Following WWII that ended in 1945, a period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union called the Cold War began just two years after. While no formal war was declared by either party, the threat of nuclear warfare was enough for these two superpowers to develop their nuclear weapons and, at the same time, develop anti-nuclear technologies. While we usually hear about the ballistic, hypersonic, and all kinds of missiles, the United States also explored using a giant, man-operated atomic space monster robot called The Beetle.
The Impossible Dream
The US military had what seemed like an impossible dream in the late 1950s. They wanted nuclear-powered bombers that were as safe as they could get, effective, could remain in the air for weeks, and ready to drop and destroy the bombs at the Soviet territory faster than saying Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). If you can even say it.
The Long-range nuclear-powered bombers would have been huge to house the nuclear reactors that powered them. The way a nuclear-powered bomber would power its jet engines was rather novel. Instead of burning fuel to create the hot air that flowed over a jet engine’s spinning turbine, superheated air from the onboard 3 mega-watts nuclear reactor would be ducted into the jet engine directly. Of course, you can’t just shut off a nuclear reactor like a light switch so the nuclear-powered bomber’s reactor would always be running even on the ground because the hot air ducted away from the reactor into the engines as part of its cooling system. The reactor itself was unshielded(you read that right), instead the crew compartment itself had lead shielding and leaded windscreens. How would technicians be able to work on the aircraft or load its bombs without radiation poisoning?
There was also the very real risk that a ground fire or crash by one of these bombers would result in nuclear radiation affecting the surrounding crash site. How would the Air Force be able to safely extract the survivors(or bodies) of the crew and its nuclear bombs from a crash site emitting deadly Alpha and Gamma radiation? While nuclear technology was still in its early stages, working around nuclear material was already known to be quite deadly, two people died in plutonium handling accidents in 1945 and 1946 while preparing for a possible third nuclear weapon to be dropped on Japan, the only casualties of the third atomic bomb. There was also the problem of removing the wrecked reactor from the debris of the crash. While the idea of having bombers with unlimited range and always running at idle ready to take off at a moment’s notice was certainly promising, dealing with a possible mishap involving an aircraft containing a now crushed nuclear reactor was proving to be a major obstacle to going forward.
What Has Legs And Lifts Eggs?
At Nineteen feet long, 12 feet wide, 11 feet high, and weighing in at a hefty 77 tons, this large mobile manipulator ordered by the Air Force Special Weapons Center (AFSWC) was built by Jered Industries in Detroit for General Electric. It was built on the M42 Duster self-propelled anti-aircraft gun chassis as the lower body and two manipulators were mated with a cylindrical lifting upper body with man-operated mechanical arms. Say hello to the first Autobot. Work on it began in 1959 and was completed in 1961. According to Orange Bean Indiana:
“This costly mechanical beast had a single purpose: to service and repair the USAF’s atomic-powered aircraft. Beetle’s specs might seem overkill, especially since it was created to service a vehicle that didn’t yet exist, but that’s not the case. It needed every bit of its power and shielding, especially if the pilot inside wanted to live.”
People can get into Beetle’s upper body and be encased in leaded glass and iron plates about 60 cm thick. A TV camera and a periscope could be used to check and monitor the surroundings.
While the Beetle sounded like a truly awesome creation, it also came with problems as huge as the robot itself. USAF had to deal with fuel line failures, oil squirting due to loose plugs, arm diode breakages, auxiliary generator outages, and repeated shorts. Add the fact that the development of the nuclear bomber was also put on indefinite hold the Air Force decided to stop the robot’s development until it was later on considered as “confidential waste”(meaning don’t tell Congress about it) and was disposed of at the Nevada National Security Site. The $1.5 million (approximately $13.3 million today), just gone like that.
But the Beetle was not gone in vain. Its manipulator technology was key to the later invention of the Remote Underwater Manipulator (RUM) for deep-sea submersibles. It is the same technology used by the submersible that explored the Titanic and is currently used to safely handle radioactive materials.