Talk about stuff that goes whoosh, boom, and splat!
A few years ago, while working on my first book, Backyard Ballistics, I had a conversation with Robert Brownlee, a retired physicist who spent his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This man was fascinating; a really smart scientist and a proud cold warrior; he had great stories and interesting opinions. He told me about something he built that worked a lot like a spud gun, except, it’s bigger. A lot bigger.
Here’s his story: back in 1957, a group of scientists and engineers at Los Alamos National Laboratory was tasked with reducing the amount of radioactive material expelled into the atmosphere resulting from nuclear testing. Astrophysicist Bob Brownlee was part of this project, code named “Bernlillo.” (other people have told me they believe Bob’s recollection is mistaken, and the project code name was either Pascal or Plumbbob. It’s a minor point.)
Brownlee and his team were researching the feasibility of underground nuclear testing. The Los Alamos team placed a small, (by high energy physics standards), nuclear device in the steel well and capped the well with a big iron and concrete plate. The four foot diameter plate was 4 inches thick and weighed in the neighborhood of half a ton.
A 1995 Department of Energy report called “Caging the Dragon-The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions, ” reports Dr. Brownlee as saying, “The guys had been working trying to get (the nuclear device) ready, but there had been a number of troubles. They finally got it down the hole, by my recollection, about ten o'clock or so at night. There wasn't much time to go back to Mercury, go to bed, and get up the next morning to shoot it, so somebody said, "Why don't we just shoot it now, and then go in?"
“And it was the world's finest Roman candle, because at night it was all visible. Blue fire shot hundreds of feet in the air. Everybody was down in the area, and they all jumped in their cars and drove like crazy, not even counting who was there and who came out of the area.”
When the device was exploded, it blew the top off the well. The project leader remembers that,
“We did have a lid on that hole. Nobody's seen it since. We never did find that. There was (also) kind of plug in the hole. . . All it was, was a concrete cylinder with a hole through the center of it, so the detector could look through it. It was suspended from the harness that was holding the bomb. It was a collimator, and we never found that collimator either, and it was about five feet thick.”
Also in 1959, a team of Soviet scientists launched what they claimed to be the first man made object into outer space, the satellite Sputnik. But based on what Dr. Greenlee told me, I still think Sputnik was the second object, beat by an American made, half-ton, steel and concrete well cap, launched into orbit by a plutonium push.Later this week, I’ll provide reasons why I think this could really be true.