300 miles in space the LRV would be able to rain nuclear destruction
on the Soviet Union, Red China and North Korea.
balloon carries vehicle back to the launch site.
normal operation, the LRV would use its saucer shape to dissipate
re-entry heat and then provide lift for atmospheric flight.
the biggest black hole in the universe wasn’t in space, but
across the Bering Strait. Stretching across 12 time zones, the Union
of Soviet Socialist Republics was, as Winston Churchill would so memorably
describe it, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The
few things that most people knew about life behind the Iron Curtain
seemed to be pieces of an incomprehensible puzzle.
handful of intelligence experts who saw how the pieces fit, the “workers’
paradise” presented a clear and present danger to the American way
the intelligence community knew, and most people did not, was that
in the final frantic hours of World War II, the Soviet army had hastily
raided Germany’s most advanced weapons research laboratories. And,
on Aug. 29, 1949, only four years after Hiroshima, the technological
booty from those raids turned a country whose farmers still used horse-drawn
plows into a nuclear superpower.
of the communist atomic bomb cast a sinister new light on an event
that previously seemed quite inconsequential. In the summer of 1945,
an unusual rumor had begun to circulate within the intelligence division
of the European Command. During interrogations, captured German aircraft
engineers referred to an extraordinarily fast rocket plane under development
at a secret base in Bavaria.
the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket planes that had begun to attack Allied
bombers in the last months of the war, this aircraft had an odd-looking
curved wing that blended into its fuselage. The aerodynamic advantage
of this configuration had been known to American designers for more
than a decade. It created more lift than a standard wing, especially
at low speeds, and provided more internal capacity for carrying bombs.
In the early days of the war, the U.S. Navy had briefly experimented
with circular wing design for those very reasons.
that the first generation of communist atomic bombs would be as heavy
as those America had dropped on Japan, it seemed reasonable to U.S.
defense planners that the Soviet air force, which then lacked a nuclear
bomber, would try to adapt German disc technology. The United States
was, after all, doing exactly the same thing with the V-2s and Nazi
rocket scientists it had spirited away in Operation Paper Clip.
July 1997 cover story, “Roswell Plus 50,” POPULAR MECHANICS detailed
how Air Force interest in duplicating Nazi technology led to two American
flying disc projects. Project Silver Bug sought to build a vertical
takeoff and landing aircraft. Project Pye Wacket was to create small
discs for use as air-to-air missiles. Documents declassified since
then point to a third secret project, a 40-ft. “flying saucer” designed
to rain nuclear destruction on the Soviet Union from 300 miles in
designation for America’s nuclear flying saucer was the Lenticular
Reentry Vehicle (LRV). It was designed by engineers at the Los
Angeles Division of North American Aviation, under a contract with
the U.S. Air Force. The project was managed out of Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio, where German engineers who had worked
on rocket plane and flying disc technology had been resettled.
escaped public scrutiny because it was hidden away as one of the Pentagon’s
so-called “black budget” items -- that is, a secret project that is incorporated
into some piece of nonclassified work. On Dec. 12, 1962, security
officers at Wright-Patterson classified the LRV as secret because:
“It describes an offensive weapon system.” The project remained classified
until May 1999, when a congressionally mandated review of old documents
changed the project’s status as a government secret, downgrading it
to public information. The Department of Defense did, however, successfully
seek to have the document’s distribution restricted to defense contractors.
PM obtained its copy as the result of a Freedom of Information Act
operational mission design is six weeks’ duration at a nominal orbital
altitude of 300 nautical miles, with a crew of four men,” according
to the report. The weapons bay would hold “four winged weapons” that
could be either launched or detached and parked on orbit. There are
repeated references to the LRV launching weapons-carrying clusters.
part of the design study focuses on the details of building a 40-ft.-dia.
airframe and strengthening it against the acceleration of 8 g’s and
wind shear it would experience during launch. However, no mention
is made of the type of booster the disc would ride into space.
likely, the LRV would have flown atop a multistage rocket, like the
Saturn booster used in the Apollo moon program. The engineering study,
however, suggests a more intriguing possibility. At some point, the
LRV could have been powered by one of the nuclear rockets then under
development by the Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission. Several
of these rockets were in fact built and successfully tested in Nevada.
the government claims all of its nuclear rocket program records have
been declassified, a search of the Department of Energy (DOE) human
radiation experiment database indicates otherwise. PM has learned
that 40 cu. ft. of records related to the human health effects of
the nuclear rocket program, compiled between 1956 and 1975, are stored
in a secured location -- Building 1001 -- at the Los Alamos National Laboratory
in Los Alamos, N.M. A DOE spokesman told PM that the only reason these
records would have remained classified was if they dealt with an operational
crew would ride a wedge-shaped capsule built inside the LRV. The capsule
would divide the front portion of the disc into separate work and
off-duty areas. The nuclear-tipped rockets would be stored in the
these rockets were not called multiple independent reentry vehicles
(MIRVs), they match the description of these multiple-warhead-delivery
devices, which were later banned by disarmament treaties. An MIRV-equipped
LRV would have been able to eliminate the war-making capabilities
of the Soviet Union, China and North Korea at the push of a button.
operations, the capsule would function as the LRV’s flight control
center. In an emergency, the crew could fire the capsule’s independent
50,000-pound-thrust solid-fuel rocket motor and return to Earth. The
capsule’s final descent would be slowed by a parachute, much like
the X-38 “lifeboat” planned for the international space station now
mission would conclude with the entire LRV returning to Earth. It
would fire its nuclear or liquid-fueled main rocket to brake, then
travel edge-first into the atmosphere. Its disc form would dissipate
the heat of re-entry, then act as a wing. Its flattened tail structure
would provide directional stability and control. A minute or so before
landing, skids would extend and the LRV would settle onto a stretch
of dry lakebed.
study does not describe how the LRV, which would weigh just over 17,000
pounds without its crew, weapons, fuel and stores, would then have
been returned to the launch pad. One possibility, suggested by the
inclusion of a high-pressure helium storage tank, is that it would
have been ferried by a heavy-lift balloon, as shown in the drawing
on the opposite page. While the LRV would not have had sufficient
helium to inflate a balloon, the tank would have had sufficient capacity
for replenishing the lift-bag to permit trips of several thousands
as part of its effort to debunk the Roswell alien landing myth, the
Air Force revealed details of several heavy-lift balloon research
projects. Among those were experiments in which 15,000-pound payloads
were lifted to 170,000 ft. While not specifically acknowledging the
LRV by name, an Air Force spokesman conceded that during the Cold
War it routinely used high-altitude balloons to lift unusual airframes
for aerodynamic tests. Airframe tests of secret planes were most likely
the cause of still-unexplained UFO sightings. And a balloon-lifted
LRV test flight would certainly match the classic UFO reports of a
silvery disc hovering motionless in the sky, then silently shooting
study obtained by POPULAR MECHANICS contains language that describes
a re-entry heating test that, at the time, could have been accomplished
by only a high-altitude drop of a flying prototype. A further indication
that the LRV flew comes from a retired Air Force contractor. He tells
PM he personally saw a craft fitting the description of the LRV at
a Florida base that he had been visiting on unrelated business in
the late 1960s. However, what is by far the most compelling evidence
that the LRV, or a flying prototype, was actually built comes from
Jean Fraser found an odd bit of honeycomb-like debris on her family’s
ranch south of Brisbane. The area is in the vicinity of what was then
a secret Australian testing range where the British and Americans
conducted some of their most secret atomic experiments. Since the
LRV was to carry a small nuclear reactor to provide electricity for
flight systems, it is conceivable that tests would have been conducted
at this isolated location.
legends claim the honeycomb was debris from a flying saucer that exploded
over the test range in 1966. The remaining pieces were supposedly
collected by the military and returned to the United States aboard
a U.S. Air Force plane. Interested in learning if the debris was extraterrestrial,
Dick Smith, a Sydney businessman, arranged for the University of New
South Wales to perform a chemical analysis.
contained minerals commonly found in aircraft-grade fiberglass panels.
Based on the university’s report, the Mufon UFO Journal, the monthly
magazine of the Mutual
UFO Network, debunked rumors of the debris having any alien origin.
materials recovered from the Fraser farm bear a striking resemblance
to LRV engineering drawings.
interested in revisiting the Australian debris analysis when
we noticed a similarity between a photograph of the mystery honeycomb
and a cross-section diagram in the LRV engineering study.
also curious about two points that were raised in the university’s
chemical analysis, but not pursued once it was determined that the
debris originated on Earth. The first has to do with the presence
of small amounts of titanium. Titanium is a strong, lightweight metal
used extensively in spacecraft. While some fiberglass products also
contain titanium, it is not in the chemical form found in the debris.
curiosity has to do with chemical residues. Those found on the honeycomb
were similar to those typically found in the vicinity of high-temperature
chemical explosions. A possible explanation for such an explosion
can be found in LRV engineering drawings. Like the German Me 163 rocket
plane, the main engine of the LRV was designed to burn hypergolic
fuel, highly reactive fluids that can explode on contact, releasing
tremendous amounts of energy. Plans show that the LRV would have carried
9375 pounds of nitrogen tetroxide and hydrazine.
landing Me 163s were plagued by on-board fires, caused by the sloshing
of a type of hypergolic fuel in mostly empty fuel tanks. According
to the design study, the tanks aboard the LRV could never be completely
emptied either, making accidents like those aboard Me 163s all but
inevitable. LRV project managers would have been well aware of this
unique danger, as one of the members of the Wright-Patterson aeronautical
research team was Rudi Opitz, one of Germany’s first Me 163 test pilots.
released thus far tell only part of the story. But in time, the secrecy
on progress reports, construction drawings and perhaps even operational
records will expire and we will be able to tell the rest of the story.
Perhaps they will reveal that the LRV remained a general’s pipe dream,
a multimillion-dollar paper plane that never took flight. Or they
may tell the story of the most astounding adventure in the history
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