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A Brief History of Nuclear Airplanes

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Wikimedia Commons

Airplanes were an integral part of combat during WWII, but flight time was limited by each plane’s fuel capacity—this was a time before mid-flight refueling technology. Planes had to land to refuel fairly frequently making it nearly impossible to fly long distances. One proposed solution for the fuel problem was using atomic energy to power the aircraft.

The Crusader

In 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission ordered the first nuclear-powered airplane into production. The existing B-36 was selected as the base model for the plane, and was modified to carry a reactor and shielding to protect the crew from radiation. The plane’s name was changed to NB-36 to note the nuclear aspect of the plane.

By 1955, the NB-36 (top), christened “The Crusader” by the crew, was able to fly with an operational nuclear reactor on board, though the reactor did not power the plane’s engines. The Crusader and her crew of five flew 47 test flights, mostly over New Mexico and Texas, between 1955 and 1957. The plane’s reactor was operational during 89 of 215 flight hours.

The aim of the test flights was two-fold. First, we wanted to see if nuclear reactors would operate as expected in an airplane (remember, this is early in the Atomic Age), and second, to see if the plane’s shielding would protect the crew from the nuclear reactor’s radiation during flight. This was risky business. In fact, so risky that each test flight was shadowed by a transport plane full of marines. The marines' purpose? To seal off the radioactive crash site should the plane crash. Thankfully, the marines were never needed to seal off a crash site.

The Engines

General Electric HTRE3 and HTRE1 at the Idaho National Laboratory in Arco, Idaho. These are the two remaining direct cycle, nuclear powered airplane engines. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Once we knew that nuclear reactors operated as expected in flight and that adequate shielding could be provided to a crew, the U.S. turned its attention to the design of a nuclear engine. Two approaches were taken, by two separate contractors. General Electric set about designing a direct cycle engine, while Pratt & Whitney worked on an indirect cycle engine.

General Electric’s design involved a reactor with longitudinal holes, through which cold air entered the reactor. The cold air then moved into tiny holes, where it was heated by the heat put off by the nuclear reactor during fission. The heated air would then expand and produce thrust, which in theory would power the airplane. The idea is simple in principle, but quite dirty; the direct cycle engine essentially spewed radioactive air all over the place.

Pratt & Whitney’s design was more complex, but safer. The indirect design involved a nuclear reactor and a separate propulsion unit. Molten metal was used to transfer heat from the reactor to the propulsion unit, so there was much less radioactive air in the mix. But the indirect design involved much more plumbing, and so was heavier, which was problematic in an airplane.

Development of both types of engines hummed along steadily, but slowly, until the end of 1958.

Aviation Week

On December 1, 1958, Aviation Week ran an article titled, “Soviets Flight Testing Nuclear Bomber.” The article claimed that the Soviets had flown an atomic-powered plane more than 40 times, with great success. Not to be outdone, the U.S. stepped up their nuclear engine development game.

By 1960, progress was being made with both the direct and indirect cycle engines. The direct cycle engine was running routinely, and test flights looked to be not too far off, but it somehow seemed that Eisenhower was spinning his wheels getting the whole program off the ground. It was a presidential election year. Frustrated that Soviets had an operational atomic airplane before we did, and at Eisenhower’s seeming ambivalence to it, Kennedy promised to pump additional resources into the atomic airplane project should he be elected.

Kennedy won the election—and within several months of taking office, he cancelled the nuclear airplane program all together. What happened? Well, it turns out that Eisenhower’s ambivalence to the whole thing was warranted. Late in his term, he found out that the Soviets did not in fact have an atomic airplane. The whole thing was a hoax. And we bought into it hard.

So, the atomic airplane scheme faded into history. Until the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The 1990s

In the '90s, when the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled away, we found out that the Soviets did in fact have an atomic airplane, just not when we thought they did. The Soviets never stopped working on the idea of a nuclear airplane, and during the '60s, they flew an honest- to-goodness atomic powered airplane—forty or so times throughout the decade.

So how did they do it? Shielding the crew from radiation had always been the piece of the puzzle we couldn’t land; in order to provide ample protection to the crew, the shielding would be so heavy that the plane wouldn’t be able to leave the ground. How did the Soviets solve this riddle? They didn’t. The Soviets’ nuclear powered airplane did not provide sufficient shielding to the crew, and the first crew member died three years after the test flights from his exposure to radiation.

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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