Los Alamos Tested Nuclear Engines For Spaceflight | This Week In Space History
by michael shinabery
Following the reactor test, a B-57 flew into the “billowing cloud of white smoke” to “search for radiation,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on June 21, 1959. The crew detected none.
The test at Jackass Flats, Nev., on Saturday, June 20, 1959, was the first ever for the Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear rocket engine Kiwi-A. “The experiment was conducted as part of the AEC’s Project Rover,” the Las Vegas Sun said in its June 21 story, “to determine whether it is feasible to develop an atomic rocket engine for outer space travel.”
Kiwi-A was a “non-flying prototype of the nuclear rocket engine which scientists hope someday will propel man through outer space,” the Review-Journal stated. According to a Feb. 19 feature in The Wall Street Journal, the engine’s namesake was the flightless New Zealand kiwi bird.
Project Rover began in April 1955, the Sun said, but was not revealed publicly until the next year, the New Mexican documented on March 27, 1960. In a story headlined “Chance Remarks Reveal Project Rover,” writer Peggy Corbett said that “on September 5, 1956, the United States revealed it had embarked on one of the most important research projects in recent history – but not with fanfare of publicity and a presidential announcement.” A New Mexican reporter discovered the classified project buried in a Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory ad, including one in the New York Times, announcing engineering jobs. The ad mentioned: “‘N division is concerned with the research and development of nuclear rocket propulsion.'”
U.S. Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, who represented New Mexico and who was chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, questioned the project’s classified designation. Corbett said he “pointed out that the military has set up no requirement for the project and it is not even mentioned in the NASA’s 10-year program.”
As Rover took shape there was apparently very little news nationwide, except in local newspapers, until the Kiwi-A test. The Wall Street Journal may have been the exception. Corbett said that from 1956-1959 the media was “so poorly informed on the subject that the lists of scientific achievements for 1959 fail to mention the test.”
Less than two weeks after the test, the July 2 Los Alamos employee bulletin LASL Community NEWS announced plans for a “permanent Nevada colony in support of (the) Kiwi-Rover Project.” Two years later, however, the New Mexican (July 2, 1961) reported “acceleration of the Rover program may be hampered for the lack of 20 housing units in Los Alamos.”
The bulletin also published photographs showing a handful of reporters awaiting the Kiwi-A firing. They were from the Sun and Review-Journal, and would also file their stories with the news agencies The Associated Press and United Press International. There was also a separate UPI photographer, and a New York Times reporter.
On July 13, 1959, Time described Kiwi-A as “a high-power density reactor” that heated hydrogen to 2,000-3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and proclaimed the test “an event most newspapers ignored.”
The Dec. 3, 1959, LASL Community News informed readers the Voice of America radio network would broadcast an interview describing Kiwi-A, taped at Los Alamos radio station KRSN, “to the people of Germany.”
Three months later, on March 20, 1960, the New Mexican reported that Los Alamos scientists were headed to Washington to present Project Rover to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. They would enlighten the “Congress and the public of prospects for important long-term advances in nuclear energy.”
The website Lanl.gov said Kiwi-B followed, which “increased power by 10-fold.” Phoebus-1 (1965) and -2 (1968) were phase two of Rover, the latter “the most powerful nuclear reactor ever built” at the time. Pewee was phase three, “a smaller version of Kiwi” that was flight-sized.
The New Mexican, on March 25, 1960, said the AEC intended to have a reactor ready to propel a rocket into space in five years, (although there is no record that ever occurred). The Sept. 8 edition noted NASA’s Nuclear Propulsion Office had partnered with the AEC to advance Rover. On Oct. 14, the paper announced a Kiwi-A3 test would take place the following day. On Nov. 1, a UPI story in the paper reported the federal government had “announced a speedup É in Project Rover to develop a nuclear rocket for manned missions to the moon and planets.”
Then, on Jul 27, 1961, the LASL News noted AEC-NASA had “officially named” Jackass Flats the National Nuclear Rocket Development Center.
On Nov. 7, 1961, a Kiwi B-1A engine exploded. The December 1961 Nuclear News attributed the cause to a hydrogen leak. A “portable metal shed temporarily housing the reactor” was “completely wrecked,” and metal smashed the top of a pickup truck. Four men variously “suffered” a broken arm, a fractured bone, a cracked kneecap and perforated eardrums.
Project Rover “ended in 1972” according to the November 1997 LANL publication Reflections, most likely due to budget cuts.
Around the same time as Project Rover began, the Review-Journal reported guards at the Titanium Metals Co. in Henderson, Nev., sighted four UFOs one night. The “oval in shape and silver-white in color” discs flew first in “circular formation, to a straight line formation, and back to a circular formation.” A second story reported on “a rash of flying saucer reports.” Witnesses included a sheriff’s sergeant and staff at the civilian McCarran Field control tower. Nellis Air Force Base and McCarran officials determined the object was a “dying meteor” and not “one of those airborne weirdies.”
The “only disappointed persons in the matter were avid science fiction readers and relentless pursuers of unidentified flying objects, who didn’t like logical explanations about a meteor,” the story said. “A tourist also reported seeing a UFO, but then tourists see a lot of things.”
Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History.