cook you like a T.V. dinner. And if it didn't cook you it left you slowly dying of radiation poisoning. And if it somehow didn't do that it would shred you to pieces as it came screaming over the countryside. Now you see why this would have been our worst weapon ever devised? The SLAM wasn't just cruel, it was monstrous. The Supersonic Low Altitude Missile would have been a proper doomsday device.

Sadly, it was never meant to be. As the researchers quickly found out, it would have been impossible to do a proper flight test of the Pluto, not unless they wanted to inadvertently irradiate Las Vegas or Los Angeles. There were some daffy proposals to tie a long steel tether to the missile as it flew circles around the Nevada Test Site or have it fly into the Pacific Ocean and intentionally crash it far from shore. Neither plan was put into action of course.

In the end, the Pentagon scrapped Project Pluto; deeming the missile too dangerous, too provocative to even test. Plus, they were afraid of the Soviets catching wind of their plans and developing their own counterpart to the SLAM, which, if it worked, would be impossible to defend against. But as it turns out there was no race to close the nuclear cruise missile gap and Pluto was quietly forgotten by the public.

However, the scientists at the Lawrence Radiation Lab were able to successfully test both the Tory II-A and II-C reactors, proving the feasibility of the nuclear ramjet. The project also lead to the development of new heat resistant materials. Pluto saw some interesting advances in metallurgy such as the development of ceramic fuel elements based on beryllium oxide and enriched uranium oxide, both highly carcinogenic of course. But eventually, ICBMs caught up with the SLAM, presenting a much cheaper and even more unstoppable delivery system. To the Air Force, the answer was obvious and Project Pluto was discontinued.

Still, one can only imagine a future where the SLAM was eventually tested in the air, a future were people live in fear of rampaging, out-of-control missiles with nowhere left to bomb. It would be a future of endless radioactive deserts, a glowing ball of dust where grass never grows. The land and sea would be poisoned by radiation and Plutos would streak across the sky like glittering needles, threading streams of nuclear fire wherever they went. The whole world would become a tapestry of fire as the missiles reached across the globe. And the last survivor would be there; their body rotting away, ravaged by high energy particles. And with their last dying breath they would claw their way up a pile of rubble and with scorched, sunken eyes they would stare off into the horizon and shake their sallow fist at the machine soaring in the distance. They would slump over and fall silent as she flies off into the sunset.

Atoms for Peace indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment