Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Meditations

Maintaining the bomb

Friday, April 8th, 2016

We hear a lot about the benefits of “innovation” and “innovators.” It’s no small wonder: most of the stories we tell about social and technological “progress” are about a few dedicated people coming up with a new approach and changing the world. Historians, being the prickly and un-fun group that we are, tend to cast a jaundiced eye at these kinds of stories. Often these kinds of cases ignore the broader contextual circumstances that were required for the “innovation” to appear or take root, and often the way these are told tend to make the “innovator” seem more “out of their time” than they really were.

The "logo" of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

The “logo” of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

Two of my colleagues (Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel) at the Science and Technology Studies program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology (official tagline: “The Innovation University“) have been working on an antidote to these “innovation studies.” This week they are hosting a conference called “The Maintainers,” which focuses on an alternative view of the history of technology. The core idea (you can read more on the website) is that the bulk of the life and importance of a technology is not in its moment of “innovation,” but in the “long tail” of its existence: the ways in which it gets integrated into society, needs to be constantly repaired and upgraded, and can break down catastrophically if it loses its war against entropy. There is a lot of obvious resonance with infrastructure studies and stories in the news lately about what happens if you don’t repair your water systems, bridges, subway trains, and you-name-it.1

I’ve been thinking about how this approach applies to the history and politics of nuclear weapons. It’s pretty clear from even a mild familiarity with the history of the bomb that most of the stories about it are “innovation” narratives. The Manhattan Project is often taken as one of the canonical cases of scientific and technological innovation (in ways that I find extremely misleading and annoying). We hunger for those stories of innovation, the stories of scientists, industry, and the military coming together to make something unusual and exciting. When we don’t think the weapons-acquisition is a good idea (e.g., in the Soviet Union, North Korea, what have you), these innovation stories take on a more sinister tone or get diluted by allusions to espionage or other “help.” But the template is the same. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is of course one of the greatest works of the innovation narrative of the atomic bomb, starting, as it does, with a virtual lightning bolt going off in the mind of Leo Szilard.2

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II missile? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

What would a history of the bomb look like if we focused on the question of “maintenance”? We don’t have to guess, actually: one already exists. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which I reviewed on here and for Physics Today a few years ago, can be read in that light. Schlosser’s book is about the long-term work it takes to create a nuclear-weapons infrastructure, both in terms of producing the weapons and in terms of making sure they are ready to be used when you want them to be. And, of course, it’s about what can go wrong, either in the course of routine maintenance (the central case-study is that of a Titan II accident that starts when a “maintainer” accidentally drops a socket wrench) or just in the haphazard course of a technology’s life and interactions with the physical world (dropped bombs, crashed planes, things that catch on fire, etc.). (A documentary film based on Schlosser’s book premieres at the Tribeca Film festival this month, along with what sounds like a nuclear rave.)

There are other approaches we might fold into the “maintenance” of the bomb. Donald MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy uses the trope of invention, but the meat of the book is really about the way uncertainty about performance and reliability moved between the domains of engineering and policy. Hugh Gusterson’s anthropological study of the Livermore laboratory, Nuclear Rites, is particularly astute about the questions of the day-to-day work at a weapons laboratory and who does it. And the maintenance of infrastructure is a major sub-theme of Stephen Schwartz‘s classic edited volume on the costs of the nuclear complex, Atomic AuditBut these kinds of studies are, I think, rarer than they ought to be — we (and I include myself in this) tend to focus on the big names and big moments, as opposed to the slow-grind of the normal. 

There are two historical episodes that come to my mind when I think about the role of “maintenance” in the history of nuclear weapons. Non-coincidentally, both come at points in history where big changes were in the making: the first right after World War II ended, the second right after the Cold War ended.

Episode 1: The postwar slump

From the very beginning, the focus on the bomb was about its moment of creation. Not, in other words, on what it would take to sustain a nuclear complex. In our collective memory, a “Manhattan Project” is a story of intense innovation and creative invention against all odds. But there’s a lesser-known historical lesson in what happened right after the bombs went off, and it’s worth keeping in mind anytime someone invokes the need for another “Manhattan Project.”

The Manhattan Project, formally begun in late 1942, was consciously an effort to produce a usable atomic bomb in the shortest amount of time possible. It involved massive expenditure, redundant investigations, and involved difficult trade-offs between what would normally considered “research” and “development” phases. Plans for the first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, for example, were developed almost immediately after the first proof-of-concept was shown to work — normal stages of prototyping, scaling, and experimenting were highly compressed from normal industrial practices at the time, a fact noted by the engineers and planners who worked on the project. The rush towards realization of the new technology drove all other concerns. The nuclear waste generated by the plutonium production processes, for example, were stored in hastily-built, single-walled underground tanks that were not expected to be any more than short-term, wartime solutions.3 When people today refer to the Manhattan Project as a prototypical case of “throw a lot of money and expertise at a short-term problem,” they aren’t entirely wrong (even though such an association leaves much out).

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful "innovation" of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful “innovation” of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

After the end of World War II, though, the future of the American nuclear complex was uncertain. In my mind this liminal period is as interesting as the wartime period, though it doesn’t get as much cultural screen time. Would the US continue to make nuclear weapons? Would there be an agreement in place to limit worldwide production of nuclear arms (international control)? Would the atomic bomb significantly change US expenditures on military matters, or would it become simply another weapon in the arsenal? What kind of postwar organization would manage the wartime-creations of the Manhattan Project? No one knew the answers to these questions — there was a swirl of contradictory hopes and fears held by lots of different stakeholders.

We know, in the end, what eventually worked out. The US created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Truman in August 1946 (much later than the military had hoped). Efforts towards the “international control” of the atomic bomb fizzled out in the United Nations. The Cold War began, the arms race intensified, and so on.

But what’s interesting to me, here, is that period between the end of the war and things “working out.” Between August 1945 and August 1946, the US nuclear weapons infrastructure went into precipitous decline. Why? Because maintaining it was harder than building it in the first place. What needed to be maintained? First and foremost, there were issues in maintaining the human capital. The Manhattan Project was a wartime organization that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. The working conditions were pretty rough and tumble — even during the war they had problems with people quitting as a result of them. When the war ended, a lot of people went home. How many? Exact numbers are hard to come by, but my rough estimate based on the personnel statistics in the Manhattan District History is that between August 1945 and October 1946, some 80% of the construction labor left the project, and some 30% of the operations and research labor left. Overall there was a shedding of some 60% of the entire Manhattan Project labor force.

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947).

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947). Reconstructed from this graph in the Manhattan District History.

Now, some of that can be explained as the difference between a “building” project and a “producing” project. Construction labor was already on a downward slope, but the trend did accelerate after August 1945. The dip in operations and research, though, is more troublesome — a steep decline in the number of people actually running the atomic bomb infrastructure, much less working to improve it.

Why did these people leave? In part, because the requirements of a “crash” program and a “long-term” program were very different in terms of labor. It’s more than just the geographical aspect of people going home. It also included things like pay, benefits, and work conditions in general. During the war, organized labor had mostly left the Manhattan Project alone, at the request of President Roosevelt and the Secretary of War. Once peace was declared, they got back into the game, and were not afraid to strike. Separately, there was a prestige issue. You can get Nobel Prize-quality scientists to work on your weapons program when you tell them that Hitler was threatening civilization, that they were going to open up a new chapter in world history, etc. It’s exciting to be part of something new, in any case. But if the job seems like it is just about maintaining an existing complex — one that many of the scientists were having second-thoughts on anyway — it’s not as glamorous. Back to the universities, back to the “real” work.4

And, of course, it’s a serious morale problem if you don’t think you laboratory is going to exist in a year or two. When the Atomic Energy Act got held up in Congress for over a year, it introduced serious uncertainty as to the future of Los Alamos. Was Los Alamos solely a wartime production or a long-term institution? It wasn’t clear.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

There were also technical dimensions to the postwar slump. The industrial-sized nuclear reactors at Hanford had been built, as noted, without much prototyping. The result is that there was still much to know about how to run them. B Reactor, the first to go online, started to show problems in the immediate postwar. Some of the neutrons being generated from the chain reaction were being absorbed by the graphite lattice that served as the moderator. The graphite, as a result, was starting to undergo small chemical changed: it was swelling. This was a big problem. Swelling graphite could mean that the channels that stored fuel or let the control rods in could get warped. If that happened, the operator would no longer be in full control of the reactor. That’s bad. For the next few years, B Reactor was run on low power as a result, and the other reactors were prevented from achieving their full output until solutions to the problem were found. The result is that the Hanford reactors had around half the total energy output in the immediate postwar as they did during the wartime period — so they weren’t generating as much plutonium.

To what degree were the technical and the social problems intertwined? In the case of Los Alamos we have a lot of documentation from the period which describes the “crisis” of the immediate postwar, when they were hemorrhaging manpower and expertise. We also have some interesting documentation that implies the military was worried about what a postwar management situation might look like, if it was out of the picture — if the nuclear complex was to be run by civilians (as the Atomic Energy Act specified), they wanted to make sure that the key aspects of the military production of nuclear weapons were in “reliable” hands. In any case, the infrastructure, as it was, was in a state of severe decay for about a year as these things got worked out.

I haven't even touched on the issues of "maintaining" security culture — what goes under the term "OPSEC." There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

I haven’t even touched on the issues of “maintaining” security culture — what goes under the term “OPSEC.” There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

The result of all of this was the greatest secret of the early postwar: the United States had only a small amount of fissile material, a few parts of other bomb components, and no ready-to-use nuclear weapons. AEC head David Lilienthal recalled talking with President Truman in April 1947:

We walked into the President’s office at a few moments after 5:00 p.m. I told him we came to report what we had found after three months, and that the quickest way would be to ask him to read a brief document. When he came to a space I had left blank, I gave him the number; it was quite a shock. We turned the pages as he did, all of us sitting there solemnly going through this very important and momentous statement. We knew just how important it was to get these facts to him; we were not sure how he would take it. He turned to me, a grim, gray look on his face, the lines from his nose to his mouth visibly deepened. What do we propose to do about it?5

The “number” in question was the quantity of atomic bombs ready to use in an emergency. And it was essentially zero.6 Thus the early work of the AEC was re-building a postwar nuclear infrastructure. It was expensive and slow-going, but by 1950 the US could once again produce atomic bombs in quantity, and was in a position to suddenly start producing many types of nuclear weapons again. Thus the tedious work of “maintenance” was actually necessary for the future work of “innovation” that they wanted to happen.

Episode 2: The post-Cold War question

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and we’re once again in at a key juncture in questions about the weapons complex. The Soviet Union is no more. The Cold War is over. What is the future of the American nuclear program? Does the United States still need two nuclear weapon design laboratories? Does it still need a diverse mix of warheads and launchers? Does it still need the “nuclear triad”? All of these questions were on the table.

What shook out was an interesting situation. The labs would be maintained, shifting their efforts away from the activities we might normally associate with innovation and invention, and towards activities we might instead associate with maintenance. So environmental remediation was a major thrust, as was the work towards “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship,” which is a fancy term for maintaining the nuclear stockpile in a state of readiness. The plants that used to assemble nuclear weapons have converted into places where weapons are disassembled, and I’ve found it interesting that the imagery associated with these has been quite different than the typical “innovation” imagery — the people shown in the pictures are “technicians” more than “scientists,” and the prevalence of women seems (in my anecdotal estimation) much higher.

The question of what to do with the remaining stockpile is the most interesting. I pose the question like this to my undergraduate engineers: imagine you were given a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle and were told that once you were pretty sure it would run, but you never ran that particular car before. Now imagine you have to keep that Beetle in a garage for, say, 20 or 30 more years. You can remove any part from the car and replace it, if you want. You can run tests of any sort on any single component, but you can’t start the engine. You can build a computer model of the car, based on past experience with similar cars, too. How much confidence would you have in your ability to guarantee, with near 100% accuracy, that the car would be able to start at any particular time?

Their usual answer: not a whole lot. And that’s without telling them that the engine in this case is radioactive, too.

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: "Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime." Source: Arnie Heller, "Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon," Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: “Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime.” Source: Arnie Heller, “Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon,” Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Like all analogies there are inexact aspects to it, but it sums up some of the issues with these warheads. Nuclear testing by the United States ceased in 1992. It might come back today (who knows?) but the weapons scientists don’t seem to be expecting that. The warheads themselves were not built to last indefinitely — during the Cold War they would be phased out every few decades. They contain all sorts of complex materials and substances, some of which are toxic and/or radioactive, some of which are explosive, some of which are fairly “exotic” as far as materials go. Plutonium, for example, is metallurgically one of the most complex elements on the periodic table and it self-irradiates, slowly changing its own chemical structure.

Along with these perhaps inherent technical issues is the social one, the loss of knowledge. The number of scientists and engineers at the labs that have had nuclear testing experience is at this point approaching zero, if it isn’t already there. There is evidence that some of the documentary procedures were less than adequate: take the case of the mysterious FOGBANK, some kind of exotic “interstage” material that is used in some warheads, which required a multi-million dollar effort to come up with a substitute when it was discovered that the United States no longer had the capability of producing it.

So all of this seems to have a pretty straightforward message, right? That maintenance of the bomb is hard work and continues to be so. But here’s the twist: not everybody agrees that the post-Cold War work is actually “maintenance.” That is, how much of the stockpile stewardship work is really just maintaining existing capability, and how much is expanding it?

Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

Old warheads in new bottles? Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

The B-61 Mod 12 has been in the news a bit lately for this reason. The B-61 is a very flexible warhead system that allows for a wide range of yield settings for a gravity bomb. The Mod 12 has involved, among other things, an upgraded targeting and fuzing capability for this bomb. This makes the weapon very accurate and allows it to penetrate some degree into the ground before detonating. The official position is that this upgrade is necessary for the maintenance of the US deterrence position (it allows it, for example, to credibly threaten underground bunkers with low-yield weapons that would reduce collateral damage). So now we’re in a funny position: we’re upgrading (innovating?) part of a weapon in the name of maintaining a policy (deterrence) and ideally with minimal modifications to the warhead itself (because officially we are not making “new nuclear weapons”). Some estimates put the total cost of this program at a trillion dollars — which would be a considerable fraction of the total money spent on the entire Cold War nuclear weapons complex.

There are other places where this “maintenance” narrative has been challenged as well. The labs in the post-Cold War argued that they could only guarantee the stockpile’s reliability if they got some new facilities. Los Alamos got DARHT, which lets them take 3-D pictures of implosion in realtime, Livermore got NIF, which lets them play with fusion micro-implosions using a giant laser. A lot of money has been put forward for this kind of “maintenance” activity, and as you can imagine there was a lot of resistance. With all of it has come the allegations that, again, this is not really necessary for “maintenance,” that this is just innovation under the guise of maintenance. And if that’s the case, then that might be a policy problem, because we are not supposed to be “innovating” nuclear weapons anymore — that’s the sort of thing associated with arms races. For this reason, one major effort to create a warhead design that was alleged to be easier to maintain, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, was killed by the Obama administration in 2009.

"But will it work?" With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

“But will it work?” With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

So there has been a lot of money in the politics of “maintenance” here. What I find interesting about the post-Cold War moment is that “maintenance,” rather than being the shabby category that we usually ignore, has been moved to the forefront in the case of nuclear weapons. It is relatively easy to argue, “yes, we need to maintain these weapons, because if we don’t, there will be terrible consequences.” Billions of dollars are being allocated, even while other infrastructures in the United States are allowed to crumble and decline. The labs in particular have to walk a funny line here. They have an interest in emphasizing the need for further maintenance — it’s part of their reason for existence at this point. But they also need to project confidence, because the second they start saying that our nukes don’t work, they are going to run into even bigger policy problems.

And yet, it has been strongly alleged that under this cloak of maintenance, a lot of other kinds of activities might be taking place as well. So here is a perhaps an unusual politics of maintenance — one of the few places I’ve seen where there is a substantial community arguing against it, or at least against using it as an excuse to “innovate” on the sly.

Notes
  1. Andy and Lee just published a great article outlining their argument on Aeon Magazine: “Hail the maintainers.” []
  2. “In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. … The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.” Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 13. For a critical view of Rhodes, looking at how Rhodes’ mobilizes the trope of invention in his narrative, see esp. Hugh Gusterson, “Death of the authors of death: Prestige and creativity among nuclear weapons scientists,” in Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison, eds., Scientific authorship: Credit and intellectual property in science (New York: Routledge, 2003), 281-307. []
  3. J. Samuel Walker, The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 2-6. []
  4. Hence Edward Teller’s attempt to convince the scientists go to “back to the labs” to solve the H-bomb problem a few years later. []
  5. David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume II: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 165. Side-note: As Lilienthal was leaving Truman’s office, Truman told him that, “You have the most important thing there is. You must making a blessing of it or,” — and then Truman pointed to a large globe in the corner of the office — “we’ll blow all that to smithereens.” []
  6. They had bomb cores, they had non-nuclear bomb assemblies, but there is little to suggest that they had anything ready to go on a short term — it would take weeks to assemble the weapons and get them into a state of readiness. The total cores on hand at Los Alamos at the end of 1945 was 2; for 1946 it was 9; for 1947 it was 13. Senator Brien McMahon later said that “when the [AEC] took over [in 1947] there were exactly two bombs in the locker,” Lilienthal himself later said that “we had one [bomb] that was probably operable when I first went off to Los Alamos [January 1947]; one that had a good chance of being operable.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 137 fn. 84. Lilienthal told Herken: “The politically significant thing is that there really were no bombs in a military sense… We were really almost without bombs, and not only that, we were without people, that was the really significant thing… You can hardly exaggerate the unreadiness of the U.S. military men at this time.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988 [1981]), 196-197 (in the unnumbered footnote). []
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Nuclear history bibliography, 2015

Friday, February 5th, 2016

It’s (roughly) that time of the year again: my annual nuclear history bibliography for the previous year. (It’s a little later than usual this time around, but I’ve been busy teaching and writing.) The game is more or less the same as it was for 2014, 2013, and 2012: I’ve tried to compile any and all references to scholarly or at least semi-scholarly articles and books I’ve founded that were published in 2015 that would be relevant and of interest to those people (like myself) who consider themselves interested in “nuclear history,” construed broadly. As before, I’ve avoided listing websites (except the Electronic Briefing Bulletins of the National Security Archive, because they are a really uniquely valuable form of “publication”), have avoided anything that was simply an updated edition of a book published prior to 2015, and have stuck mostly to scholarly articles (with my own publications being an exception, because, well, I made the list).

The hands of the censor: Charles L. Marshall, Director of Classification, declassifying a document as part of the Atomic Energy Commission's 1971-1976 "declassification drive." Source: Nuclear Testing Archive. Click for the uncropped version.

The hands of the censor: Charles L. Marshall, Director of Classification, declassifying a document as part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1971-1976 “declassification drive.” Click the image for the full-sized version. Source: Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, document NV0148015.

This list is no doubt missing a lot, but it’s a start. If you think I missed something, or think something ought not be on here, add it as a comment below (comments that are just references will be read but probably not “approved” — consider them just a way to send me a quick message). I have not read the vast majority of the references below (one only has so much time…), and do not vouch for them in any way. In most cases, I’ve just glanced enough to confirm that they seem to have a historical component that relates to nuclear technology.

The list was compiled by (tediously) searching through broad keyword searches in a variety of online databases, along with looking at the titles and abstracts of specific journals that are known to carry a lot of this sort of thing.

In the past, it has usually taken about a week for this list to fully stabilize, as people remind me of all the things I’ve missed. So check back then if you want the most up-to-date version. (I will also update the 2014 bibliography at the same time, with a few extra references I found.) At that point, I will also post the bibtex and RIS version for those who want to import these into a citation manager. Note that some of the processing below is done mechanically (I export from Zotero then use PHP to clean up the links/etc. because it is easier than figuring out how to modify Zotero’s internal style sheets), so there may be a few weird little bugs related to that here and there.

And if you’re bored to death by bibliographies — don’t worry. I’m starting up the regular blog posts again next week.

See the bibliography by clicking here

News and Notes

In Memoriam: Richard G. Hewlett (1923-2015)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Richard Greening Hewlett, the first official historian of the Atomic Energy Commission, has passed away at the age of 92.1

I never knew Hewlett, but nobody can work in this field without acknowledging the huge debt they owe him for his work. Hewlett began working for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1957, working to write a volume on the Manhattan Project and establishment of the AEC. In doing so he was also establishing the History Office of the AEC, which was dedicated to cataloguing and preserving these vital records. One of his greatest coups was discovering, entirely by chance, a locked safe in a basement of an AEC building that turned out to contain the Bush-Conant files relating to the creation of the atomic bomb, one of the most important document bases for any history of the Manhattan Project (and one which I have relied upon extensively).

Richard G. Hewlett, posing in 1958 with the Bush-Conant document collection.

Richard G. Hewlett, posing in 1958 with the Bush-Conant document collection.

Hewlett continued at his post through the abolishment of the AEC and the subsequent creations of its successors, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy. He retired in 1980, and went on to co-found History Associates, one of the only private companies dedicated to doing serious historical work.

Hewlett’s volumes on AEC history are extremely useful resources, and I end up citing them often. They can be tricky to work with, though, since Hewlett was not always able to cite his sources very precisely (on account of many of them being classified or kept internally), and the sort of “official historian” he was meant that he rarely strayed too far beyond the most “orthodox” versions of these histories (he was never courting controversy). I have found in many instances that when I look up a document that Hewlett cited, it turns out that he basically just paraphrased what the document said and presented that as what happened — and sometimes that is valid, sometimes that is not. Documents require their own contextualization, their own careful reading, to get the full story, and Hewlett’s approach can feel a little naive in retrospect. It is an old-style of history, official or not.

Still, he was essentially carving out the first draft of this historical work, and approaching it seriously, and that required a Herculean effort in its own right, both in terms of collecting the source material and navigating the federal bureaucracy to get these histories published. In a 1997 interview with Public Historian, Hewlett described how Admiral Hyman G. Rickover essentially abused classification restrictions in order to force Hewlett to write a book on the nuclear Navy, with Rickover at the center of it. Hewlett ran into further complications later when he attempted to write about nuclear waste — a topic that does not make the AEC look extremely on top of things.2

I’ve read a number of narratives from public historians working with secret topics. It seems like a tricky prospect. Barton Hacker, who wrote on the history of radiation exposure and protection, told me that his security clearance rarely got him anything that wasn’t basically already knowable from the “outside,” and caused interminable difficulties when he tried to get things published that made anybody currently in office, or any still-existing agency, look anything but perfect. As he put it later, some bureaucrats “objected to what they called ‘editorializing,’ which seems to be the bureaucratic term for drawing conclusions.”3

I have never wanted a security clearance, and would never accept one, for this reason. To learn something interesting but not to be able to tell anyone about it seems like a bad exchange. I want to know things, but I also want to tell things — storytelling is my profession, in a sense. To get a clearance means you are in an entirely different category from the perspective of a classifying agency, and even innocuous information that everybody knows can end up on the cutting-room floor. No thanks.

AEC histories, volumes 1-3

Hewlett’s AEC histories are all scanned and online, posted in various archives by the US federal government, some on the Department of Energy’s History Publications page. Because they are all in the public domain (they are all “work for hire” for the US government, which makes them uncopyrightable), and they are all out of print, I am going to mirror them here:

I find these scanned copies perhaps most useful of all, because they are searchable. The Hewlett volumes can be dull reads in places (he embodies a certain model of official historian that tries to keep up an appearance of “just the facts”), but they make excellent resources to run keyword searches through. It is too bad nobody has really tried to do one of these kinds of volumes for the final chapter of the AEC’s history (1962-1974).4

The source note to The New World has one of my favorite lines about nuclear history and the reason why there are more resources that one might expect:

The records have survived. For this, scholars can thank two much-maligned practices of the bureaucracy: classification and multiple copies. Classified documents endure; they do not disappear from the files as souvenirs. As for copies in sextuplicate, their survival is a matter of simple arithmetic. If the original in one agency is destroyed, the chances are better than even that one of the five carbons will escape the flames in another.5

To this we must add that people like Hewlett took the time to track them down, catalogue them, and get them eventually transferred into repositories (like the National Archives and Records Administration, for all their difficulties). This final action, so crucial for the later historian, does not happen on its own. This may be Hewlett’s greatest legacy in the end. The texts he wrote will inevitably be superseded by later works of history — but those superseding works will be utterly reliant on the preservation work he did, those acts of finding and saving and cataloging of the records. Rest in peace.

Notes
  1. I thank Stan Norris for bringing this to my attention. []
  2. Richard G. Hewlett and Jo Anne McCormick Quatannens, “Richard G. Hewlett: Federal Historian,” The Public Historian 19, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 53-83,  esp. 73-77. []
  3. Barton C. Hacker, “Writing the History of a Controversial Program: Radiation Safety, the AEC, and Nuclear Weapons Testing,” The Public Historian 14, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 31-53, on 45. []
  4. My favorite, detail-heavy books that cover the latter period of AEC history well are Brian Balogh’s Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power 1945-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and J. Samuel Walker’s The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (University of California Press, 2009), though they only cover the power and waste aspects of it (as opposed to, say, the weapons angles). []
  5. Richard Hewlett and Oscar Anderson, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume 1: The New World, 1939-1946 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), 657. []
Redactions

Did Lawrence doubt the bomb?

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Ernest O. Lawrence was one of the giants of 20th-century physics. The inventor of the “cyclotron,” a circular particle accelerator, Lawrence ushered in an era of big machines, big physics, big budgets — Big Science, in short. And that came with ups and downs. I’ve recently finished a review for Science of Michael Hiltzik’s new Lawrence biography, Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. The full review is online but behind a paywall (if you want a copy, get in touch with me), but I am allowed to post the unedited version that I originally submitted, which in this case is about twice the size of the printed one, so maybe it’s interesting as an essay in its own right (so I may flatter myself). I found it hard to cram the story of Lawrence, and this book, in a thousand words (and brevity has never been my strength), because there is just so much going on and worth commenting on.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week's issue of Science as well.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week’s issue of Science as well.

Lawrence featured early into my education. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, which means I was in Lawrence country. His laboratory literally perches above the campus, looking down on it. In various buildings on campus, it is not uncommon to come across a large portrait of the man. And any geeky child in northern California visits the Lawrence Hall of Science numerous times in the course of their education.

As a budding historian of science, what I found so incongruous about Lawrence was the way in which he embodied something of a paradox at the heart of particle physics. High-energy particle physics is for the most part a pretty “pure” looking form of science, trying to pull-off very elegant experiments with the most abstract of physical entities, and making the experimental evidence jibe with the theoretical understandings. When people want to point to evidence of objectivity in science, or to the places where theory gets vindicated in a very elegant way, they point to particle physics. And yet, to do these experiments, you often need big machines. Big machines require big money. Big money gets you into the realm of big politics. And so this very elegant, above-it-all form of science ends up getting tied to the hip of the military-industrial complex during and after World War II. How ironic is that?

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron, 1938. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

As you can pick up from both the published and draft review, I had mixed feelings about Hiltzik’s book. I think people who have never read anything about Lawrence before will find it interesting though potentially confusing, because it bounces around as a genre. One can’t really tell what Hiltzik thinks about Lawrence. Half of the time Hiltzik seems to want to make him out to be the Great Hero of 20th century science. (Sometimes this gets hyperbolic — Lawrence was a big character, to be sure, but he was still of his time, and it does some historical injustice to claim that everything related to Big Science necessarily is laid at his door. To claim that Big Science was “a solitary effort,” as Hiltzik does, is as self-contradictory as it is untrue.) The other half of the time, though, Hiltzik is pointing out what a huge jerk he could be, how bad of a scientist he could be, and how he sullied himself with some of the worst sorts of political engagements during the Cold War. Everyone gets on Edward Teller for being a far-right, pro-nuke, anti-Communist jerk, but even Teller thought Lawrence could be an extremist when it came to these things.

This ambivalent mix — Lawrence as great, Lawrence as terrible — never gets resolved. One could imagine it being talked about as two sides of the same coin, or some sort of synthetic whole emerging out of these two perspectives. But it just doesn’t happen in the book. In my own mind, this is the somewhat Faustian result of Lawrence’s “cult of the machine” (as I titled my review), where the Bigness required for his science ended up driving extremes in other parts of his life and politics as well.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Serious historians of 20th-century physics will find little new in Hiltzik’s book, either in terms of documentation or analysis. He relies heavily on secondary sources and the archival sources he does consult are the standard ones for this topic (e.g. the Lawrence papers at UC Berkeley). The book also contains several avoidable errors of a mostly minor sort, but the kinds of misconceptions or misunderstandings that ought to have been caught before publication (some of which I would like to imagine would jump out to anyone who had read a few books on this subject already). I did not mention these in the formal review, because there was really not enough space to warrant it, and the book never hinged on any of these details, but still, it seems worth noting in this more informal space.1

That aside, the book reminded me of one of the strangest aspects of Lawrence’s relationship with the bomb — whether he thought it was a good idea to drop one on Japan without a warning. As I’ve discussed before, the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made prior to shedding blood with the bomb was a controversial one on the project. A Scientific Panel composed of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence were asked to formally consider the question in the June of 1945. They formally recommended that the bomb be dropped on a city without warning: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

Lawrence and the Machine. (And M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working.) I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27" cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine… and M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working. I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27″ cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

But there’s potentially more to it than just this. Case in point: in the archives, one finds a letter from Karl K. Darrow to Ernest Lawrence, dated August 9th, 1945. Darrow was a friend of Lawrence’s, and a fellow physicist, and a noted popularizer of science in his day. And this is an interesting time to be writing a letter: Hiroshima has already occurred and is known about, and Nagasaki has just happened (and Darrow may or may not have seen the news of it yet), but the war has not ended. This period, between the use of the bomb and the cessation of hostilities, is a very tricky one (a topic Michael Gordin has written a book on), because the meaning of the atomic bomb had not yet been cemented. That is, was the atomic bomb really a war-ending weapon? Or just a new way to inflict mass carnage? Nobody yet knew, though many had uncertain hopes and fears.

August 9th is also a tricky period because this is around the time in which the first casualty estimates from Hiroshima were being received, by way of the first Japanese news stories on the bombing. They were much higher than many of the scientists had thought; Oppenheimer had estimated them to be around 20,000, and they were hearing reports of 60,000 or higher. For some, including Oppenheimer, they saw this as a considerable difference with respects to how comfortable they felt with the attacks.

"Best Copy Available," the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

“BEST COPY AVAILABLE” is the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

This context is relevant to making sense of the Darrow letter. The archival document is hard to read, and in some places illegible, so I’ve included a transcription that I typed up from the best of my reading of it. The import of it is pretty easy to take away, though, even with a few phrases being hard to read. Here is an excerpt of the key parts:

Dear Ernest:

This is written to you to put on the record the fact that you told me, on August 9, 1945, that you had presented to the Secretary of War by word of mouth the view that the “atomic bomb” ought to be demonstrated to the Japanese in some innocuous but striking manner before it should be used in such a way as to kill many people. You made this presentation in the presence of Arthur Compton, Fermi, Oppenheimer and others, and spoke for about an hour. The plan was rejected by the Secretary of War on the grounds that (a) the number of people to be killed by the bomb would not be greater in order of magnitude than the number already killed in the fire raids, and (b) an innocuous demonstration would have no effect on the Japanese. […]

I think that it is not far-fetched nor absurd to conjecture that in time to come, people will be saying “Those wicked physicists of the ‘Manhattan Project’ deliberately developed a bomb which they knew would be used for killing thousands of innocent people without any warning, and they either wanted this outcome or at least condoned it. Away with physicists!” It will not be accepted as an excuse that they may have disapproved in silence. We do not excuse the German civilians who accepted Buchenwald while possibility disapproving in silence.

I think that if the war ends today or tomorrow or next week, this sort of criticism will not be heard for a while, and yet it will be heard eventually — and particularly it will be heard if at a time should come when some other power may be suspected of planning to use the same device on us. In other words, if the use of this weapon without forewarning has really brought quick victory, this fact will delay but will not indefinitely prevent the emergence of such an opinion as I have suggested. It may then be of great value to science, if some scientist of very great prominence has already said that he tried to arrange for a harmless exhibition of the powers of the weapon in advance of its lethal use.2

There is a lot going on in this letter. First, it makes it clear that Lawrence and Darrow had a discussion about the demonstration matter right around the time of the Nagasaki bombing. It is also clear that Darrow came away with the impression that Lawrence was deeply unsure about the logic of bombing without warning. Now the amount of pontificating by Darrow makes it seem like Darrow might be reading into what Lawrence told him more than Lawrence said — Darrow’s concerns are not necessarily Lawrence’s concerns. But it does seem clear that Darrow thinks he is setting something into the record that might be useful later, and that even if the war ended soon, there were going to be doubts to be contended with, and the fact that Lawrence was worried about using the bomb might somehow be exculpatory.

Darrow’s letter was received on August 10th (so it is stamped), but it isn’t clear when Lawrence read it. He did not reply until August 17th, 1945, by which point hostilities with Japan had ended. This is a big thing to point out: the Darrow-Lawrence conversation, and original letter, took place at a time when it wasn’t clear whether the bombs would actually be credited with ending the war. By August 17th, Japan had already pressed for an end of the war and had credited the atomic bomb in part with their defeat.3 If Lawrence ever did have doubts, they were gone by August 17th:

Dear Karl:

In reply to your letter of August 9th, you have the facts essentially straight, excepting that I didn’t believe I talked on the subject of the demonstration of the bomb as long as an hour. I made the proposal briefly in the morning session of the Secretary of War’s committee, and during luncheon Justice Byrnes, now Secretary of State, asked me further about it, and it was discussed at some length, I judge perhaps ten minutes.

I am sure it was given serious consideration by the Secretary of War and his committee, and gather from the discussion that the proposal to put on a demonstration did not appear desirable […] Oppenheimer felt, and that feeling was shared by Groves and others, that the only way to put on a demonstration would be to attack a real target of built-up structures. 

In view of the fact that two bombs ended the war, I am inclined to feel they made the right decision. Surely many more lives were saved by shortening the war than were sacrificed as a result of the bombs. […]

As regards criticism of science and scientists, I think that is a cross we will have to bear, and I think in the long run the good sense of everyone the world over will realize that in instance, as in all scientific pursuits, the world is better as a result.4

To me, this letter reads as something of a kiss-off to Darrow’s doubts — and maybe to doubts Lawrence himself might have once held. Darrow recalls Lawrence telling him it was an hour-long discussion, and a major conflict between the soulful Lawrence and the unfeeling others. In Lawrence’s post-victory recollection, it becomes a 10-minute talk, duly taken seriously but not that hard of a question to answer, and in the end, the ends justified the means, neat and tidy.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

So where lies the truth? Was Lawrence a doubter at the time of the Nagasaki bombing, only to lose all doubts after victory? Was Darrow projecting his own fears onto Lawrence at their meeting? I suspect something in between — with a second bomb so rapidly dropped after the first, Lawrence and Darrow might have both been wondering if these weapons would really end the war (much less all war), if they weren’t just a new-means of old-fashioned mass incineration. Maybe Lawrence exaggerated, or gave an exaggerated impression, of his debate over the demonstration.

One interesting piece is that the story of “doubts” can, as Darrow implied, be made exculpatory without necessarily calling into question the wisdom of the bombing. That is, if the story is about how the scientists really didn’t want to use the bomb, but couldn’t see a better way around it, then you get (from the perspective of the scientists involved) the best of both worlds: they still have souls, but they also have justification. This is how Arthur Compton presents the meeting in his 1956 book, Atomic Quest, which takes more the Darrow perspective of a fraught Scientific Committee, Ernest Lawrence as the final hold-out, but with “heavy hearts” they recommend direct military use.5

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, for his part, later said he had “terrible” moral scruples about the dropping of the bomb, of killing at least 70,000 people with the first one, though, notably, he never said he regretted doing it. He did, however, think that physicists had “known sin” and required an active role in future policy regarding these new weapons, if only to keep the world from blowing itself up. Lawrence parted ways with his former friend and colleague after World War II, remarking that “I am a physicist and I have no knowledge to lose in which physics has caused me to know sin” and chastising those scientists (like Oppenheimer) who thought that they ought to be getting involved with policymaking, as opposed to research — or bomb-building.

If Lawrence had doubts, he left by the wayside once the promise of victory was in the air, and he happily and seemingly without misgivings hitched himself permanently to the burgeoning military-industrial complex. He was part of the anti-Oppenheimer conspiracy that led to the 1954 security hearing, he worked closely with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss to attempt to scuttle attempts at test bans and moratoriums, he pushed for greater quantities of bigger bombs, he sold out colleagues and friends, participating in McCarthyist purges with gusto. He was also the inventor of the cyclotron, a physicist of great importance, and one of the creators of the Big Science approach to doing research. These are not incompatible takes on a complex human being — but when we celebrate the scientific accomplishments, we do history poorly if we forget the parts that are arguably less savory.

Notes
  1. A short list of the serious errors that jumped out at me follows. Page 227: Hiltzik says that Hanford (as a site) could only produce half a pound of plutonium every 200 days. That this is a misunderstanding should be pretty obvious given that they managed to come up with 27 lbs of it (for Trinity and Fat Man) by late July 1945 despite starting B-Reactor in late 1944. I don’t know where the 200 days figure comes from, but the Hanford reactors could get 225 grams (about half a pound) of plutonium for every ton of uranium they processed, and each reactor was designed to process 30 tons of uranium per month at full power (though it took several months for the plutonium to be extracted from any given ton of exposed uranium). Because there were three reactors, that means that optimally Hanford could produce about 20 kg (45 lbs) of plutonium per month. In practice they did less than that, but half a pound every 200 days is just wrong, and if true would have made two of the World War II bombs impossible. Page 292: The book gets the information about the Trinity core geometry wrong — it says it is a hollow shell that was “crushed into a supercritical ball.” Rather, the Christy core was a mostly solid core (there was a small hole for the initiator) whose density was increased by the high explosives. Hollow shell designs were considered, and were later used in the postwar, but the wartime devices did not use them. This is one of those errors that won’t die — often repeated despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Page 386: Hiltzik refers to the Soviet test Joe-4/RDS-6s as a “fizzle.” This is incorrect terminology and implies that it did not achieve its target yield. It was not a staged thermonuclear weapon, but it was not a fizzle — it did what it was supposed to do, and was not a disappointment in any way. Page 405: Hiltzik, perhaps by reading too much Ralph Lapp (who was very smart but sometimes got things wrong), doesn’t seem to understand how the so-called “clean bomb” would have worked. The higher the proportion of the weapon that comes from fusion reactions as opposed to fission reactions, the smaller the amount of fallout that would result. The contamination power of a weapon is not related to its total yield so much as its fission yield. The area of contamination does relate to the yield (so a 10 megaton weapon with only 1% of its yield from fission does spread those fission products over a wide area), but the intensity of the contamination does not (the level of radiation would be extremely low compared to a “dirty” hydrogen bomb that derived at least half of its power from fission). One can object that the “clean bomb” was at best a cleaner bomb, and doubt both its wisdom and the sincerity of its proponents, but the idea itself was not a hoax. Page 416: Hiltzik says that Hans Bethe “flatly refused” to join the hydrogen bomb work. This is not correct. Bethe initially refused, and then later joined the thermonuclear project at Los Alamos and made several important contributions (to the degree that he is sometimes referred to as the “midwife” of the hydrogen bomb). Bethe’s wavering position on this is very aptly discussed in S.S. Schweber’s In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. There are a few other nitpicks (e.g. saying that “the test ranges remained silent” from 1958-1961… only true if you ignore France), but those are the ones that really stood out as outright errors. The most irritating misrepresentation (not strictly a factual error so much as an omission) is the fact that while Lawrence’s Calutrons were indeed an important part of the overall enrichment system used to make the fuel for the Hiroshima bomb (though not the only part), they were shut down in the early post war because they were not as efficient as the gaseous diffusion method. One would not get that impression from Hiltzik’s book, and it is relevant inasmuch as evaluating the importance of Lawrence’s method to the war — it was a useful stop-gap, but it was not a long-term solution. []
  2. Karl K. Darrow to Ernest O. Lawrence (9 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724362. []
  3. Whether the bomb did or did not actually sway the Japanese high command is not a completely settled question, but does not matter for our purposes here — we are talking about what Lawrence et al., might have thought, not internal Japanese political machinations and motivations. []
  4. Ernest O. Lawrence to Karl K. Darrow (17 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724363. []
  5. Arthur Compton, Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 239-241. []
Visions

Dogs in space

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Confession: I once told my students something I knew wasn’t true. It was during a lecture on the Space Race, on Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika into space in November 1957. I told them about how the Soviets initially said she had lived a week before expiring (it was always intended to be a one-way trip), but that after the USSR had collapsed the Russians admitted that she had died almost immediately because their cooling systems had failed. All true so far.

But then one bright, sensitive sophomore, with a sheen on her eyes and a tremble in her voice, asked, “But did they at least learn something from her death?” And I said, “oh, um, well, uh… yes, yes — they learned a lot.”

Which I knew was false — they learned almost nothing. But what can you do, confronted with someone who is taking in the full reality of the fact that the Soviets sent a dog in space with the full knowledge it would die? It’s a heavy thing to admit that Laika gave her life in vain. (In subsequent classes, whenever I bring up Sputnik, I always preempt this situation by telling the above story, which relieves a little of the pressure.)

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: "First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika." Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: “First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika.” Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

I’m a dog person. I’ve had cats, but really, it’s dogs for me. I just believe that they connect with people on a deeper level than really any other animal. They’ve been bred to do just that, of course, and for a long time. There is evidence of human-dog cohabitation going back tens of thousands of years. (Cats are a lot more recently domesticated… and it shows.) There are many theories about the co-evolution of humans and dogs, and it has been said (in a generalization whose broadness I wince at, but whose message I endorse) that there have been many great civilizations without the wheel, but no great civilizations without the dog.

So I’ve always been kind of attracted to the idea of dogs in space. The “Mutniks,” as they were dubbed by punny American wags, were a key, distinguishing factor about the Soviet space program. And, Laika aside, a lot of them went up and came back down again, providing actually useful information about how organisms make do while in space, and allowing us to have more than just relentlessly sad stories about them. The kitsch factor is high, of course.

A friend of mine gave me a wonderfully quirky and beautiful little book last holiday season, Soviet Space Dogs, written by Olesya Turkina, published by FUEL Design and Publishing. According to its Amazon.com page, the idea for the book was hatched up by a co-founder of the press, who was apparently an aficionado of Mutnikiana (yes, I just invented that word). He collected a huge mass of odd Soviet (and some non-Soviet) pop culture references to the Soviet space dogs, and they commissioned Turkina, a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum, to write the text to accompany it. We had this book on our coffee table for several months before I decided to give it a spin, and I really enjoyed it — it’s much more than a lot of pretty pictures, though it is that, in spades, too. The narrative doesn’t completely cohere towards the end, and there are aspects of it that have a “translated from Russian” feel (and it was translated), but if you overlook those, it is both a beautiful and insightful book.

Soviet Space Dogs cover

First off, let’s start with the easy question: Why dogs? The American program primarily used apes and monkeys, as they were far better proxies for human physiology than even other mammals. Why didn’t the Soviets? According to one participant in the program, one of the leading scientists had looked into using monkeys, talking with a circus trainer, and found out that monkeys were terribly finicky: the training regimes were harder, they were prone to diseases, they were just harder in general to care for than dogs. “The Americans are welcome to their flying monkeys,” he supposedly said, “we’re more partial to dogs.” And, indeed, when they did use some monkeys later, they found that they were tough — one of them managed to worm his way out of his restraints and disable his telemetric equipment while in flight.

The Soviet dogs were all Moscow strays, picked for their size and their hardiness. The Soviet scientists reasoned that a dog that could survive on the streets was probably inherently tougher than purebred dogs that had only lived a domesticated life. (As the owner of a mutty little rescue dog, I of course am prone to see this as a logical conclusion.)

The Soviet dog program was more extensive than I had realized. Laika was the first in orbit, but she was not the first Soviet dog to be put onto a rocket. Turkina counts at least 29 dogs prior to Laika who were attached to R-1 and R-2 rockets (both direct descendants of the German V-2 rockets), sent up on flights hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth starting in 1951. An appendix at the back of the book lists some of these dogs and their flights.

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this "the proudest moment of his life."

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a TASS press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this “the proudest moment of his life.”

Many of them died. Turkina talks of the sorrow and guilt of their handlers, who (naturally) developed close bonds with the animals, and felt personally responsible when something went wrong. Some of the surviving dogs got to live with these handlers when they retired from space service. But when the surviving dogs eventually expired, they would sometimes end up stuffed and in a museum.

I had thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Laika, but I was surprised by how much I learned. Laika wasn’t really meant to be the first dog in space — she was the understudy of another dog who had gotten pregnant just before. Laika’s death was a direct result of political pressures to accelerate the launch before they were ready, in an effort to “Sputnik” the United States once again. The head of the dog medical program, when revealing Laika’s true fate in 2002, remarked that, “Working with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

The Soviets did not initially focus on the identity of Laika. Laika was just listed as an experimental animal in the Sputnik 2 satellite. Rather, it was the Western press, specifically American and British journalists, that got interested in the identity, and fate, of the dog. The Soviet officials appear to have been caught by surprise; I can’t help but wonder if they’d had a little less secrecy, and maybe ran this by a few Americans, they’d have realized that of course the American public and press would end up focusing on the dog. It was only after discussion began in the West that Soviet press releases about Laika came out, giving her a name, a story, a narrative. And a fate: they talked about her as a martyr to science, who would be kept alive for a week before being painlessly euthanized.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

In reality, Laika was already dead. They had, too late, realized that their cooling mechanisms were inadequate and she quickly, painfully expired. The fact that Laika was never meant to come back, Turkina argues, shaped the narrative: Laika had to be turned into a saintly hero, a noble and necessary sacrifice. One sees this very clearly in most of the Soviet depictions of Laika — proud, facing the stars, serious.

The next dogs, Belka and Strelka, came back down again. Belka was in fact an experienced veteran of other rocket flights. But it was Strelka’s first mission. Once again, Belka and Strelka were not meant to be the dogs for that mission: an earlier version of the rocket, kept secret at the time, exploded during launch a few weeks earlier, killing the dogs Lisichka and Chaika. These two dogs were apparently beloved by their handlers, and this was a tough blow. The secrecy of the program, of course, pervades the entire story of the Soviet side of the Space Race, and serves as a marked contrast with the much more public-facing US program (the consequences of which are explored in The Right Stuff, among other places).

When Belka and Strelka came back safely, Turkina argues, they became the first real Soviet “pop stars.” Soviet socialism didn’t really allow valorization of individual people other than Stakhanovite-style exhortations. The achievements of one were the achievements of all, which doesn’t really lend itself to pop culture. But dogs were fair game, which is one reason there is so much Soviet-era Mutnikiana to begin with: you could put Laika, Belka, and Strelka on cigarettes, matches, tea pots, commemorative plates, and so on, and nobody would complain. Plus, Belka and Strelka were cute. They could be trotted out at press conferences, on talk shows, and were the subjects of a million adorable pictures and drawings. When Strelka had puppies, they were cheered as evidence that biological reproduction could survive the rigors of space, and were both shown off and given as prized gifts to Soviet officials. So it’s not just that the Soviet space dogs are cool or cute — they’re also responsible for the development of a “safe” popular culture in a repressive society that didn’t really allow for accessible human heroes. Turkina also argues that Belka and Strelka in particular were seen as paradoxically “humanizing” space. By coming back alive, they fed dreams of an interstellar existence for mankind that were particularly powerful in the Soviet context.

Yuri Gagarin reported to have joked: “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?” It wasn’t such a stretch — the same satellite that Belka and Strelka rode in could be used for human beings, and gave them no more space. A friend of mine, Slava Gerovitch, has written a lot about the Soviet philosophy of space rocket design, and on the low regard the engineers who ran the program had for human passengers and their propensity for messing things up. Gagarin had about as much control over his satellite as Belka and Strelka did over theirs, because neither were trusted to actually fly a satellite. The contrast between the engineering attitudes of the Soviet Vostok and the American Mercury program is evident when you compare their instrument panels. The Mercury pilots were expected to be able to fly, while poor Gagarin was expected to be flown. 

Soviet Space Dogs is a pretty interesting read. It’s a hard read for a dog lover. But seeing the Soviet space dogs in the context of the broader Soviet Space Race, and seeing them as more than just “biological cargo,” raises them from kitsch and trivia. There is also just something so emblematic of the space age about the idea of putting dogs into satellites — taking a literally pre-historic human technology, one of the earliest and most successful results of millennia of artificial breeding, and putting it atop a space-faring rocket, the most futuristic technology we had at the time.