People & Events|
On November 1, 1952 the United States detonated a hydrogen device in the Pacific that vaporized an entire island, leaving behind a crater more than a mile wide. The test, code-named "Mike" was the first successful implementation of the concept for a superbomb that physicist Edward Teller and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam had outlined in a report a year and a half earlier. A team of scientists assigned the task of turning the Ulam-Teller concept into an experimental device, met for the first time in October 1951. They achieved the designated goal, one that required a tremendous engineering effort, in little more than a year.
The design process was complicated by the sort of hydrogen fuel the team decided to use. One option would have been lithium deuteride, which has the advantage of being a solid at room temperature. But the scientists had limited information on how well it would work. They chose instead to use liquid deuterium, which needed to be kept below it's boiling point of -417.37 fahrenheit. That meant the device would require a very complex insulation and cooling system.
"Mike" was also incredibly large. In 1952, the smallest atomic bomb with enough explosive force to set off a fusion reaction, was almost four feet in diameter. The actual casing for the "Mike" gadget would end up being 20 feet long. According to one of the scientists who worked on the project, a full-scale drawing of the device became essential for everyone on the team to communicate effectively with each other. The drawing was so big, that a balcony had to be built from which to view it.
As the date for the test approached, a number of prominent scientists not involved with the project pushed to have it postponed. The reasons they gave were political. "Mike" was scheduled to be detonated just three days before a general election. Many scientists felt that it was wrong to burden a new president with the responsibility for a nuclear test that he had not authorized. They also argued that by testing "Mike" the U.S. would effectively eliminate any opportunity it had for reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union for a moratorium on thermonuclear weapons. But after listening to the arguments, President Truman decided to proceed as planned.
The test was to take place on Eniwetok Atoll, which is in the Marshall Islands about 3,000 miles west of Hawaii. It was an enormous operation. Staging began in March and by October more than 11,000 civilians and military personnel were in the vicinity of Eniwetok working on the project. A six-story cab was built on the island of Elugelab to house "Mike." And a two-mile long tunnel that extended from the device to another island was filled with helium balloons that would provide data on the progress of the fusion reaction.
"Mike" was detonated remotely from the control ship Estes, which was stationed 30 miles away from ground zero. Even those who had witnessed atomic tests were stunned by the blast. Within 90 seconds the fire ball had reached 57,000 feet. The cloud, when it had reached its furthest extent, was about 100 miles wide. The explosion wiped Elugelab off the face of the planet, and destroyed life on the surrounding islands. In their report, the survey team that went to Engebi three miles from ground zero wrote, "The body of a bird was seen, but no living animals and only the stumps of vegetation. Among the specimens collected were fish which seemed to have been burned. On each of these fish, the skin was missing from one side, as if, the field notes said at the time, the animal 'had been dropped in[to] a hot pan.' "
Physicist Herbert York summed up the implications of the first test of a thermonuclear device: "the world suddenly shifted from the path it had been on to a more dangerous one. Fission bombs, destructive as they might have been, were thought of [as] being limited in power. Now, it seemed we had learned how to brush even these limits aside and to build bombs whose power was boundless."