This U.S. Navy Warship Shot Down MiGs and Pranked the Soviets
Originally published on April 13, 2015. During the Cold War, many lesser-known confrontations occurred at sea — away from the headlines and major crises. This was certainly true for the crew of the U.S. Navy’s Belknap-class guided-missile cruiser USS Biddle. The warship sailed into the thick of the Vietnam... Read more
Remember When Australia Pretend-Nuked a Rainforest?
During the Cold War, nuclear states tested atomic weapons in almost every conceivable environment — deserts, oceans, space, islands. Scientists already knew nukes’ effects on cities. But how would they affect jungles? The Australian government wanted to know. So in July 1963 Australia conducted a simulated nuclear test in... Read more
These Weird Warplanes Didn’t Need Runways
Originally published on July 29, 2013. Warplanes’ biggest vulnerability is their runways. Modern airfields are no match for modern weapons; bunker-busting munitions can crater the thickest concrete. There was a brief period after World War II when the U.S. military thought it had a solution: simply design planes that... Read more
For a Brief Inglorious Moment, the U.S. Navy Had a Nuclear-Powered Wetsuit
Originally published on Nov. 26, 2014. You get pretty cold pretty fast when you’re wet. Water absorbs more heat than air—and absorbs it 20 times faster. Without some kind of protection, people can suffer hypothermia even in warm tropical seas. There are several ways to stay warm in the... Read more
How to Find a Missing H-Bomb
When a routine Cold War operation went terribly wrong, two planes and seven men died, a village got contaminated and a hydrogen bomb disappeared. The search and cleanup required 1,400 American and Spanish personnel, a dozen aircraft, 27 U.S. Navy ships and five submarines. It cost more than $120... Read more
Disarming an Atomic Bomb Is the Worst Job in the World
In the spring of 1952, the U.S. government tested tactical nuclear weapons at the Nevada Proving Ground as part of Operation Tumbler-Snapper. It was the third nuke test series in 18 months at the Nevada site in an era of breakneck atomic development. At 4:00 in the morning on... Read more
Space Marines With Jetpacks!
In the early Space Age, everything seemed possible — no matter how crazy. Which is why, in the 1960s, one American engineer seriously designed a space rocket to transport troops wearing jetpacks. This far-out concept aimed to lob Marine jet-battalions into space and land them on the other side... Read more
The Atomic Bazooka Was a Bad Idea
The U.S. Navy Tried to Create a Far-Out Seaplane Strike Force
After World War II, the U.S. Navy found itself in uncertain waters, despite its enormous successes in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. Blame the atomic bomb. The 1946 Operation Crossroads nuclear tests demonstrated naval power’s vulnerability to atomic attack. And the newly-independent U.S. Air Force claimed a near-monopoly over... Read more
How to Get Into Space for Cheap—Use a Balloon
Hurling an object into space is certainly dramatic and risky. During its flight, a giant rocket burns hundreds of tons of fuel in a continuous explosion full of sound and fury, signifying human triumph over gravity. All that power is dangerous. If the controlled explosion gets out of hand,... Read more