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Old 21-05-2009, 05:01 AM   #1
eaglewingone
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Default The Thunderwell Story

The February/March 1992 issue of Air & Space magazine, published by the Smithsonian, contained an article about nuclear rocket propulsion:

Every kid who has put a firecracker under a tin can understands the principle of using high explosives to loft an object into space. What was novel to scientists at Los Alamos [the atomic laboratory in New Mexico] was the idea of using an atomic bomb as propellant. That strategy was the serendipitous result of an experiment that had gone somewhat awry.

"Project Thunderwell was the inspiration of astrophysicist Bob Brownlee, who in the summer of 1957 was faced with the problem of containing underground an explosion, expected to be equivalent to a few hundred tons of dynamite. Brownlee put the bomb at the bottom of a 500-foot vertical tunnel in the Nevada desert, sealing the opening with a four-inch thick steel plate weighing several hundred pounds. He knew the lid would be blown off; he didn't know exactly how fast. High-speed cameras caught the giant manhole cover as it began its unscheduled flight into history. Based upon his calculations and the evidence from the cameras, Brownlee estimated that the steel plate was traveling at a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth's gravity when it soared into the flawless blue Nevada sky. 'We never found it. It was gone,' Brownlee says, a touch of awe in his voice almost 35 years later.
"The following October the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, billed as the first man-made object in Earth orbit. Brownlee has never publicly challenged the Soviet's claim. But he has his doubts."

This article appears to be largely responsible for the presence of the "Sputnik manhole cover" legend on the Internet, where it has been often discussed. It does not identify the test, but from the information in the article it can be deduced that it had to be Pascal-B, which has since be confirmed to me by Dr. Brownlee

The article is more-or-less accurate, but gives a false impression of what was actually known about the plate's journey (and is wrong in its use of the term Project Thunderwell).

As Dr. Brownlee explains, the figure of "a velocity six times that needed to escape Earth's gravity" refers to the results of a simulation, that may not of been a good model of the actual test conditions (the actual yield for example, was unknown even if all other parameters were correct). No measurement of the actual plate velocity was made.

If the description of the plate is accurate - 4 feet wide, 4 inches thick and made of steel - then it would weigh about 900 kg (a lower weight is possible if the dimensions are inaccurate or if it was not of uniform thickness). A velocity of 6 times Earth's escape velocity (67 km/sec, since escape velocity is 11.2 km/sec) would give the plate a kinetic energy 60% larger than the total energy released by the explosion. This is clearly impossible.

Brownlee explained to this author, by email, that the concrete plug placed in close proximity to the bomb was vaporized by the explosion. Thus the propulsion of the plate could be considered to be due to the energy imparted by this expanding vaporized material, rather like the propellant of a gun. From the descriptions available of the plug a mass of at least 3000 kg can be estimated, and if half the bomb's energy were deposited in it then it would have an energy density of 50 times that of normal gun propellant. From the physics of high velocity guns, it can be estimated that velocities produced by the gas expanding up the long shaft could propel and object to velocities exceeding Earth's escape velocity, perhaps as much as twice escape velocity.

Dr.Brownlee's explanation link:http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Brownlee.html

Last edited by eaglewingone; 21-05-2009 at 05:24 AM.
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Old 21-05-2009, 06:27 AM   #2
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This is a representation of a underground nuclear explosion. If you notice there is the "plug" that Dr. Brownlee mentioned.Just imagine the steel plate on top of the plug.

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Old 21-05-2009, 09:17 AM   #3
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The art department of 2001 briefly toyed with the idea of making the Discovery powered by controlled nuclear explosion using pulses and a buffer plate with shock absorbers at the rear to smooth out the motion but felt the idea of the ship putt putting it's way across the solar system a little too comical. Also Kubrick wanted to avoid an implied obsession with atomic explosions given the end of "Dr Strangelove". The idea was probably inspired by this experiment.
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Old 21-05-2009, 09:26 AM   #4
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The art department of 2001 briefly toyed with the idea of making the Discovery powered by controlled nuclear explosion using pulses and a buffer plate with shock absorbers at the rear to smooth out the motion but felt the idea of the ship putt putting it's way across the solar system a little too comical. Also Kubrick wanted to avoid an implied obsession with atomic explosions given the end of "Dr Strangelove". The idea was probably inspired by this experiment.
I did not know that. Actually, Project Orion was supposed to use nuclear pulse explosions to propel a spacecraft to the stars. It would have worked but the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 shelved it permanently. But the man hole proved the project would have worked.
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Old 21-05-2009, 09:37 AM   #5
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Yes, the theory is sound. Not sure how comfortable people would feel about atomic explosions going off above them though. You can understand the resistence along with the idea of atomic powered aircraft.
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Old 21-05-2009, 10:00 AM   #6
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THe big bang theory... sorry couldn't resist.
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Old 21-05-2009, 11:29 PM   #7
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Yes, the theory is sound. Not sure how comfortable people would feel about atomic explosions going off above them though. You can understand the resistence along with the idea of atomic powered aircraft.
Everything will occur in Earth orbit. The spacecraft will be built in Earth orbit and fueled in Earth orbit. You will use chemical thrusters to manuver the spacecraft on the far side of the Moon and the spacecraft will begin its launch sequence.We have been using nuclear powered interplanetary probes since the 1960s but not the nuclear pulse explosions.

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Old 21-05-2009, 11:33 PM   #8
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Everything will occur in Earth orbit. The spacecraft will be built in Earth orbit and fueled in Earth orbit. You will use chemical thrusters to manuver the spacecraft on the far side of the Moon and the spacecraft will begin its launch sequence.
All interplanetary and interstellar craft espeecially those using nuclear power will have to be built in Earth orbit due to cost and saftey.
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Old 22-05-2009, 10:28 PM   #9
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Also Kubrick wanted to avoid an implied obsession with atomic explosions given the end of "Dr Strangelove". The idea was probably inspired by this experiment.
Of course, they could have taken inspiration from the Original Ending of Dr Strangelove - the Custard pie fight in the War Room...
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Old 23-05-2009, 03:06 AM   #10
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Of course, they could have taken inspiration from the Original Ending of Dr Strangelove - the Custard pie fight in the War Room...
The movie was released around the same time of the Kennedy assasination and it had a major effect on the final product.A little bit after the famous "No fighting in the War Room!" line, the Russian ambassador picks up a pie off a table full of pies and throws it at Gen. Buck Turgidson. Buck ducks and the pie hits President Muffley, who falls over. Buck grabs him, and screams "The President has been struck down in his prime! I say massive retaliation!". Kubrick felt that would raise some controversy so he cut that seen and added the Vera Lynn(which I the music and movie on my I-Pod) and atomic bombs scene. He also thought that it was a little silly also.However, Kubrick was a disciple of Dr.Herman Kahn and very interested in the concept of nuclear war.

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Old 23-05-2009, 03:17 AM   #11
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Yes, the theory is sound. Not sure how comfortable people would feel about atomic explosions going off above them though. You can understand the resistence along with the idea of atomic powered aircraft.

A BBC documentary on Project Orion tests

Last edited by eaglewingone; 23-05-2009 at 03:26 AM.
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Old 26-05-2009, 05:43 AM   #12
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a space-exploration documentary a few years back mentioned Project Orion and had old footage of a test-model that fired small chemical explosive spheres out the back (about five, I think.)

The damn thing worked. The model was pointed straight up and the blasts went off behind it like rapid gun shots, lifting the model [I recall] about 30 feet into the air.

Those were just five little fire-crackers and an ejector mechanism. With many, many little spheres packing far more power--- who can say?
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