Operation Plumbbob

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In 1957 the United States embarked on its most controversial series of nuclear tests. These tests took place on US soil in the state of Nevada

They detonated 29 devices and tested a wide number of things, including how blasts would damage builds, pigs, and soldiers. They detonated bombs on towers, from balloons, and even underground. 

And, according to legend, they might have even accidentally launched the first man-made object into space. 

Learn more about Operation Plubbob on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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What made Operation Plumbbob so controversial was where the tests took place, and how they took place. 

Prior to the 50s, most of America’s nuclear tests took place on remote atolls in the Pacific. They were far away from population centers, and they were mostly about testing the working of the bombs themselves. Please refer to my episode on the testing at Bikini atoll. 

While there were obvious benefits to being in a remote area in the ocean, there were a lot of drawbacks as well. Not to mention that doing testing in the remote Pacific was extremely expensive. 

To that end, they created the Nevada Proving Grounds, now known as the Nevada Test Site.

If you have ever driven around Nevada, it truly is some of the most desolate land you are going to find in the Continental United States. You could drive for hours without seeing another person. 

While the Nevada Proving Grounds was desolate, it actually wasn’t that far from the largest population center in the state: Las Vegas. It was only 65 miles from the Vegas strip. 

65 miles is close enough that you could easily see mushroom clouds from the tests that took place. 

In fact, when tests were announced, they would have parties in Las Vegas to watch the blast and people would come to town just to see it. 

During one series of tests in 1955 called Operation Teapot, they created a collection of buildings called “Survival Town”, or as some people called it “Doom Town”.

If you have ever seen footage of a building being blown apart from a nuclear blast, that came from Operation Teapot. 

Operation Plumbbob was a dramatic expansion in nuclear testing. It would double the number of tests from the previous series of tests in Nevada. Operation Teapot had 14 tests, and Plumbbob was scheduled for 29. 

They conducted tests with over 1,200 pigs to see they would withstand a nuclear blast. They put some in houses and some behind glass to test how shrapnel would impact them. Some were dressed in clothes to see how they protected them. 

One blast was conducted at 20,000 feet and five Air Force officers stood under the blast at ground zero to document it. 

In other tests, known as the Desert Rock exercises, 16,000 servicemen from every branch of the military took part. They were all exposed to the blasts.  The explosions caused a burst of light which was so bright that soldiers claimed to be able to see their bones through their skin. 

As one serviceman who witnessed an explosion said, “If there is a hell on Earth, it’s gotta be that.”

The nuclear fallout from Operation Plumbbob resulted in numerous lawsuits from veterans and civilians who were exposed to radiation.

While the exposure to radiation and the human element was certainly the longest lasting and important impact of Operation Plumbbob, it isn’t the one that has gotten the most attention. 

Part of Operation Plumbbob was the first underground nuclear detonations ever. 

The first underground test was called Pascal A. The bomb was placed down a shaft drilled 500 feet down into the Earth. 

When it was detonated, the energy released was 50,000 times greater than expected. It unleashed an incredible pillar of fire that came up the hole and shot hundreds of feet into the sky. 

It was the next underground test, Pascal B, that became legendary. 

This time, they were going to put a steel cap on the top of the hole to hopefully, contain the explosion and not get a repeat of the giant pillar of fire. 

The steel cap was 900-kilogram or 2,000 pounds and it was welded in place. 

One researcher, Dr Robert Brownlee from Los Alamos National Labs, thought that the cap would be useless. 

He did some quick calculations on the forces which would be exerted on the plate and determined there was no way it would survive. 

They set up a high-speed camera to film the top of the borehole just to see what would happen. The camera could take a photo every 1/1,000th of a second. 

What they had inadvertently created with Pascal B was a cannon.

If you think about it, what is a cannon or a gun? It is an explosion, usually with black powder, a barrel to focus the explosive force, and a projectile that is propelled by the explosive force. 

In this case, the explosions came from a nuclear weapon instead of black powder. The barrel was a shaft drilled into the ground instead of a metal barrel, and the projectile was a 2,000 pound steel cap on the borehole. 

After they detonated the weapon, the cover on the hole was, not surprisingly gone. 

When they went and checked the high-speed film, there was only a single frame where it could be seen, and even then it was blurry because it was moving so fast.

In the calculations done by Dr. Brownlee, he estimated that the cap would have been propelled at a speed of 150,000 mph or 240,000 km/h. That would be six times the escape velocity necessary to leave the gravity of Earth. 

A glorified manhole cover was the fastest human object in history. It went faster than even Voyager 1, the first space probe to leave the solar system, and the New Horizons spacecraft, which was the first to visit Pluto. 

It wasn’t until the NASA Helios probes in the 1970s which did flybys of the sun, did anything ever go faster. 

This test took place several months before Sputnik was launched. So, the question which some have asked is, was a metal hole cover actually the first man-made object in space?

The answer is almost certainly…..no. 

A satellite going much slower will burn up in the upper atmosphere, which is much less dense. An extremely unaerodynamic object, going much faster, in an even more dense atmosphere, almost certainly vaporized rather quickly. 

However, there are some that theorized that the plate might have deformed into a more aerodynamic shape and might have actually survived the trip into space. 

The steel lid has never been found, and it isn’t one of the objects which has been tracked in space. 

After this, they changed how they did underground tests and they never had an opportunity to create another nuclear cannon. 

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Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Mackala. 

The associate producer is Thor Thomsen.

Today’s five-star reviews come from Podcast Republic listener Mike Dodds

I just started binging this podcast and loving it. especially the episode on aluminum as I am a manufacturer of aluminum windows. if only what I made was worth so much!!!! keep up the great work.

Thanks, Mike. I think if you really want to make money, the answer might be in an aluminum time machine.

Thanks to everyone who has left five-star reviews. Remember, if you leave a five-star review, you too can have your review read on the show.