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The thing about airplanes, you know, is that airplanes get lift through aerodynamic factors like the Bernoulli effect, angle of attack, and so on. Those phenomena don't care (if anything can "care") about what power source you use to harness them, or what precise configuration you put your wings in, or... any of that, you know? There are aircraft driven by piston engines, turbofan engines, turboshaft engines, ramjet engines, there are aircraft with one set of wings, two sets, at least one with three sets of wings, there are aircraft where the wings are fixed to the hull and aircraft where the wings spin around very rapidly to generate lift (those are called helicopters, by the way). If it will fly, it's likely someone's built at least a scale model of it. Why? Because flying is awesome. And I say that with full sincerity.

Well, early in the history of flight, people tried putting different kinds of engines on their airplanes. It led to a fair amount of hilarity, although unintended.

Sure, gasoline-powered piston engines were what eventually won out, because they provide a fair amount of power for a relatively small mass. Gas-powered airplanes won out for this reason whereas steam-powered airplanes, which achieved tethered flight on test tracks, never became practical due to the enormous weight of steam engines. Sure, you could drive the propellers like nobody's business, but your plane would have to be huge to accommodate the mass and bulk of a full-sized steam engine. At that time, nobody really knew how to build planes big enough, so the idea was abandoned. Oh, and the couple of really spectacular accidents didn't help the idea either. (A smashed gas piston engine might burn fiercely, but you can run away from a fire. A damaged steam engine explodes with a force equally as awesome as its work output. You can't outrun boiler fragments or shock waves.)

But in 1946, the power of nuclear fission had been revealed. An engine "burning" uranium or plutonium for fuel, rather than coal or oil, could produce useful work far beyond anything achievable with organic fuel, and it would be able to keep working for long periods of time without needing to have the tanks topped off. If you didn't mind the human-factor problems of keeping an aircraft flying for six months at a time, well, you could keep a nuclear-powered aircraft in the air for six months at a time.

The prototype was to be named the X-6, based on the B-36 airframe. The B-36 was intended to be a World War II-winning bomber, but the war ended before it was finished, and, well... there were a bunch of heavy bombers just lying around, right? And the Cold War's nuclear bomber patrols hadn't quite gotten into their swing.

Why did they choose the B-36? Because MY NAME IS HUGE, that's why. A photo should illustrate.


Six props and two turbine mounts with two engines each, for a total of ten engines. Nice, eh? Well, the idea was to mount a fission reactor in this beast, and use air heated by the reactor to spin the turbines (which would in turn spin the compressor, and the cycle would repeat).

What happened? Well, mainly it turned out that the radiation effects were just too dangerous. Even if the crew had been entirely shielded, the emissions from the core would have been strong enough to turn the hull brittle and the tires into goop. Another problem was that even with the enormous amount of power generated by the reactor core, the plane was so heavy that it flew like a brick. The final thing that happened to it was President Eisenhower, who said it was a ridiculous waste of money and pushed very hard to get it canceled. The final test flight for the modified B-36 was indefinitely postponed. Pretty much the same thing happened to the Soviet design, and for the same reason.

There was a later proposal for a fast bomber, which in concept sketches looked somewhat like the XB-70 Valkyrie, a six-engined supersonic monster with the dubious distinction of being the loudest aircraft ever built. (If you're interested, only two of these were built and one was destroyed by collision with an escort fighter; you can find the remaining Valkyrie in the USAF museum in Dayton, Ohio.) It would have used a similar reactor design to that of the X-6, but with the addition of traditional jet fuel injectors, for extra power at takeoff and during attack runs. What finally killed this, or similar aircraft, was the now-venerable B-52, an entirely chemically-powered aircraft with enormous fuel tanks, larger payload capacity than any nuclear-powered bomber, and the ability to be refueled in flight, which almost negated the extended-performance advantage of the nuclear-powered aircraft concepts. (The limiting factor would have been human endurance. Pilots don't like to be kept flying for days at a time, much less months, so I hear.)

There was one final gasp to nuclear power for aircraft, and that was Project Pluto. Having found that reactor shielding for crew was a serious weight issue in manned aircraft, some clever engineer thought up a way to put nuclear power in an unmanned aircraft, a cruise missile. Unlike previous designs, which used turbofans, Project Pluto was based on a nuclear-powered ramjet. The missile would have been accelerated to supersonic speed (required for the ramjet to operate) by rocket boosters, and then the main engine would take over, control rods out and everything. It would fly at blistering speeds, terrifying those it flew over both by its sonic boom and by the trail of toxic and extremely radioactive isotopes in its exhaust, until it delivered its payload, a megaton-range nuclear warhead, to the target. Some even suggested that there was no need for a warhead; the exhaust was so radioactive and poisonous, they said, that it would be enough to keep it flying over enemy territory for as long as it could, and then maybe crash it into a particularly hated city for even more poisoning as the core would be pulverized and dispersed, the dirtiest dirty bomb. Several engine test-runs were made.

Fortunately for us, Project Pluto, too, was killed when - and it really strains me to say this - something better came along, the ICBM. It was made obsolete by ballistic missiles, which had equivalent range, and which were powered by more traditional and less dangerous technologies like solid-fuel rockets. Even liquid-fueled rockets are less dangerous, and they can fail catastrophically if you so much as look at them funny, so that's saying something.

Nuclear powered aircraft have, I think, had their day in the laboratory, but for now, the project is dead. Nuclear-powered spacecraft? Well, we have a lot of those... nuclear power is useful stuff. Just not for airplanes.
Previous MSPW diaries can be found as follows (and don't read them if you're trying to preserve your unwarped mind):

MSPW 14: Psychic powers, courtesy of Uncle Sam
MSPW 13: Transgenic biosynthesis of useful compounds
MSPW 12: Lightning in a jar
MSPW 11: If you can control machines, they can control you
MSPW 10: Powered armor leads the way
MSPW 9: Noise-Marines, forward!
MSPW 8: Rapid prototyping brings engineering to the masses
MSPW 7: Putting Mentos and Diet Coke to good use
MSPW 6: Why Bjorn the Fel-Handed is probably unhappy
MSPW 5: Combining the latest concepts in farming and power generation
MSPW 4: Project Orcon, or why pigeons make good pilots
MSPW 3: Can cuttlefish drive?
MSPW 2: The hafnium bomb
MSPW 1: Building a better skunk

Originally posted to Shaviv on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 06:57 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips for they said I was mad, but aaahahahaha! (12+ / 0-)

    You just can't make this stuff up. Your tax dollars at work.

    "I decided to force-feed him, but he wouldn't eat... I hated myself for making him eat, but I hated him more for not eating."

    by Shaviv on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 06:58:37 AM PDT

    •  wasn't there another nuke powered plane (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Shaviv, jlms qkw, Neon Vincent

      being planned, not one that powered turbines?

      What we call god is merely a living creature with superior technology and understanding. If their fragile egos demand prayer, they lose that superiority.

      by agnostic on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 07:01:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't think so, (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        agnostic, jlms qkw, Neon Vincent

        other than the ramjet.

        If you find any information on it, please share it. :3

        "I decided to force-feed him, but he wouldn't eat... I hated myself for making him eat, but I hated him more for not eating."

        by Shaviv on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 07:03:00 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  oops. I was thinking of the Orion, (5+ / 0-)

          the nuke bomb-powered spacecraft that could conceivable be as big as a city.

          They actually came close to having one ready for testing. You'd have a big pusher plate, covered with polyurethane, (to absorb the bad stuff) and on top of the pusher place, you'd build your space craft. Eject a bomb, detonate, and boom, instant acceleration. I think one plan had close to 1000 nukes lines up for acceleration and steering. The beast was designed to get up to 5% of the speed of light efficiently. There was a slight problem with radiation being spewed out the back, and the wee issue of electro-magnetic blasts burning out all satellites, electronics, banking information, computerized data, and more

          What we call god is merely a living creature with superior technology and understanding. If their fragile egos demand prayer, they lose that superiority.

          by agnostic on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 07:30:20 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  EXCELLENT! (0+ / 0-)

      Great writing, interesting subject, informatively relayed.  Thanks!  Please keep it up.

  •  algae? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shaviv, Texas Revolutionary

    for carbon-sinking and biodiesel?  is it real or hype?

    i luv mad science.  

  •  Shaviv, has anyone seriously considered (5+ / 0-)

    a rice-powered jet or prop engine?

    No, not the grain, nor its husk, but rather, using Condi Rice as a fuel source. She has spewed so much hot air, that I figure capturing and cycling it through the proper mechanisms would make for a very efficient engine and flying machine.

    What we call god is merely a living creature with superior technology and understanding. If their fragile egos demand prayer, they lose that superiority.

    by agnostic on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 08:53:01 AM PDT

  •  Slightly OT, but (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shaviv, Texas Revolutionary

    Edgar Rice Burroughs predicted nuclear powered ships and aircraft in his Venus novels, starting in 1934.  Nuclear ships were in the first novel, but I don't remember which ones has aircraft.

  •  Project Pluto, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, Shaviv

    a.k.a. the Flying Crowbar, was a true doomsday device, in the Dr. Strangelove sense.  It was designed to carry about ten warheads and drop them off at choice cities.  With that much power, you could fly it with low altitude where the air is thick and kill people just with the shock wave.  (Of course the exhaust fallout would eventually take care of any survivors.)  It was among the most sinister weapons ever attempted.  Sinister-looking, too.

    Putting nuclear reactors on ships (ships that are expected to take incoming fire!) is awful enough, but on airplanes it's guaranteeing nuclear catastrophe.

    Having seen it happen, it's still amazing how people can get so lost in the technical challenge that they don't comprehend the horror of what they're doing... or maybe they really do believe in the angry godlike power that comes with possessing a weapon like this.

    For some at Livermore, a lingering nostalgia about Pluto remains. "It was the best six years of my life," says William Moran, who oversaw the production of the Tory fuel elements. Chuck Barnett, who directed the Tory tests, succinctly sums up the gung-ho spirit at the lab: "I was young. We had lots of money. It was very exciting."

    As for friendlier aviation power schemes that could allow indefinite flight, there's solar.  If the photovoltaic cells get efficient enough, and the batteries' energy to weight ratio high enough, you could have a Helios-like plane that charges during the day and discharges at night, at ultra-high altitudes, anyway.  Same goes for a solar-powered airship.

    Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

    by Simplify on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 09:00:59 PM PDT

  •  No mention of the Convair Crusader... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...NB-36? It didn't fly on nuclear power, but did tote a working reactor aloft as a testbed. It was the bird that actually proved the X-6 impractical, after the effects of flying with a working nuclear power plant on the various parts of the plan were studied. The lead and rubber shielded crew capsule was supposed to be the quietest aircraft cockpit ever built, however...

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight.

    by JeffW on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 09:46:22 PM PDT

    •  The Russian (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      version was barely shielded. Most of the crew were dead within a few years.

      "Be kind" - is that a religion?

      by ThatBritGuy on Fri Jun 27, 2008 at 02:29:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I intended to, though I wasn't sure it was worth (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JeffW, rbird

      getting into the details of tail number, model number, etc. It was a prototype flying lab. I thought I mentioned that.

      Ah, I see, I guess I didn't make it too clear that the plane actually did go on several test flights.

      "I decided to force-feed him, but he wouldn't eat... I hated myself for making him eat, but I hated him more for not eating."

      by Shaviv on Fri Jun 27, 2008 at 07:42:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Just a minor correction. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JeffW, Shaviv

    The XB-70 was an incredible technical accomplishment. When it first flew it was simultaneously the heaviest, fastest, most powerful and longest-ranged aircraft ever built, able to fly for hours at 2,000 mph. Unfortunately for its designers, it was fatally vulnerable to emerging surface to air missiles, and mach 3 speed no match for an ICBM.

    Tragically, the second XB-70 was destroyed in a mid-air collision with a tiny F-104 fighter jet. However, this was not an "escort fighter". The B-70 was much, much faster than any existing fighter and had about 15 times the range, so it needed no escort. No, unfortunately the B-70 fell victim to a stupid corporate publicity stunt. A range of Air Force fighters and bombers powered by General Electric engines were flying in tight formation for publicity photos, all for the benefit of GE's marketing department. Unfortunately the pilot of the F-104 was apparently not paying attention, and he pulled in much too close to the B-70, until the intense vortices swirling off its giant delta wing sucked the small fighter in to collide with the tail of the bomber. The F-104 instantly exploded. The immensely expensive bomber, its rudders destroyed, slowly rolled into an accelerating spin, and disintegrated as aerodynamic forces tore it apart.

    GE brings good things to light.

    •  I meant escort as in "I am flying alongside" (0+ / 0-)

      "and taking pictures and doing a neat roll stunt and whoashiii-"

      I didn't mean to imply that the XB-70 was not a fascinating and clever design, merely that it had this interesting superlative of being incredibly loud.

      "I decided to force-feed him, but he wouldn't eat... I hated myself for making him eat, but I hated him more for not eating."

      by Shaviv on Fri Jun 27, 2008 at 07:40:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  They just don't have... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...what Tom Swift, Jr., had! And other good things nuclear powered, too!

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight.

    by JeffW on Fri Jun 27, 2008 at 05:51:15 AM PDT

  •  Feynman and the atom powered you-name-it (0+ / 0-)

    There is a episode from one of Feynman's books, wherein a somewhat gullible government guy runs around  asking scientists involved in the Manhattan project for nifty atomic powered ideas.  Feynman and others gave the guy a bunch, I think including an atomic powered plane, and got a dollar from the feds for each idea they patented.  To Feynman it was a joke deserving joke ideas.

    Just goes to show you, a joke is dangerous when there is no sense of humor present.

  •  hmmmm (0+ / 0-)

    Things have changed. We are now capable of building a nuclear/ion engine for interplanetary use... like getting to Mars in two weeks, instead of years.

    Using a fission reactor to both super heat Iron to a plasma, and to generate the electricity to run an accelerator, to propel the iron atoms at super high speeds, "buring iron" as it were, high mass, strong interaction with magnetic feilds for acceleration, and not going to leave a trail of radioactive omfg out the back.

    The reactor would be a unique design, to use molten iron as its cooling which gets you most of the way, then electricity to generate the plasma, and to accelerate the iron atoms to high speed.

    Oh yeah, we call this an.... IMPULSE ENGINE ;-)

    And yes, most of our beyond Mars spacecraft are all nuclear, using plutonium reactors because the Sun just isn't powerful enough past Mars.

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