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Nuclear Powered Aircraft: The Early & Controversial Days

“On May 26, 1946, the U.S. Air Force awarded to the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation a contract which established Fairchild as the responsible agency of the Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project. The purpose of the project was twofold: (1) to perform feasibility investigations and research leading toward the adaptation of nuclear energy to the propulsion of aircraft, and (2) to educate the aircraft engine industry in the field of nuclear science and its adaptation to aeronautical propulsion,” wrote staff based at the Oak Ridge, National Laboratory in Tennessee. The content above is extracted from a lengthier, secret document that dealt with the feasibility – or otherwise – of constructing a nuclear-powered aircraft, one that could be used in a showdown with the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. The content of the document is made particularly controversial for one specific reason.  It makes it clear that the military was thinking of using human test-subjects – such as prisoners and even cadavers – in its nuclear experimentation.

In the late summer of 1946 there was a radical shake-up in the Nuclear Energy for Propulsion of Aircraft program. The contract that Fairchild had with the military did not live up to its expectations and was placed into the hands of General Electric, who insisted that the operations be carried out not at Oak Ridge, but at GE’s plant in Ohio. More than a few Fairchild staff jumped ship and joined the new version of NEPA. Others, however, stayed at Oak Ridge, which – despite the severing of ties with Fairchild – had already made plans for a new project: the Aircraft Nuclear Program, ANP.

The biggest challenges that faced both NEPA and the ANP were the scientific and technological issues surrounding the development, construction, and deployment of nuclear-powered aircraft into the skies of our world. Could the crew be affected by very close proximity to a nuclear power-source? There were other challenges, too, and chiefly economic ones: Congress balked and frowned upon the ever-escalating costs, and particularly in light of the fact that missiles and supersonic planes were already demonstrating their significant worth. So, thought Congress, why are we even giving consideration to extremely costly, and potentially hazardous, nuclear aircraft? Congress’ question was a fair and understandable one – to the extent that, not even one year into his presidency, President John F. Kennedy finally had the research programs into nuclear-powered aircraft shut down.

Although official, and extensive, research into nuke planes went ahead, for around fifteen years before JFK closed it down, it is an acknowledged fact that dark and disturbing research was done on human beings, in an effort to understand and combat the potentially troublesome issues of exposing a crew to such a futuristic vehicle and power-plant. This is amply demonstrated in the papers of NEPA’s Medical Advisory Committee, the MAC. A June 1948 document makes it very clear what was going through the minds of the scientists on the program: “The NEPA Medical Advisory Committee is attempting to determine what will happen to humans exposed at infrequent times to amounts of radiations which are higher than those accepted as permissible for peace time operations. The Committee, with the exception of one member, feels that such information cannot be obtained by animal experiments nor by clinical observations.”

MAC made another suggestion, or, as some might call it, an example of crossing the line that should never be crossed. MAC said: “The information sought is sufficiently important to justify the use of humans as experimental subjects.” It was then time for the entire scenario to tumble out. And what a hotbed of controversy it was, and as the official, previously top secret papers show: “The Committee, therefore recommends, that the Armed services arrange for and conduct unclassified experiments on man which will make possible the accurate prediction of biological changes resulting from known levels of radiation exposure. “

Those very same “experiments on man” were aimed at using nothing less than prisoners then held in American jails: “The Committee is not in a position to make recommendations as to where these tests can be conducted other than that they should be carried out at some federal, state, or Armed Services prison, where life prisoners are incarcerated and where arrangements can be made with the prison authorities to cooperate in the experiment.  The selection of the prison is a matter for top military consideration. Continued cooperation of the prison staff and prisoners for a matter of many years will be required.”

Actually, it didn’t take years, at all. In fact, it wasn’t even one year. By early 1948, MAC’s Subcommittee on Human Experimentation recommended that “the Armed Services arrange for and conduct unclassified experiments making possible accurate prediction of biological damage in man from known levels of radiation exposure.” Matters began to progress with speed. In June 1949, the Joint Panel on Medical Aspects of Atomic Warfare gave its support to the program. Four months later, every scientific agency, and arm of the military, that had a vested interest in seeing the nuclear aircraft program come to life was unanimous. An October 4, 1949 memo makes that starkly clear. Experiments on people, the author noted, were the “number one recommendation.”

Everything was running smoothly; that is, until February 1950. That was when a significant percentage of staff at the Atomic Energy Commission Medical Group (CMG) grew worried about where things were potentially heading. In their eyes and minds, it was one thing to undertake research into the effects of nuclear aircraft on their crews. They saw it as quite another thing entirely, however, to consider, and give the go-ahead for, experiments to be undertaken on American citizens – even those incarcerated in American jails. Unfortunately for the rest of the people allied to the program, the CMG was a large and powerful body, one that, when it flexed its muscles and expressed its concern, was able to put everything into a definitive state of limbo.

The arguing went on until September, with many suggesting it was dangerous to go down the path of using human guinea-pigs – and without their consent and even knowledge, too – and just as many others offering that it was no big deal. Unless, that is, one happened to be just such a prisoner. It was in September that NEPA’s staff began working on a recommendation-style document that would forcibly argue the need for the program to proceed, and also the need for human test-subjects to be found – and quickly, too. Matters came to a head in December when NEPA noted that the only thing to end the stalemate would be for a major, powerful body to make a final decision, once and for all: “At the meeting of the NEPA Research Guidance Committee, it was recognized that unless AEC or some other highly influential agency recommends human experimentation, the NEPA proposal would never be carried out by the Armed Services.”

In essence, this amounted to nothing less than a stern warning, combined with a final ultimatum. NEPA’s Medical Advisory Committee also had their say, as a January 5, 1950 report – Radiation Biology Relative to Nuclear Energy Powered Aircraft Recommendations to NEPA – shows: “For many reasons it is desirable that the aircraft carry a crew.  This implies that the reactor will be surrounded with shielding adequate to protect the crew against radiations escaping from the reactor. It is necessary to determine the amount of radiation a human can reasonably tolerate in a given number of doses, at given repetition frequencies, and at given intensities, so that shield weights can be minimized.  This knowledge is only partially available.”

Despite the ultimatum, those against the human experimentation proceeding were unmoved. It was this stance that, on February 12, 1951, provoked M.C. Leverett, who was the Technical Director of the nuclear aircraft program, to send a memo to Dr. Shields Warren, the Director of Medicine and Biology at the Atomic Energy Commission. It said:

“Dr. Warren, “In connection with our work on Nuclear Powered Flight, we have as you know called together a group of highly qualified experts in the general field of radiology and the effects of radiation upon human beings, in order to assist us in defining the limiting exposure to which we should plan to subject the crew of a nuclear powered airplane. One of the actions taken by this group of experts was the formulation of a program of recommended research necessary, in their opinion, for adequate coverage of the radiobiological aspects of nuclear flight. Among the recommended research projects was the highly controversial one of human experimentation which this group strongly recommended and gave a position of highest priority. For almost two years the various members of this Committee have been making efforts to gain governmental approval of their recommendation regarding human experiments. These efforts have been largely unsuccessful and we and they have come finally to the conclusion that further efforts in this direction would be a waste of energy. We are therefore discontinuing our efforts to obtain governmental approval for experiments on humans along the lines recommended by our Advisory Committee.”

Although the discontinuing went ahead, in the years that followed further research into nuclear-powered aircraft was put into place. Some of those latter-day prototype aircraft may have been mistaken for UFOs – as we shall see in a follow-up article to this one…

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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