Boys And Their Toys

The World’s Biggest Gun
100

Nuclear bombs are undeniably terrifying. However, it would
certainly be fun to have a few to just play around with.

What would you do if you suddenly found yourself with a big pile of nuclear weapons and a little free time? I would assert the answer to this hypothetical question is determined by your genome. If you are a woman, you would stack them neatly in a safe place, ensure that they are appropriately secured, and then go forth to do something constructive like raise children or cure cancer. If you are a guy, however, I bet you’d call your buddies to come over and start figuring out ways to seriously blow some stuff up.

I freely admit that I would likely put my most substantial example on the top of a big, honking rocket and shoot it into the moon just to see what it would look like. Don’t judge. If you’ve never thought of that yourself, you are currently imagining it now. Everybody on the planet (well, the half of them facing the moon) would come out to watch. I’d likely scheme it all out to explode on July 4th so the entire world could join me in celebrating America, but that’s just me.

Back in 1957, a group of rambunctious American males found themselves in a very similar situation. Nobody really understood nuclear weapons very well, so these guys took a whole bunch of them out into the Nevada desert for a big, sparkly play date. They called their undertaking Operation Plumbbob.

Details

These fun-loving kids touched off 29 different bombs under some of the most imaginative of circumstances. In one case, they blew up 1,200 pigs. The stated aim of this test was to determine the physiological effects of a nuclear blast on mammalian physiology. My suspicion, however, is that they were simply on a quest to invent the world’s spiciest pre-cooked bacon.

Back then, Uncle Sam used nukes for all kinds of stuff. Nuclear depth charges, atomic torpedoes and fission-based air-to-air missiles were all maintained in the military inventory. In the only live shot of a nuclear-tipped AIR-2A Genie rocket, an F-89J Scorpion jet fighter unleashed one of these puppies out over the Yucca Flats test site. The weapon detonated at around 20,000 feet. Just to show the world that nukes were not so scary after all, five Air Force officers and a motion picture cameraman all volunteered to stand underneath ground zero for a photo op. Amazingly, they all lived at least another 40 years.

These fun-loving scamps touched off these bombs on towers, underneath balloons, on the desert surface and underground. They were detonating nuclear weapons every few days. My favorite of the lot, however, was code-named Pascal.

That’s a Big Freaking Gun

I’ve done a fair amount of reading about Pascal, and I still fail to grasp the point. Pascal was actually three bombs, designated A, B and C.

For starters, they bore a 500-foot hole straight down into the earth. They then arranged a 64.6-pound low-yield plutonium-based fission bomb at the bottom. This was a tiny weapon, measuring only 11.75×15 inches. It was charged with PBX 9401 and 9404 explosives and was designed simply to fizzle. However, in their enthusiasm, somebody missed a decimal point or two. The first bomb produced a nominal yield equivalent to about 55 tons of TNT.

Pascal-A went off in an uncapped hole. Astrophysicist Robert Brownlee described the results thusly, “We put the bomb at the bottom of it, and we didn’t stem it. So, we fired it. Biggest damn Roman candle you ever saw! It was beautiful. Big blue glow in the sky …”

Yeah, that’s a man …

Showtime

For Pascal-B, they sealed the hole with a 2,000-pound steel cap and welded it in place. On August 27, 1957, Brownlee and Company touched this bad boy off. This bomb produced a yield of around 300 tons of TNT.

They installed high-speed cameras at the mouth of the tunnel that ran at one frame per millisecond. A typical human blink is about 100 milliseconds. Subsequent analysis captured but a single frame of the 2,000-pound steel plug as it accelerated skyward.

Brownlee said, “We did have a lid on that hole. Nobody’s seen it since. We never did find that … We never found that collimator either, and it was about five feet thick.”

This big chunk of machined steel was traveling at 150,300 miles per hour or 41.75 miles per second. That is six times the escape velocity required to put an object into orbit. Not one scrap of the plug was ever recovered.

It has been postulated that the steel muzzle plug from Pascal-B might actually have been the first manmade object launched out of the atmosphere. The first Russian Sputnik lifted off 39 days later. However, that theory is not without controversy.

Some scientists (who are likely not guys) assert that the atmospheric friction associated with such speeds might have just vaporized the big steel plug. Others and I subscribe to this school of thought myself, believe that this 4” thick steel disk is still out there orbiting Uranus someplace. Regardless, in case you were wondering what would happen if a bunch of men were entrusted with a whole pile of nuclear bombs, now you know. They would dig an enormous hole and create the largest gun in all of human history. ‘Merica …

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