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America's War Machines

From 300 miles in space the LRV would be able to rain nuclear destruction on the Soviet Union, Red China and North Korea.
How It Works
Helium balloon carries vehicle back to the launch site.
Escape capsule deployment
Multistage controllable chute
In normal operation, the LRV would use its saucer shape to dissipate re-entry heat and then provide lift for atmospheric flight.

In 1949, 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.

For the handful of intelligence experts who saw how the pieces fit, the “workers’ paradise” presented a clear and present danger to the American way of life.

What 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.

The fireball 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.

Unlike 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.

Anticipating 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.

In our 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 space.

The official 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.

The LRV 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 request.

Inside The LRV

“The 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.

A considerable 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.

Most 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.

Although 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 military system.

The four-man 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 rear segments.

Although 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.

In normal 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 under construction.

A textbook 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.

The engineering 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 of miles.

In 1997, 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 upward.

Crash Debris

The engineering 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 Australia.

In 1975, 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.

Local 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.

The debris 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.

Unexplained Residue

The materials recovered from the Fraser farm bear a striking resemblance to LRV engineering drawings.

PM became 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.

We were 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.

The second 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.

In Germany, 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.

LRV documents 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 of flight.

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