Arc of the Moral Universe or Wormhole?

For years I believed my fate was tethered to Theodore Parker’s arc of the

The Arc of the Moral Universe (Public Domain)

The Arc of the Moral Universe (Public Domain)

Moral universe bending toward justice. However, objective, empirical evidence indicates that I am condemned to wander in a wormhole with its ends fixed between the 1960s and 2010s. In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King concluded an address to the graduating class at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University stating “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” in quotation marks. President Obama and Time Magazine attributed the quote to Dr. King, but the provenance moves the date back to before the Civil War and a series of sermons given by Theodore Parker.

The 1960s. hoto by Albert R. Simpson, Department of Defense. Public domain

Photo by Albert R. Simpson, Department of Defense. Public domain

The 1960s

What a time it was. Baby boomers came of age. For the first time in history over 50 percent of Americans were under the age of 25 and looking for a cause to fight for (it’s what people under 25 do). Revolutions of many colors were in the air, anti-anything was good. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll took the country by storm. The Cold War was at its zenith. The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and assassinations filled the headlines. Technology was ascending and science became the new religion. Space travel was no longer the domain of Buck Rogers or science fiction authors. Check out some of the U.S. headlines:

1960: Russia shot Gary Power’s American U-2 spy plane downed over the motherland * An irritated Khrushchev canceled the Paris summit conference * The Israelis invaded Argentina to capture Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi noted for the extermination of Jews (The Israelis executed Eichmann in 1962) * Mao’s Communist China and the Soviet Union split in conflict over Communist ideology * Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Madagascar, and Zaire (Belgian Congo) gained independence * Cuba confiscated $770 million of U.S. property * 900 U.S. military advisers were in South Vietnam * 1961: U.S. and Cuba severed diplomatic relationship * Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration * Moscow’s Yuri Gagarin became first man in orbit around Earth * Cuba routed the U.S./exiles Bay of Pigs invasion *The U.S.’s astronauts, Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom, made it into space * Russia’s Titov went one better by orbiting the earth over seventeen times in the Vostok II * East Germans erected the Berlin Wall to keep the East Berliners home * The U.S. detonated a really nasty 50-megaton hydrogen bomb * 2,000 U.S. military advisers were in South Vietnam * 1962: Lt. Col. John Glenn, Jr. was the first American to orbit Earth * Algeria gained independence from France * The Soviets and Americans faced off during the Cuban missile crisis * James Meredith registered at University of Mississippi thanks to protection from federal marshals * Cuba released 1,113 prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt * Burundi, Jamaica, Western Samoa, Uganda, and Trinidad and Tobago became independent * 11,000 U.S. military advisers were in South Vietnam * 1963: France and West Germany signed a treaty of cooperation ending four centuries of conflict * Dr. De Bakey implanted the first artificial heart in human; the patient lived four days * Pope John XXIII died and was succeeded by Cardinal Montini, Paul VI * U.S. Supreme Court ruled no locality may require recitation of Lord’s Prayer or Bible verses in public schools * The U.K.’s Profumo scandal broke out * Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the “I have a dream” speech to a Civil rights rally held by 200,000 blacks and whites in Washington, D.C. * Washington-to-Moscow “hot line” communications link opened to reduce the risk of accidental war * President Kennedy was assassinated by sniper in Dallas, TX and Lyndon B. Johnson became president * Lee Harvey Oswald, accused assassin of President Kennedy, was murdered by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner * Kenya achieved independence * Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” * 15,000 U.S. military advisers were in South Vietnam * 1964: U.S. Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts should be roughly equal in population * Ruby convicted of murder and sentenced to death for slaying Lee Harvey Oswald (the conviction was reversed Oct. 5, 1966; Ruby died Jan. 3, 1967) * Three civil rights workers—Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney—murdered in Mississippi * Twenty-one arrests resulted in trial and conviction of seven by federal jury * Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment * Congress approved Gulf of Tonkin resolution (The Gulf of Tonkin turned out to be a false flag incident) * The Warren Report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone * The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show * 23,310 U.S. military personnel were in South Vietnam * 1965: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than 2,600 other blacks arrested in Selma, Ala., during three-day demonstrations against voter-registration rules * Malcolm X, black-nationalist leader, shot to death at Harlem rally in New York City * U.S. Marines and Army Rangers landed in Dominican Republic * Medicare, senior citizens’ government medical assistance program, began * Blacks rioted for six days in Watts section of Los Angeles: 34 dead, over 1,000 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, fire damage put at $175 million * A power failure in Ontario plant blacked out parts of eight states of northeast U.S. and two provinces of southeast Canada * Ralph Nader’s published “Unsafe at Any Speed” * 184,314 U.S. military personnel were in South Vietnam * 1966: Black teenagers rioted in Watts, Los Angeles; two men killed and at least 25 injured * The Supreme Court decided Miranda v* Arizona * 382,010 U.S. military personnel were in South Vietnam * 1967: Three Apollo astronauts—Col. Virgil Grissom, Col. Edward White II, and Lt. Cmdr. Roger Chaffee—killed in spacecraft fire during simulated launch * Biafra seceded from Nigeria * Israeli and Arab forces engaged in the Six-day War that ended with Israel occupying Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, and east bank of Suez Canal * Red China announced the explosion of its first hydrogen bomb * Racial violence in Detroit; 7,000 National Guardsmen aided police after night of rioting * Similar outbreaks occur in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, Rochester, N.Y., Birmingham, Ala., and New Britain, Conn. * Thurgood Marshall sworn in as first black U.S. Supreme Court justice * Dr. Christiaan Barnard and team of South African surgeons performed world’s first successful human heart transplant-patient died 18 days later* 485,600 U.S. military personnel were in South Vietnam * 1968: North Korea seized U.S. Navy ship Pueblo and held 83 on board as spies * Tet offensive started, turning point in Vietnam War * My Lai massacre * President Johnson announced he would not seek or accept presidential re-nomination * Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated in Memphis and James Earl Ray, indicted in his murder, captured in London (in 1969 Ray plead guilty and sentenced to 99 years) * Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot and critically wounded in Los Angeles hotel after winning California primary-he died the next day * (Sirhan Sirhan convicted 1969) * Czechoslovakia invaded by Russians and Warsaw Pact forces crushed the liberal regime* 549,500 U.S. military personnel were in South Vietnam * 1969: Richard M. Nixon inaugurated 37th president of the U.S. * Stonewall riot in New York City marks beginning of gay rights movement * Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins—took man’s first walk on moon * Sen. Edward Kennedy plead guilty to leaving scene of fatal accident at Chappaquiddick, Mass. in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned—got a two-month suspended sentence * Woodstock Festival * Sesame Street debuts * Internet (ARPA) goes online * 549,500 U.S. military personnel were in South Vietnam * Continue reading

For Want of a Wrench

The U.S. federal government is lathered up and hell-bent on spending money to

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

safeguard the nuclear weapons stockpile. I hope so. The nuclear weapons stockpile is a politically benign way to discuss the U.S.’ pile of nuclear weapons. Of necessity it includes the people and infrastructure needed to maintain and deliver them. Secretary of Defense Hagel employs the phrase ‘nuclear deterrence system’ to describe the same stuff; nukes and what it takes to deploy them. I am happy the listen to the lip service being given to safeguarding the nukes by SecDef and the President, but I will believe it when I see it. So far, so good, but all that’s visible to date is Missileers falling on their swords and lip service to problems well-known to military management and policy makers since at least the 1980s. Everyone living in the U.S. as well as all of its neighbors should be worried about political follow-through, because one little rogue nuke can ruin your day.

It was the middle of September in 1980 when famers and residents of Damascus,

Faulkner County Arkansas and the site of  Titan II Launch Complex 374-7

Faulkner County Arkansas and the site of Titan II Launch Complex 374-7

Arkansas woke up to every Americans’ worst nightmare and most never knew it was happening until the injured began to roll in. It wasn’t the first or last incident, but it is a documented incident that went before the President, SecDef, and Congress. They knew. A simple dropped socket wrench on a routine service call at the Titan II Launch Complex 374-7 just north of Damascus triggered a series of events that should frighten the collective daylights out of U.S. citizens:

“…On September 18, 1980, at about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on the Titan II missile dropped a wrench socket, which fell about eighty feet before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket’s first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. The commander of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing quickly formed a potential-hazard team, and by 9:00 p.m., the Air Force personnel manning the site were evacuated. About one hour later, Air Force security police began evacuating nearby civilian residents as efforts continued to determine the status of the missile and the fuel leak.

Senior Airman David Livingston and Sergeant Jeff K. Kennedy entered the launch

Image of the Damascus explosion

Image of the Damascus explosion

complex early on the morning of September 19 to get readings of airborne fuel concentrations, which they found to be at their maximum. At about 3:00 a.m., the two men returned to the surface to await further instructions. Just as they sat down on the concrete edge of the access portal, the missile exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch duct closure door 200 feet into the air and some 600 feet northeast of the launch complex. The W-53 nuclear warhead landed about 100 feet from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. Kennedy, his leg broken, was blown 150 feet from the silo. Livingston lay amid the rubble of the launch duct for some time before security personnel located and evacuated him. Livingston died of his injuries that day. Twenty-one people were injured by the explosion or during rescue efforts….”[1] Continue reading

Nuclear Emergency Search Team

Who are you going to call if you misplace a nuke or a nuclear powered satellite comes crashing down or some terrorist gets all creative and crazy with radioactive sources from medical diagnostic equipment? Either the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, or Department of Homeland Security, DHS, comes to mind.  Okay, good so far, but who do they call? The next call, if they are smart,



would be to the Department of Energy, DOE, to activate NEST, the acronym for the Nuclear Emergency Search Team. As with all things federal, names change with the regularity of the seasons and NEST, as of now, stands for Nuclear Emergency Support Team. In the mid-1990s my job description included the management, a term I use loosely with incredibly brilliant scientists and engineers, of the Remote Sensing Laboratory, RSL, housed at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. The DOE contractor managed RSL, a NEST component.

Originally organized in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission, The DOE’s predecessor, as the Aerial Measurements Operations, the RSL is still located at Nellis AFB. RSL was established to

Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis AFB

Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis AFB

provide a prompt response to radiological emergencies anywhere in the world. In 1976, during the Bicentennial, an additional RSL site was established at Maryland’s Andrews AFB.  The Bicentennial introduced an opportunity for political terrorism and the US ramped-up its East Coast Counterterrorism capability within several agencies including DOE. As part of a rapid deployment, world-wide response team, RSL’s team is cross-trained and on-call 24/7 to provide; radiation detection, surveillance, monitoring, and analysis, high speed telemetry, geographic information systems, and, of course, photos and videos of all the fun being had.

Business as usual was the RSL order of the day for Wednesday, December 4, 1996. Christmas decorations were showing up here and there, my favorite physicist and engineer were not bickering, catalogs were discreetly scattered about for fellow employees to support various school and club projects and everyone was free of the tension from the contract take-over, which included a mandatory ten percent cut in numbers of employees. In my office at the North Las Vegas DOE facility, the phone line from RSL had not rung once that Wednesday. The silence continued after work as well, which was a bit eerie. I managed several operational units and usually some train was going off the track somewhere. Zero telephone calls meant an uninterrupted meal and the ability to communicate with the family in complete sentences.

The phone ringer pierced my consciousness at 3:30 a.m. and I hit the snooze alarm twice before figuring out it was the wrong torture implement. The call from my DOE counterpart informed me that RSL response team had been activated and placed on a readiness hold because First Lady Hillary Clinton was in Bolivia. I was dressed, pouring a cup of coffee and debating whether or not to contact the company president before I realized that the information made absolutely no sense. I am well-trained; the client calls and I haul even if I haven’t a clue why. The early hour did not surprise or alarm me since the people on the East Coast are generally unaware of time zones and all calls of this nature emanated from there. The only other person I knew with certainty was awake in Las Vegas at that hour, gamblers and partiers excepted, was the DOE guy so I called back.

The focus sharpened considerably when DOE explained that the First Lady was in Bolivia meeting with other First Ladies of the Americas[1] when she was told that bits of radioactive materials were arriving in La Paz open-air markets and were selling smartly. I was aware that a satellite had returned abruptly from orbit but believed it had crashed into the Pacific Ocean off of Chile’s

A typical day on deployment.

A typical day on deployment.

northern coast. It seems that the satellite had dropped important pieces of itself across Bolivia’s high plains, the Altiplano, and, probably across Chile’s Atacama Desert. Mrs. Clinton had offered the services of the RSL to the Bolivian government. That was a revelation. I had no idea that the First Lady had that authority and said as much. I was squared-away smartly with a reminder that Mrs. Clinton was no ordinary First Lady. The real aggravation was that the CIA was calling the shots and those spooks were, in my opinion, not fun to deal with. CIA briefings are always good; filled with fun, facts and folklore. Entry briefings are conducted by the CIA’s personable extroverts. CIA debriefings, on the other hand, are not fun and are not conducted by personable extroverts.

The idea of the team spending Christmas overflying the Altiplanos in Bolivia and Chile was not amusing; beginning with the landing at the La Paz, Bolivia airport, which is downright scary. The camp would have to be established at very high altitude and everyone would be sick as dogs until their bodies adjusted. Unfortunately emergencies are not engineered at convenient times and everyone was raring to get going. It had been a long time between deployments. The Bolivian drill was a hurry up and wait exercise that lasted several days; yes, no, maybe was the dispatch. Aircraft were made ready with instrumentation and discarded for longer-range military aircraft. Equipment was calibrated. Gear was checked and re-checked but the wait went on and on. When Chile responded with an emphatic no to using their airspace, RSL stood down. The Chilean government was not, it seems, keen on help from any three letter U.S. agency. They said they would handle the debris field themselves, thank you very much. I presume they did.

Life as a component of NEST is not the stuff of movies but it is interesting. The federal government had been concerned about loose nuclear devices from the late 1940s but responses were individualized based on the incident. An attempt to extort money by threatening a nuclear detonation in Boston was the event that triggered the formation of NEST, a DOE national laboratory and contractor team from Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia.  According to National Security Archives’ Jeffrey T. Richelson, “In May 1974 the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a letter demanding that $200,000 be left at a particular location or a nuclear bomb would be detonated somewhere in Boston. In response to the threat William Chambers, a physicist with the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, was instructed to assemble a team of scientists and technical personnel to travel to Boston and search for the allegedly hidden device.” [2]

In addition to extortion, the U.S. had experienced the loss of nuclear bombs through accidents that occurred in the 1960s in Palomares, Spain and Thule, Greenland. During the Nixon administration nuclear power plants rose to the surface as did the use of radioactive sources for dirty bombs. At its formation, NEST began the rigorous process of mapping out protocols and developing equipment for responses to potential disasters from these causes as well. The hard work paid off when a Soviet Cosmos 954 nuclear powered satellite re-entered the atmosphere and crashed in Canada’s Northwest Territory giving birth to Operation Morning Light. It remains one of the few, full NEST deployments and it had all of the dramatic attributes of a great movie.  The old-timers loved to talk about this deployment; it was exciting, challenging and a big win for NEST. The details provided by the National Security Archives provide the rest of the story.

Somehow, the Soviets forgot to mention that a very big, 8,800 pound satellite powered by 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium 235 was in a destabilized orbit and going to crash. The Soviet reactor, which powered the satellite, used a fission process that would result in some very bad actors, like radioactive strontium, cesium and iodine, surviving re-entry. Fortunately some alert folks picked up on the satellite’s looming demise and projections were hurriedly made to discover its projected crash site. North America ended up the prime candidate for receiving the failing satellite and NEST was activated, but a command decision was made not to worry the American people with this news. Certain governments, however, like Canada, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand and Japan were read-in on the dirty little secret. Although everybody, DOD, EPA, NSC, CIA, State Department, FPA and EPA, was in on the game, DOE was in operational control at the request of the NSC.

The Cosmos 954 re-entered the earth’s atmosphere around 7:00 a.m. EST on January 24, 1978 just over Canada’s Charlotte Islands. For the next three minutes it disintegrated and dropped

Baker Lake

Baker Lake

pieces from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake in Canada. People in Yellowknife and along the Hay River watched the satellite burn through the dark January skies lighting up the Northwest Territories for the party that would follow. By January 26, 1978, NEST had its first boots on the ground.

Over the next four months, NEST combed a large part of the 15,000 square mile area using information gathered at each phase to narrow and concentrate the search. As exciting as the operation was, first blood was not to be theirs. The very first piece of radioactive debris was discovered by a couple of guys traveling by dog sled along the Thelon River. They were participating in a six person trek from the Yukon to Great Slave Lake through the Northwest Territory. Go figure.

The Operation Morning Light was over by April 2, 1978. In the end, the team collected a large

Thelon River just above where the first radioactive pieces were found.

Thelon River just above where the first radioactive pieces were found.

quantity of radioactive and non-radioactive debris. In conclusion, DOE stated that the radioactive core disintegrated, that the search area was accurate, and that it was highly probable that most of the radioactive material had been found. The full complement of about 600 skilled scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff participated and, as the lessons were learned, they built them into the process. A large variety of aircraft from Hueys and Chinooks to KC-135s and Argus C-107s provided the instrumentation platforms and logistics support. Icebreakers and vans hauled people and supplies. The Canadian government and U.S. government cooperated to secure the area and keep the people informed. By most measures Operation Morning Light was a success. As for the participants?  The ones I talked to in Nevada fondly remembered an exciting, exhilarating, very cold time. They felt they had participated in mitigating what might have been a human and environmental disaster.

As with many programs, NEST resources and skill sets are dwindling. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, NEST, like many operations, has become far more secretive. That is not always a good thing. Once the cloak of secrecy is pulled around such a group, there is a loss of accountability. Whether or not NEST can respond to a disaster similar in type or scale to the Cosmos 954 is in question. They, like so many others are at the mercy of a behemoth, the Department of Homeland Security, and success is likely to be a real crap shoot.


Department of Energy; Remote Sensing Laboratory;

Department of Energy; Cybersecurity Collaborations Symposium – September 11, 2012; The Remote Sensing Laboratory;

Department of Energy; National Nuclear Security Administration; Nuclear Emergency Support Team;

The George Washington University; National Security Archive’s “Nuclear Vault”;


[1] Ocala Star Banner; Associated Press; December 3, 1996, John King; Hillary Urges Family Planning;,3340143

[2] The National Archives; Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson; The Nuclear Emergency Search Team, 1974-1996;

The Rise of the Minuteman

The year of 1962 found me sitting in a house in Great Falls, Montana; a teenager mulling

 Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range, Great Falls, MT

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range, Great Falls, MT

over the transfer into yet another school and wondering if I could get credit for that Washington state history course I’d taken. Probably not. I would have to take a course on Montana’s history. That January in 1962, while the Cuban Missile crisis storm was rising, I was busy hating Great Falls’ sub-zero temperatures pushed farther down the Fahrenheit scale by a wild wind that blew in directly from the Artic. Great Falls was wheat lands country and there was nothing between the Artic and Great Falls; it was all flat. My family traveled a great deal. We had lived in Chile for a number of years and through most of the northern tier of states from Washington to Minnesota. We weren’t rich. Upon his return from WWII’s Pacific theater, my Dad gave up his dreams of college and settled into the business of making a living for his family by working construction as an electrical superintendent. We were in Great Falls because he had a job supporting the construction of the Minuteman missile sites.

My sister’s poodle is responsible for my first exposure to the Cold War (1947-1991) infrastructure. When the poodle had puppies, my dachshund was not supportive of the

Minuteman ICBM

Minuteman ICBM

poodle or the puppies and that got us both unceremoniously ejected from the house and into my father’s workplace. We would rise at 4:00 am, grab a bite to eat, make lunches, and head to the local general aviation airport where we boarded a plane and took off into the Montana farmland around Great Falls. The sites we visited were each in a slightly different stage of construction and all were being readied to accept the Minuteman ICBMs that were being manufactured elsewhere. I discovered that each silo was three stories deep and, in the event of a launch, a huge concrete slab that covered it would be blown clear. One of the sites we visited was a control site. The big cables I saw at the smaller sites ran to a series of manned control centers deep underground.  It was all very impressive other than it was out in the middle of nowhere. Later I learned so much more.

The rise of the 1960s Minuteman ICBMs was the logical outcome of three major technological developments in the 1950s. The advances combined with the realization that, while many countries wanted to be protected from the former Soviet Union, few were lining up to have a nuclear arsenal on their soil. Inertial guidance system developments provided for increased ICBM accuracy.  The former Soviet Union and the rest of the allies split the science baby at the end of the WWII hostilities. The WWII Nazi V-2 rocket guidance technology was a spoil of war. Werner Von Braun, a leader in the Nazi rocket program, and about 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles joined the U.S. science community. The other major inertial guidance system players were Caltech and NASA JPL. The inertial guidance system enabled a missile to hit its target and the first piece of the three piece puzzle was in place.

The second piece of the puzzle was the development of Edward Teller’s concept of thermonuclear weapons which gave much more bang for the nuclear buck. Ivy Mike,

Ivy Mike

Ivy Mike

detonated on Eniwetok Atoll in late 1952, was the first test of the concept. The view of the Operation Ivy’s beautiful turquoise blue, crystal clear water in the craters contrasting with the dark blue Pacific waters were the first thing I saw when I flew into Eniwetok  in the early 1990s. Thermonuclear weapons are staged weapons. A little fission device is detonated to add heat, compress and trigger the second stage hydrogen fusion device. This tactic provides for much more explosive power, or yield.

The final piece of the Minuteman puzzle was the development of powerful booster engines for multistage rockets, greatly increasing their size and range. Three missile workhorses were developed. The Titan and Atlas missiles had to be fueled just before launch, which

Atlas-5 rocket equipped with an RD-180 engine

Atlas-5 rocket equipped with an RD-180 engine

made them inconvenient for ICBM use and they went on to become stars in the NASA space programs. The Minuteman I and II, which went into the field in 1962, used solid fuels stored within the missile that could lift up to three warheads, each with the destructive power of a megaton or greater. At this point the U.S. could deliver big bombs with good accuracy anywhere in the northern hemisphere, or the world for that matter, in less time than it takes for a nice hot bath.

As the technology was advancing at breakneck speed, the political arena caught fire. In Smart Rocks, Brilliant Pebbles, and all that Political Jazz, we discussed Eisenhower’s fight to defend the country from bombers dropping bombs on the countryside and his aha moment when it was realized that the threat would come from the direction of missiles. Lack of much solid intelligence from the former Soviet Union left the door wide open to build disaster scenarios on what THEY might be doing. The lobby for missile manufacturers and other defense contractors went into overdrive and the Air force hammered the fear home.

As the 1960 election approached, Eisenhower’s adherence to tight fiscal policies came under attack.  Eisenhower was a proponent of little debt as was illustrated in his funding strategy for the Interstate Highway system, discussed in Ribbons: The Interstate Highway System. During the elections the ‘missile gap’ allegations between the Soviets and the U.S. reached fever pitch and the cause for the ‘gap’ was laid directly at the feet of the Eisenhower administration’s fiscal policies. In November 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), the future presidential candidate, initiated the ‘missile gap’ charge when he claimed that the Eisenhower administration placed fiscal policy ahead of national security. As a result, he said, the nation faced “a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known.”[1]

Eisenhower wasn’t worried about a ‘missile gap’. The veil of secrecy prevented President Eisenhower from disclosing the U-2 photographic evidence that confirmed the lack of a ‘gap’. The secrecy code sword cuts both ways and the well-earned lack of trust in the government allows fear games and manipulation. Shortly after the 1960 presidential election ‘missile gap’ discussions were muted. They flared again in February 1961 when Secretary of Defense McNamara stated that there was no missile gap during a press briefing. The next big surge of fear mongering arrived when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in April 1962. As a teenager, I will attest to the fact I was terrified along with millions of others.

Patriotic farmers from across America’s breadbasket gave up two or more acres of their land to the federal government for the deployment of 1,000 ICBMs to protect us from the Soviet menace. Thousands worked on the construction, thousands were employed to manufacture the missiles and their parts, and thousands more worked to support the installations. Many have tried but failed to tally the total cost of our ICBM defense but it runs to the trillions of dollars.

Did it work? Many say yes. We didn’t have a nuclear war, did we? Others say no and we placed millions of innocent civilians in harm’s way.  I am a proponent of military strength as a deterrent.  I also respectfully disagree that there is such a thing as ‘innocent civilians’ during a war. Historical cycles tend to support those positions. Weak countries are overrun and citizens, by virtue of their status, are responsible for their governments’ actions. How we got strong is another matter. Rather than a discussion with the American people coupled with disclosure of evidence, the federal government opts for lies, secrecy and manipulation.

Personally, I resented the fear I felt as a kid. I was manipulated and that makes me feel stupid. As soon as I gained a broader world view from within and without the U.S., I began to question, read, and apply the principles of skepticism to everything that emanates from the federal government and its minions. Whenever the government wants something-oil, resources, and so on-they drop a big rock in the population bathtub and, just before everyone drowns, they provide ‘the answer’. Predictably, the tactic is becoming more and more acute, the dropped rock is getting bigger and the bathtub more crowded. Now, the bathtub population is being assaulted with a mind-numbing economic strategy. Individuals within the bathtub population can hardly breathe, let alone think. The next rock dropped in the tub will drown many, I think.

The teenager I was in 1961 was definitely going to be a medical doctor. Instead, I became an engineer and the decades rocketed by at close to the speed of light. The twine of my life was bound around the core of the Cold War (1947-1991) and, although I am sliding into home all used up, I had a great ride. Ideas are the most powerful force in the universe so just keep thinking.

In the Shade of the Boojum

Stockpile stewardship is all about the reliability and maintenance of the nuclear weapons

Boojum Tree

Boojum Tree

that are in the U.S. nuclear inventory. No longer can a representative sample of any weapon design be hauled to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Nevada Test Site and tested. One would think that somewhere on the government’s landscape would be Joe’s Nuke Shop; Special this month on reliability; All maintenance done at a reasonable rates by certified technicians. While every other nation in the world probably knows the exact status of the U.S. stockpile, it is kept a deep, dark secret from the taxpayers. Getting a handle on how reliable the U.S. stockpile is today and how well it is maintained is a parody on Lewis Carrolls’ The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits). A good synopsis of the plot is available: [1]

“After crossing the sea guided by the Bellman’s map of the Ocean—a blank sheet of paper—the hunting party The_Hunting_of_the_Snark_by_pyxelatedarrive (sic) in a strange land. The Baker recalls that his uncle once warned him that, though catching Snarks is all well and good, you must be careful; for, if your Snark is a Boojum, then you will softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again. With this in mind, they split up to hunt. Along the way, the Butcher and Beaver -previously mutually wary for the Butcher’s specialty in preparing beavers- become fast friends, the Barrister falls asleep and dreams of a court trial defended by the Snark, and the Banker loses his sanity after being attacked by a frumious Bandersnatch. At the end, the Baker calls out that he has found a Snark; but when the others arrive he has mysteriously disappeared, ‘For the Snark was a Boojum, you see’.”

One of the first things I learned at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) was that the National Labs, Livermore (LLNL), Los Alamos (LANL), and DNA tested ‘physics packages’ and, following testing, some of the ‘physics packages’ tested by LLNL and LANL might be weaponized by the military. The DNA physics packages were mostly looking at nuclear effects. Another prominent player at NTS was the Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia developed and tested the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons and participated as an experimenter during the nuclear tests. My job supported the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), which was absorbed in a consolidation of several Department of Defense (DoD) agencies and is now the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Stockpile testing was performed by either Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories depending upon the type of weapon.

Civilians tested; the military turned them into weapons. Worked for me! All of the nuclear



materials were produced at various Department of Energy (DOE) sites and DOE’s Pantex facility performed the necessary assembly and disassembly. Civilian rather than military personnel were responsible for the science and design. I was told that the Truman Administration had established that pecking order. There were, according to reports, many long, passionate debates among the politicians, nuclear scientists, and the military as to who should do what, to whom, and why in the business of the atom. In 1946, Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act codifying the civilian-military nuclear waltz.[2]  I always liked the symmetry of the process; it felt as though checks and balances were in place.

Nuclear weapons come in all shapes and sizes from as small as artillery shells to packages that weigh several hundred pounds. As opposed to the varieties of the packaging, the physics of nuclear weapons is fairly straightforward:[3]

  1. Fission Weapons: Also called atomic bombs, use only fission reactions as a source of energy.
  2. Uranium Gun-Type Device (HEU): Is a relatively simple device because it does not require sophisticated explosive or electronic components.
  3. Implosion Design (Plutonium or HEU): Is a fission weapon that uses explosives to rapidly compress one or more spheres of fissile material into a critical mass.
  4. Fusion Weapons: Uses the fusion of deuterium and tritium, both heavy isotopes of hydrogen, releases energy as well as a neutron with seven times more energy than a fission neutron.
  5. (Fusion) Boosted Fission Weapons:  Fusion takes advantage of high energy neutron collisions to speed up the chain reaction, which increases the efficiency by a hundred-fold. It is used in almost every deployed nuclear weapon.
  6. Thermonuclear Weapons (Hydrogen Bombs): These are the really big boys with explosions in the megatons. The destructive energy is the result of three separate but nearly simultaneous explosions. Huge explosive power packed into small, light-weight packages that can be delivered by missiles is the hallmark of these babies.

The good news is that the number and diversity of nuclear weapons continues its downward trend. According to the Nuclear Weapons Archives, the U.S. has manufactured about 70,000 nuclear weapons using over 70 different designs. By 1991, the U.S.was maintaining 26 designs and about 23,000 nuclear weapons. If the treaty signed by President Obama and President Medvedev in 2010 is being honored, we are approaching a stockpile of something under 2,000 nuclear weapons with less than seven designs.

The bad news is that the nuclear stockpile is old; well past its projected life. Fewer numbers of designs means an increased risk of single point failure. Further, the DOE infrastructure to support nuclear weapons has been effectively dismantled as has the brain trust. Just getting enough tritium might be tough today. The nuclear physicists, engineers, and technicians are also aging, making it difficult to locate something as simple as the as-builts on the weapons.

After the last nuclear test in 1992, DOE and the national labs began using simulations as a mechanism for determining the health of the stockpile. By the time I left the NTS, DOE had constructed a special facility to allow sub-critical testing for measurements and modeling. LANL now has a magnificent supercomputer upon which it may intricately model the weapons, and their behavior, based on past experience and the current condition of the chemistry and physics. In Amarillo, Texas,  Pantex still assembles and dissembles the weapons and plutonium ‘pits’, spheres of plutonium metal, are still manufactured to replace spent or dicey ‘pits’.  What is left of DOE’s production facilities supply what they can. The DOE hopes to modernize the stockpile but they must tread very carefully. If the scientists deviate too much from the existing designs, they will venture into unknown territory with no way to test the nuclear package. Last but not least the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is responsible for knowing where the stockpile weapons are located and inspecting them.

Now that the map to the Snark is drawn and the paper is no longer blank, we must ask where we are. I do not trust modeling. More money has been spent to model the weather than just about any other natural phenomena and forecasters get it wrong all of the time. Modeling is a tool that should be used in concert with testing. Based on tests, the model gets tweaked and becomes a bit better. Improvement is iterative.

Nuclear weapons are not static, they are closer to living than dead. The radioactive components of nuclear weapons are constantly striving to become something other than what they are. In their effort to attain nuclear nirvana, they naturally emit bits and pieces of ionizing radiation. It is why they are called radioactive. Many people toss the word decay about with abandon and without explanation. What it means is that these radioactive divas keep losing energy to reach their goal of stability. During the process an atom of the original material, called the parent radionuclide, changes to an atom with a different number of protons and neutrons, which is called a daughter nuclide. Check out the Periodic Table[4] and you’ll see that eventually the radioactive material becomes some other material. It is called transmutation.

The point is, people spend a lifetime studying this phenomenon and new discoveries are made all of the time. Computer modeling can’t forecast the weather and it sure is not the be all and end all of monitoring our nuclear stockpile. The stockpile stewards in the DOE and military families know this and keep improving the data and the science but the money to do that is provided through Congress and Congress is plagued with attention deficit disorder. They cannot pass a budget, let alone deal with something as complicated as the demands of the nuclear stockpile.

Someday, perhaps soon, the nation will want to either abolish the stockpile or test it and everyone who ever handled nuclear testing will be dead. Russia is doing some nuclear stretching. It is recalling scientists to service and improving facilities. Russia, you see, never drop kicked her scientists like the U.S. did.  The U.S. federal government paid nuclear scientists in Russia, Ukraine, Libya, Kazakhstan, and other places to work on other technologies.  Back at home, though, we let most of the nuclear workforce go to wherever they could.

_92783_india_nuc300Perhaps the reliability and maintenance of our nuclear stockpile needs to be revisited. Perhaps the dismantled infrastructure needs to be evaluated. Given the world situation and the state of government, reasonable Americans ought to at least have the conversation. Ignoring the dangers of a degraded stockpile and refusing to face the fact that we can no longer effectively predict our country’s ability to defend itself will not make the individual safer. Ignore the federal government’s agenda and the media interpretation; think for yourself. Perhaps it is time we listened to music. Do you remember the song One Tin Soldier? It begins[5]:

On the mountain was a treasure Buried deep beneath the stone, And the valley-people swore They’d have it for their very own…

And it ends:

There won’t be any trumpets blowing Come the judgement day, On the bloody morning after….One tin soldier rides away.

There’s a lesson there, I think. Let us not bask in the shade of the Boojum with a blank sheet of paper for a map. Let us not quietly disappear. Irrespective of conventional wisdom, the power to change the world resides within each individual lending his or her creativity and skills to a solution rather than with the protagonist Borg. Let us pick up our brains and rally for basic common sense before that bloody morning arrives when one tin soldier rides away.



[2]  The Atomic Energy Commission; Alice Buck; July 1983;

[3]  DTIRP Outreach Program, Defense Threat Reduction Agency;

[4] Periodic Table;

[5] One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack);