The Decision

Tales from the Nuclear Age:

© 2009 by Charles Glassmire

(Stories as true as my memory recalls)


 Aug. 20, 2009

The Decision

 A bird landed in the rocket engine? Some theorized the nitrogen flooding the engine to prevent a graphite fire had suffocated it. When faced with an unknown situation, the next step in the engineering mind is to ”gather data”. So it was to be. Since no one could approach this giant NRX-A5 nuclear reactor engine, to look inside the cooling rocket nozzle, a substitute was sent into the game. The 80 ton robot was nicknamed “Beastie”.  The robot had been originally created for the Nuclear Aircraft Program (ANP). (Yes, earlier in the Nuclear Age, there was a design for a nuclear powered airplane – an aircraft powered with a nuclear reactor inside instead of jet engines-it could fly for weeks without refueling). This Beastie was now used in the NERVA program and was made of metal and electronics. It was mounted on caterpillar treads, and carried hand manipulators and fire suppression tools. It had a compartment for an operator, or could be operated remotely from afar. This Davids’ “slingshot” was a television camera which could see inside the darkened interior of the cooling Goliath. It could enter high gamma/neutron radiation fields where no man would survive.

 Slowly the beast trundled across the intervening sands, nuzzled up to the NERVA A5 engine, hoisted its camera up high, turned on its photo light and daintily peered inside the rocket nozzle. Back at control, photographs were taken of the TV screen, as Beastie peered around the dark and shadowy interior.

 Back at the Astronuclear Laboratory, engineers walked the halls with concerned expressions. The photos were due back from the site, and the team was on adrenalin high. An emergency meeting was called of highly trained multiply-degreed scientists and engineers. I watched with the others, as images of the bottom of the core were projected onto a screen in the darkened room. Ends of the core support plate could be seen. Dark shadows hovered around the edges of the distorted wide angle black and white photos. Light glinted from the eyeglasses of the audience as heads turned expectantly searching for a bird-like image. Nowhere among the shadows did anything appear resembling the live creature which had soared in the sunlight. Only dark irregular shapes, and silence in the room except for muffled coughs.

Another slide was tried; then a different magnification. Other angles were examined. Different lens focal lengths were dialed in. Finally, one of the braver observers rushed to the screen and pointed to a shape on the edge.

“This could be a leg…” he offered. But others nodded in disagreement.

Another rushed up, pointing to another shadow.

“No, No. Here is part of the wing. See this is a feather…I think”.

And so it went long into the afternoon.

            They were some of academics finest – PhD’s arguing, debating over shadows, forming shapes and outlines, each projecting his own mind’s eye onto the screen. They stood before the group, mixing their own shadows with the projected images. Each hand gestured in the air, fingers pointing, recreating that old children’s game of gesticulating shadow puppets. Bugs Bunny’s wiggly ears, gesturing in a black and white world of shapes, here is a talking squirrel, right here is the beak, or a head. No, no. Searching for a winged wonder no more to glide and soar into blue skies and beams of sun, and landed for the last time into a world of shadows. This creature would fly no more in this strange new world.

             Eventually the carcass was located, and, using its robot arm, Beastie was able to scrape a mass of goop and feathers from the bottom of the cooling engine. It was a mass now highly radioactive, to be “buried” in a 50 gallon drum with other radioactive debris, and whose only headstone was the three bladed magenta and yellow propeller stenciled on the side of the barrel declaring “Radioactive Waste” to mark its’ gentle end.

              As to the Decision, whether to restart the engine and complete the test specification, there was more to the story. If even one tiny coolant channel was blocked, a restart could destroy the engine and the program. First the dilemma was presented to the Test Director. He opted out and kicked the discussion upstairs. Thence, to the Director of the Test Site; who did no better. Then back to the Westinghouse Astronuclear Laboratory which had built the engine and was responsible for the test. The Astro Lab Director declined to judge.

 Now the NERVA Program was a joint effort of the Atomic Energy Commission and NASA. A new project office had been created called the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office (SNPO – we pronounced it “snow’ po”). This office supervised all things relating to nuclear NERVA and coordinated the AEC and NASA interests. This level was unable to make a decision. So it went on to the Director of the Atomic Energy Commission. He thought the issue should be decided by NASA, since they would ultimately deploy the device in space. The Director of NASA was unable to decide.

 None of the above would step forward to such a serious issue, involving millions (1960’s dollars) and the reputation of the whole NERVA program. Eventually the decision went all the way to the place where the buck always stops, the office of the President of the United States. At the White House, President Richard Nixon finally decided the NRX-A5 would be restarted. So the engine was restarted, and the test parameters were run and completed successfully with no unusual damage to the data or the reactor, despite the brief visit from one small wayward traveler.

 And so it was to pass one summer of the Nuclear Age.

(to be continued)


One Response to “The Decision”

  1. Charles Richer Says:

    OK, if a bird’s carcass most be placed in a nuclear dump, why is the fuel for propulsion safer? Let’s assume LOX and LH, so how much graphite ablation should be expected? Sound dangerous.

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