Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


A Nuclear Group of Observers
July 18, 2012 1:41 PM   Subscribe

NPR show us and tells the story of five men who agreed to stand directly below and observe a nuclear explosion.
On July 19, 1957, five Air Force officers and one photographer stood together on a patch of ground about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They'd marked the spot 'Ground Zero. Population 5' on a hand-lettered sign hammered into the soft ground right next to them.
posted by gilrain (42 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
The title for the post right below this one needs to be appended to this post.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:45 PM on July 18, 2012 [25 favorites]


They told their wives they were going fission.
posted by hal9k at 1:47 PM on July 18, 2012 [52 favorites]


The tall guy looks like Adam Carolla.

And hal9k, it was a brand nuclear day. Perfect for going fission.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 1:49 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I joked that 5 officers volunteered. Friend said the cameraman was probably enlisted.
posted by k5.user at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2012


Only the cameraman, George Yoshitake, didn't volunteer.

Was he a conscript?

Sounds like they all mostly died of old age. Surprising.
posted by cjorgensen at 1:51 PM on July 18, 2012


heat pulse
posted by cmoj at 1:53 PM on July 18, 2012


Sounds like they all mostly died of old age. Surprising.

The article touches on this: the bomb was very small, and went off well above their heads. Any radioactive material in it would have stayed airborne long enough to be diffused by the wind.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:56 PM on July 18, 2012


The men on the ground received negligible gamma ray exposure while the pilots assigned to fly through the cloud after detonation received the most. According to the wiki.
posted by jsavimbi at 2:02 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


It may sound crazy, but if there was anyway I'd know that I'd probably live until 70 (or at least that I may not be affected by it long term -- not a guarantee but probably), I'd want to be there to see that in person. There's no question in my mind.

It's strange how much that impulse is probably related to growing up in the age where the movies we discussed in this thread (about Threads et al.) were made.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:03 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


What a wonderful thrill for those gentlemen.
posted by punkfloyd at 2:12 PM on July 18, 2012


The country was just beginning to worry about nuclear fallout, and the Air Force wanted to reassure people that it was OK to use atomic weapons to counter similar weapons being developed in Russia.

Ah, the golden age of the bomb, when the Air Force felt comfortable detonating a nuke just to get a talking point for use in a boardroom dispute.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:13 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Alex wrote me that in 1953, one test, codenamed "Harry" actually deposited quite a lot of fallout on St. George, to the point where residents were forced to stay inside for many hours, and prohibited from washing their cars until they became less radioactive.

Yeah...
posted by dirigibleman at 2:15 PM on July 18, 2012


If I'm going to stand beneath a nuclear explosion I first want to know what superpowers I'm going to get.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:29 PM on July 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


dances_with_sneetches: "If I'm going to stand beneath a nuclear explosion I first want to know what superpowers I'm going to get"

The power of cancer!
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:32 PM on July 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


 I'd want to be there to see that in person. There's no question in my mind.

I've always thought that you could sell tickets for a once in a lifetime chance to see a nuclear bomb go off. Rent a testing site in Nevada, set up viewing areas, run charter buses from Vegas. I'd go, for sure.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:32 PM on July 18, 2012


Nevada Ghosts: Rare Photos From an A-Bomb Test

In the spring of 1955, as the Cold War intensified and the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated at a shocking pace, America — as it had many times before — detonated an atomic weapon in the Nevada desert. The test was not especially noteworthy. The weapon’s “yield” was not dramatically larger or smaller than that of previous A-bombs; the brighter-than-the-sun flash of light, the mushroom cloud and the staggering power unleashed by the weapon were all byproducts familiar to anyone who had either witnessed or paid attention to coverage of earlier tests.

Caption from the May 16, 1955, issue of LIFE. "Scorched, male mannequin in suit of dark fabric indicates a human would be burned but alive.
posted by netbros at 2:42 PM on July 18, 2012


Homeboy Trouble: "I've always thought that you could sell tickets for a once in a lifetime chance to see a nuclear bomb go off."

That's optimistic!
posted by brundlefly at 2:48 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas has a great collection of postcards and other memorabilia from the days of the atomic tests nearby, since many people would try to see the sights from hotel rooftops and so forth. They also have a little theater that tries to simulate a bomb going off around you, which is extremely eerie-- I can't imagine voluntarily standing beneath such power.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:50 PM on July 18, 2012


There were those in the military who wanted to use "tactical nukes" in Vietnam. I wonder if this test factored into the decision-making process.
posted by tommasz at 2:52 PM on July 18, 2012


Pretty fascinating stuff. This photo of VIP observers in 1951 has always struck me as quite surreal.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:16 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


The tall guy looks like Adam Carolla

The tall guy IS Adam Carolla.

Think about it.
posted by LordSludge at 3:22 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The tall guy IS Adam Carolla.

Think about it.


So you're saying is superpower is eternal boorishness? LAME
posted by pupdog at 3:26 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the page that madamjujujive linked to, scroll down to Crossroads Baker, 21 kilotons Bikini Atoll, July 24, 1946 for the best indication of scale that I've ever seen.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:53 PM on July 18, 2012


Only the cameraman, George Yoshitake, didn't volunteer.

Was he a conscript?


Also from madamjujujive's link:
“One afternoon I was at Lookout Mountain right here in Hollywood, and I got a call from a Woody Mark. He said ‘George, I need you out here tomorrow for a special test.’ I got there that night and he said, ‘Tomorrow morning you’re going to go out with five other guys and you’re going to be standing at ground zero.’ I said, ‘Ground zero?’ He said. ‘Yeah, but the bomb’s gonna go off 10,000 feet above you.’ I said, ‘Well, what kind of protective gear am I going to have?’ He said ‘None.’ I remember I had a baseball hat, so I wore that just in case. He gave me a still camera, and two motion picture cameras. These were 35mm Eyemos. I set up the two Eyemos, and had little trip wires that I could trip with my foot starting about 5 seconds before the blast. And the still camera, I also had a trip wire so that I could trip it. I could get one exposure only. The five other guys were scientists and they volunteered to be there. I wasn’t a volunteer. I didn’t find out until I got there.”
-George Yoshitake
posted by zamboni at 4:14 PM on July 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


I met an older fellow in a local bar that told me an interesting story. He was part of a tank crew that was very close to a nuclear bomb test. He said that a lot of the details were not told to him. The size of the bomb, the exact distance that he was from ground zero... He figured maybe five miles. Since they were in the tank they didn't wear any protective goggles.

He said that when the bomb was detonated the light through the tank's small vision blocks was enough to temporarily blind him anyway. When the shock wave hit it lifted the front end of the tank off of the ground. It almost tipped the tank over backwards.

They had to sit in the tank for a couple of hours. When they were let out the mushroom cloud was still in the sky. He said that that vision scared him more than almost turning over in a multi-ton tank. He said he had health issues but nothing they could say was directly caused by radiation or fallout.

I bought him a few drinks. I believed him. He deserved them.
posted by Splunge at 4:26 PM on July 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


"I remember I had a baseball hat, so I wore that just in case."

Oh, well you should be fine then!
posted by brundlefly at 5:13 PM on July 18, 2012


Some of you may have noticed the nuclear missile video says the explosion took place 10,000 feet above our group of soldiers. Apparently, the video is wrong. The Natural Resources Defense Council checked the numbers and says the explosion, part of Operation PLUMBBOB, was actually at 18,500 feet.
I bet the 18.500 feet is above sea level. To say the video (and the photographer) are "wrong," you'd have to establish the altitude of that piece of Nevada desert.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:20 PM on July 18, 2012


That guy Bodie has lovely delivery—such languid syllables wrapped around awe and delight.
posted by sonascope at 5:38 PM on July 18, 2012


I'd stand there today in the same circumstances.... then after about 5 minutes, it's time to get in the jeep, and start heading upwind. I figure the fallout would take at least that long to start showing up.

I wouldn't hang around, that's for sure.
posted by MikeWarot at 6:14 PM on July 18, 2012


I bet the 18.500 feet is above sea level. To say the video (and the photographer) are "wrong," you'd have to establish the altitude of that piece of Nevada desert.

Elevation (PDF) varies from 3000 ft to 8000 ft, so that's possible.
posted by dirigibleman at 6:22 PM on July 18, 2012


On the other hand, the paper the data comes from (PDF again) seems to indicate the measurement is above the surface, though it doesn't say outright.
posted by dirigibleman at 6:35 PM on July 18, 2012


Here's the Wikipedia article about the Genie, the nuclear-tipped air-to-air missile that was tested in Plumbbob-John (the nuclear test here).
posted by KokuRyu at 6:41 PM on July 18, 2012


Here's a picture of the jet used in the test in the link.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:42 PM on July 18, 2012


Video with different audio.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:02 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here some excellent footage of a 15 kiloton nuclear artillery round.
posted by gilrain at 8:00 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Gotta nuke somethin'.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:37 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Five white guys and a photographer of Japanese Ancestry.

Population 5

Well, I guess it's better than Manzanar.
posted by mule98J at 10:01 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, the paper the data comes from (PDF again) seems to indicate the measurement is above the surface, though it doesn't say outright.

The test info does look like the Height of Detonation is relative to surface.

Event Name: John
Time (GMT): 14:00
Date: 07-19-57
Location: NTS (Area 10)
Lab: DOD
Type: Rocket
HOB/DOB (ft): 18,500
Purpose: WE
Yield: ~2Kt.

HOB/DOB is footnoted in the NRDC pdf as Height of Burst/Depth of Burial.

A similar DOE document lists surface elevations, but both lat/long and elevation information is missing for John.

We can figure out something about the discrepancy between the two documents - another NTS Area 10 detonation, Uncle, has a listed HOB of -17ft in the NRDC pdf, and a surface elevation of 1283 m in the DOE document. So, 4192 ft difference.

Wikipedia lists the Air-2 Genie test as being "at an altitude of 4,500 m (15,000 ft).". One of the references actually says:
The aircraft and the burst point were all at an
altitude of approximately 19,000 feet.
OK, here's something solid - p45 of this PDF has a proper summary of the John test.
Shot JOHN was conducted with a yield of two-kilotons at 0700 hours Pacific Daylight Time on 19 July 1957. The nuclear device was delivered by an air-to-air MB-1 rocket launched from an F-89J aircraft (serial number 547) flying at an altitude of about 19,000 feet. The rocket traveled 4,240 meters before it was detonated, four-and-one-half seconds after its release and about 20,000 feet above Area 10 of the NTS. There was no onsite fallout (22; 31; 74).
According to another chart in the same report, the 20,000 ft figure is "Mean S e a L e v e l; a l l o t h e r h e i g h t s o f b u r s t i n t h i s t a b l e i n d i c a t e d i s t a n c e a b o v e t h e g r o u n d."

<envelopemath>So, if NTS Area 10 is about 4000 ft above sea level, and the detonation was at 20,000 feet, they were about 16,000 ft away.</envelopemath>

A side note: the six folks at ground zero got stuck there.
About 100 DOD personnel, including the 17 Camp Desert Rock support troops, observed Shot JOHN, as indicated in table 3-l. They witnessed the detonation from open terrain, proceeding to the observer areas bv convoy at 0400 hours on shot-day. One group of observers was 5,900 meters southeast of surface zero, at UTM coordinates 882085. Another group, five officers from the Air Defense Command assigned to Project 53.3, volunteered to view the air burst from ground zero. A helicopter was to return these observers to Camp Desert Rock after the shot. Because the helicopter was not sent as planned, the six observers positioned at ground zero during Shot JOHN spent an additional two hours there
posted by zamboni at 10:23 PM on July 18, 2012


From the page that madamjujujive linked to, scroll down to Crossroads Baker, 21 kilotons Bikini Atoll, July 24, 1946 for the best indication of scale that I've ever seen.

Yeah, that little dark streak in the water column on the right side? That's a battleship.
posted by pjern at 11:35 PM on July 18, 2012


What blows me away (sorry) is that Castle Bravo was 15 megatons, or 700 times more powerful than Crossroads Baker. Which is a drop in the bucket compared to the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba.
posted by defcom1 at 5:58 AM on July 19, 2012


Vita rays!!!
posted by stormpooper at 9:15 AM on July 19, 2012


defcom1: "What blows me away (sorry) is that Castle Bravo was 15 megatons, or 700 times more powerful than Crossroads Baker. Which is a drop in the bucket compared to the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba."

Yeah, they were getting more than crazy there for a while. I still find it hard to comprehend that we actually have "dial a yield" weapons now.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:12 AM on July 20, 2012


« Older Quite Likely The Worst Job Ever: 'The men who made...  |  "This technology cannot simply... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments