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Cold War Warriors

Light Fuse and Get Away

Captain James Berrall, USAF, Ret.

(8/2011) If you had asked me in 1960 what my dream job was, I would have said something like: "I'd like to get a job with a company that makes big solid propellant rockets and I'd have to frequently observe them being tested and then I'd write brief reports about how the test went and my management would love them and I like to be outdoors a lot."

Debris falling to the surface after a field missile test

Incredibly and beyond all logic and rationality I did actually get that job. Thiokol Chemical Corporation was expanding rapidly because they had won a big fat juicy contract to fabricate a large number of first-stage rocket motors for the Minuteman missile. They had purchased a large tract of land (some might call it desert) in Utah, north of the Great Salt Lake on which they built a big sprawling complex of buildings, some for offices, some for manufacturing and some for pouring propellant. Then, around the corner several miles away, was the test area. Sometimes now, you can see that same area on TV, when they show a test of some BIG rocket motor which may or may not ever fly. ATK is the name of the company now, but Utah still looks the same.

I had been hired by the Field Services organization and the only reason I can think of is that my last job had been as a Guided Missile Launch officer in the USAF.

There really wasn't anything for field services to do yet, there were no missiles in the field. In fact, the first Minuteman test flight had yet to be made. So I was loaned out to program management in the Nozzle Development Department. This turned out to be very fortunate for me, it was a fascinating and extremely rich learning environment.

At that time Minuteman was the most modern, forward-looking program going and the Minuteman first stage motor was the largest solid propellant rocket ever built. In SAC (if you don't know what SAC was you are too young to be reading this - go play in your room) I had been the youngest launch officer in the oldest guided missile program in the Air Force; the SNARK. I don't know who originated the name, but it wasn't Lewis Carroll. Maybe the acronym stood for 'Stellar Navigation and Ranging Kaboom", or something like that. The Northrup Corporation had started to design the Snark in late '40's and it was already obsolete by the time we went operational. Why? Politics.

The next step in ICBM evolution was liquid-fuel rockets, but early in the game it seemed that they would almost always blow up somewhere in the launch sequence, maybe on the pad, maybe in flight, maybe right overhead if you were in training out on the Cape that day. ("What Cape?" Well no, it wasn't Cape Cod, Tiffany.) Then pieces of Atlas, or whatever it was, would come raining down out of the sky and if your car was in the parking lot this could be serious. A stainless steel pipe about 12 feet long and six inches in diameter came down from a couple of miles high one time and missed my car by about ten feet. And you couldn't just run out and grab a piece for a souvenir either, those pieces were still hot enough to burn your hands. Nevertheless, my collection of souvenirs kept growing.

By getting into the Minuteman program I had nicely sidestepped all that chancy liquid fuel business, (also the attendant drawback of spending my life buried deep in a hole somewhere in Wyoming - probably praying that a jackrabbit would trigger the motion-sensing perimeter alarm and create some excitement.)

But the Air Force wanted something really simple and reliable - something as simple as "light fuse and get away"- a message we kids all have seen on fireworks. Of course the business of bombing one's neighbors is a bit more complicated than that, especially if you want to put it right in his living room window. There are things like Coriolis Force and Atmospheric Scattering to consider, but these are easy enough to work out.

One of the things that are more complicated is guidance. You couldn't just let fly and hope that it got there, like a bottle rocket. It had to be steered. Steering was done by moving the nozzles and our motor had four of them - for no particular reason except that the Navy's Polaris missile had four and it worked....most of the time.

Polaris had four nozzles because that made it shorter and it needed to be as short as possible to fit inside a submarine

There were people who said disparaging things about the Air Force's ability to make intelligent decisions, feeling that there was no need to be concerned about Minuteman's length and that four nozzles just made it four times as likely that one of them would fail. Which does seem to have a certain amount of logic.

A solid propellant rocket motor is just a big tube made of steel (thin, very strong steel) filled with propellant which looked a great deal like the grey rubber in an ink eraser. Theoretically it could not be set off by impact but would only burn if ignited by flame - this fact was crucial to its classification which allowed it to be moved around the country without worrying about a lot of bothersome regulations concerning explosives.

(There was a story, however, about a time when one of the company bigwigs was demonstrating how safe the propellant was to a bunch of visiting Air Force brass, had whacked a little piece of propellant with a hammer, hard and had lost the hammer into the ceiling. The story was that the kinetic energy of the hammer had all turned to heat on impact, ignited the propellant all at once and this had caused the loud bang. Very embarrassing.)

But many tests had been run on motors full of propellant. They had been dropped and they had been mistreated in all sorts of ways and they'd even had bullets fired into them but had never ignited. (Letting one get real hot however, say 500 degrees or so, for over half an hour, well that wasn't a good idea)

So the motor itself was pretty much just a big tube filled with synthetic rubber - nothing much could go wrong with it. But at the end where the flame came out of the nozzles, that was a little tricky. The nozzles had to move to steer the missile and that meant they had to be able to move in a high velocity, high pressure, white-hot river of flame, without degrading, for at least 60 seconds. I was told that temperatures got up around 5000 degrees where the flame was pinched the most, called the nozzle throat. All I can say for sure is that I have seen pieces of a tungsten throat insert that had obviously melted and run like butter.

The throats were usually tungsten, enough tungsten to make 10,000 light bulb filaments and backed up by many stacked rings of graphite. A lot of different schemes were tried to make nozzle throats that would move and last for 60 seconds without coming apart. Each new design was taken out to the test area and put on a research motor, used only for testing nozzles. The various designs were dreamed up by the people in the office where I worked and by several hopeful nozzle suppliers.

Management wanted someone from the office to go out to observe the tests so that they could get an immediate idea of how the test went and how the latest design had held up. Up until then they had been depending on word of mouth and waiting sometimes three weeks for the formal test report. I suppose that going out to the test area was not considered fun duty by the other people in the office, the test area was usually dry and hot, sometimes the wind would be blowing and you could wind up covered with dust. Since it was Utah in the summer the temperature would often be around 100 degrees, so nobody else much wanted to go.

But I still had some romantic notions about space exploration and the big rocket business and loved it. During my younger days I had spent a lot of time making various devices which either made a loud noise or flew up into the air trailing smoke, but this, THIS was the real thing! This was the BIG TIME!

Usually I would watch the test from inside the blockhouse on closed circuit TV. In there you could plainly hear the roar of the motor as it was firing, but that was nothing compared to what it was like outside. I later found that out all too well.

On TV (black and white) it just looked like a squat little black bucket with a broad white line (fire) coming out of it and going up to the top of the screen. Then usually, after about 20 or 30 seconds, the flame would suddenly waver briefly and there might be a few little fragments quickly bouncing around in the test bay. After several tests I realized that that was when the nozzle started to come apart.

Things were much more colorful if you were outside. No one was allowed to get anywhere as near to the test bay as the blockhouse was and there were extremely good reasons for that. When the motor lit off it sounded like a bomb exploding and then a blazing white river of flame would go up vertically into the sky, turning into a huge billow of white smoke that went up and up and stayed there as long as the motor fired. When a nozzle failed there would be a brief twinkle in the flame and then a fistful of what looked like white-hot sparks would go sailing up into the sky, in the flame and smoke, way up, then curving over in graceful arcs and falling to earth. Those were chunks of graphite the size of golf balls and sometimes pieces of tungsten as big as your fist. They had barely cooled at all when they fell and at times a lot of the sagebrush would catch on fire.

I had my own stopwatch and I began to take it out there with me. After awhile I got so I could get within a second of the actual time of an event (I always took one second off my readings to account for my reaction time). The watch had two sweep second hands, so I could time two events, as for instance if some graphite let go first and then the throat, maybe the whole nozzle came apart a little later. After that I would count seconds mentally until burnout. (In my last job in the Air Force I had become pretty adept at counting seconds, mostly backwards. Backward seconds are longer, but I adjusted.)

Sometimes I and some other people would have to go up in the test area and scout around looking for pieces of nozzle that may have been ejected during the test. Sometimes I'd find things, but usually they were from long ago tests and not much help, I did get some interesting souvenirs though.

I was told to watch out for rattlesnakes too, though I never saw one.

I always felt a little ridiculous, wandering around in the dust and sagebrush, in my business suit and once-shiny shoes. I would have felt a lot more at home wearing jeans and hiking boots. A hat would have been nice, too.

Then I would go back to the office and tell them what I'd seen, then write it up as a brief report. At first there was a lot of skepticism about my stopwatch times. It often took several weeks for them to get the official test reports, but when they did and realized that I was getting within one second of the official electronic timing and giving them actually useful and reliable reports only a hour or so after the test event, I began to get some respect.

It felt good to finally be taken seriously by someone.

That was how I spent that summer - A summer filled with many interesting and exciting events.

There was a small herd of wild horses that roamed around in the test area too (the test area was probably about the size of Rhode Island) and if they happened to be nearby when a test motor lit off, they got excited. There was a story about some observer who was out there when a motor was fired and he nearly got trampled in the stampede. I don't know if that's true or not, but it's a good story and I did see the horses.

One day we were told that something had happened in the test area. It had not been a nozzle test so we had not been notified of it ahead of time. It had been a full-scale motor test and it had not gone well. Rumors flew. I was sent out to find out what had happened. When I got there I saw a scene that looked more like Iwo Jima after the battle than a test bay. There were big chunks of concrete strewn everywhere, there was even one piece of concrete a foot thick and as big as a car, thrown up on the bank next to the test bay. The test bay had been demolished.

I got some interesting souvenirs out of that one. I have a lumpy, solidified little puddle of aluminum with a film spindle sticking out of it which was once a movie camera. I also have a chunk of what looks like frothy green glass. That stuff is called "Trinitite" and it was once thought to only be found at ground zero, made from desert sand where an atomic bomb had been tested. But I can tell you with certainty that a large amount of solid rocket fuel burns hot enough to make green glass out of test bay concrete also.

So I returned to the office and wrote my report. Shortly after that I was called into my manager's office. It seems I had committed a great crime. In my report I had used the word "exploded". Our propellant, our motors, I was told, never exploded. Never. That was a word that I must never use.

"Well, it looked like an explosion to me", I said. So management carefully explained to me that if our propellant was explosive, then we couldn't ship motors around the country on railroad cars as we were doing and it would be an immense amount of trouble for the company and worst of all, very expensive.

What I had seen was not the result of an explosion, it had been a "pressure burst". The man who was telling me this could not help but smile a little as he told me, but I also realized that this was quite serious. I told him that I would never use the word "explosion" again.

Well, after all, when you think about it, Mt. St. Helens and Krakatoa were just "pressure bursts" too.

On another day they did another full-scale motor test with the motor mounted horizontally. This one lifted a huge cloud of red and brown dirt into the sky and atmospheric conditions were such that it went up to about 10,000 feet and just hung there, not dissipating at all. It slowly drifted south over the Great Salt Lake and it could still be seen half an hour later. I've often wondered what the people in Salt Lake City thought when they saw that huge brown cloud coming.

There were several companies that were trying to get their nozzle designs qualified to be used on Minuteman. One of them, the ARDE Corporation, was a front-runner and had a new design that was going to be tested. A representative from their home office came out to see the test and I was detailed to be his escort. I was told to try to help him see everything he wanted to.

When we got to the test site I got a slight shock, he didn't want to go in the blockhouse, he wanted to see the test from outside and he wanted to be up close. I was reluctant to let him do this. As already described I had seen many convincing demonstrations of the destructive power of these things. But he was stubborn, didn't want any part of going indoors. I was torn. On one hand I was supposed to give the man what he wanted...and I did kind of want to see one close up too. But on the other hand, I was sure it was not allowed and if anyone saw us (there were a number of TV cameras trained on the test) they would surely stop the test to get us out of there, which would cause a BIG furore and might actually cost me my job, which I certainly didn't want to happen.

To my horror the ARDE rep then said, "Here, this is perfect!" and went up the stairs to the top of the adjacent test bay! This bay could only have been about 100 feet from the one where the test motor was. I went up too, mentally praying that nobody would see us, nothing would go wrong and that we'd live thru the experience. I don't think the ARDE rep had any idea what he was getting into.

Once we were on top there was nothing to do but wait and we didn't have to wait long. The motor lit off with a shattering blast of sound - words cannot_possibly convey how loud it was. I felt like I had been hit in the face, HARD by something big and flat and cold. I think "shattering" is the best possible word I can find to describe the noise. Get in a shower stall, close the door and have ten cherry bombs per second explode in there with you for 60 seconds, maybe that would approximate what it was like. We were much too close.

I crouched down below the concrete lip of the test bay and put my fingers in my ears as tightly as possible. I would have put them in up to my elbows if I could have, but it wasn't enough. The noise actually hurt. I have read that noise above 160 decibels can be painful and it certainly was that. My chest hurt, my stomach hurt, I felt like my insides were turning to jelly. The ARDE rep took a quick peek over the edge at his nozzle, then he sat down with his hands over his ears too. I was just hunched down, praying that the test would be over soon. It was a long 60 seconds.

I think it was a successful test - I don't remember anything going wrong, which was fortunate. I imagine that if the nozzle had come apart we might well have been hit by something. Usually what I saw during a failure was a whole lot of little pieces going straight up into the sky, but you never knew - and getting hit by a white-hot high-velocity piece of graphite has got to be unhealthy.

We came down off the test bay partially deaf, I think, eased casually around the back of the blockhouse, then eventually went back to the office. Nothing was ever said to me about it, so I guess we were not seen, a miracle for which I have always been thankful. I don't remember anything else about that day, I probably was more or less in shock that we had gotten away with it. I also would not be at all surprised to learn that that day is the reason my ears now ring.

Eventually a time came when I was told to hurry up, get out to the test area quick, they're going to fire one...and I realized I didn't want to go. It was about 100 degrees out there and I was in a nice cool air-conditioned office and I was going to get dirty and dusty. In the car on the way to the test I wryly thought that it must be possible, even probable, that we can get tired of anything if we have to do it too often, too regularly. Even if it was with Marylyn Monroe, I thought! Well...maybe. At any rate, I realized that I was actually beginning to get tired of my dream job.

Then, at the end of the summer, I was asked if I wanted to remain in Field Services or transfer permanently into Program Management. I suppose it was a compliment and I probably surprised everybody by electing to stay with Field Services, but I had a shot at being assigned to the Field office at Vandenberg Air Force base in California where they were were going to launch some Minuteman missiles down the Pacific Test Range. Being in the launch business was where I really wanted to be.

It took a while, fall turned into winter and there were several times when I just about gave up hope, but finally I was assigned to the field office at Vandenberg.

When I got there I was delighted to find that some of my old Air Force friends were there too. In particular, one of the head men in the SAC Minuteman office there was "The Baron". This man, now a major, had been seated beside me in the classroom for the whole time we had spent learning about the Snark Intercontinental Missile in 1959 and later had certified me and my crew as combat ready when we went operational in Maine.

The Minuteman program at Vandenberg was being managed by the Boeing Company. There were 4000 of them on base and two of us in the Thiokol field office. Two Aerojet people (second stage) and one Hercules Powder Company rep. (third stage) shared the same floor of the building with us.

I think we all felt that the Boeing people looked down their noses at us. They were prime and we were sub-contractors. They ran the show. (Thy made big important things like bombers and such, all we did was make fireworks).

Minuteman missile test

Most of my time was spent going to meetings, taking notes and writing reports about them. Eventually the day came when I realized that I had done nothing but sit in meetings all day.

One day, while a meeting was going on there was a loud blast, all the windows rattled and the doors shook. It sounded like a bomb had exploded next door. Somebody checked it out, came back in and said, "It was just a hard start." "Hard start" indeed. We were at least a mile from the launch pad. Seems that sometimes at ignition some of the smaller research vehicles would do this and it didn't really damage them or alter their ability to fly. Certainly would get one's attention though.

The Minuteman site was at the northern edge of Vandenberg, easily ten miles away from the main base building complex where all the offices were.

When I had to go to the site I sometimes liked to park up there for a while and look out to the south at the long sweep of coast, the distant launch sites and Gantry cranes. Sometimes there would be little cumulus clouds casting their shadows on the land and the blue Pacific. Sometimes, when there were distant sunbeams out across the hazy sea, I felt like I could see all the way to Mexico. it was pretty scenic. Other times (frequently) the haze was so bad you couldn't see anything at all. That was called fog.

Vandenberg was mostly a research facility for launching test missiles down the Pacific Missile Range, but there was one combat-ready Atlas ICBM squadron there. I think they had about three missiles. Nevertheless, they had been the very first ICBM unit to be declared combat-ready anywhere. They had beaten us in the Snark program by about four months. One of their big A-shaped Gantry cranes was right there in front of you when you came in the north entrance to the base.

The summer ground along. Other organizations launched various test flights down the missile range and some tried for polar orbits. Now we know that some of those were spy satellites.

At one point old friendship really paid off, because the Baron, which is to say, our customer, asked me to find out the answer to a technical question they had and we got the needed data back from Utah in less than 24 hours, which pleased the Air Force and justified our existence. I got an "attaboy" for that one.

The Baron and I crossed paths frequently during that time, since we were both working on the same program. He represented SAC - the eventual users of the missile and was directly concerned with originating and writing up the countdown checklist for Minuteman. Though I had no "need to know" he shared a lot of the details with me. Minuteman was amazingly more simple than Snark had been. Huge advances in guidance system technology had been made. As just one little example, the unit which we had called "the stable table" on Snark had been a heavy triangular unit about two feet on each side. In Minuteman it was about the size of your thumb and the little gyros mounted on it were much better.

Then came the "1962 Fall War Games".

Things started to get nervous on the international scene that fall. I don't remember if we had achieved our first Minuteman test flight or not, but I think we had. Our spyplanes had discovered Russian missiles in Cuba and things quickly went from uneasy to SERIOUS. It was bad enough to listen to television news, but the rumors that began to fly around were scary.

Then Kennedy issued an ultimatum and the world held its breath. It was only two years since I had been commanding a launch crew in SAC myself and I knew all too well what that command would be doing, I knew that all the B-52s on all the bases were cocked and ready to go and that a least 20 of them, maybe 40, were up over the pole, orbiting. That was always a tense time. No matter how careful everyone is, accidents can always happen and with maybe 600 times as many chances, well...

When I drove in to the base the next day I saw some things I had never seen before. Inside the gantry was a big shiny Atlas missile and on top of the gantry was a bright red light - winking. That meant it was armed. "Yow" I thought, "This is getting serious". Then I noticed the sign beside the gate. It was a big numeral "2"- this meant "REAL serious" and that I was not going to get to go home until the number changed or something worse happened.

So I drove up to the Minuteman site where I found all the Boeing people sitting around badmouthing the Air Force. It seems the Strategic Air Command (represented by my friend Baron, his boss and a few other troops) had taken over the launch site, locked out the Boeing people, gotten a warhead from who knows where, were putting it on the missile and were getting ready to declare it operational.

The Boeing people were spitting nails. They were calling the Air Force people idiots and worse. They were snarling about how it would be an impossible exercise, especially if tried by a bunch of Air Force yo-yos and that even if it was launched, it probably would never get to Russia and even if it did it would never hit its target because the guidance system wasn't ready.

But I was grinning. I think that anyone who has spent time functioning under a stern code of professionalism later takes some pride in having been part of it. Marines, Airborne troops, Spartans, whatever. I was very proud of the command I had once been part of - who would have thought that they had a Minuteman warhead stashed in their hip pocket? Maybe, come to think of it, it was an extra Atlas warhead. An Atlas-D nose cone didn't look like a Minuteman nose cone but perhaps, inside, the hooks to hang things on were alike. Maybe all military people aren't as dumb as civilians think they are.

I think the Boeing people simply couldn't believe it. I also think that they did not really understood the true nature of the business they were in.

A bit later I was told to come back to the main base to pick up a package that had come in by air. As I drove in I noticed that there was very little activity anywhere. Vandenberg was like a ghost town. I imagine that anyone who could find a TV set was glued to it. As I drove along the deserted highway beside the runway I had a sudden mental vision of a bug crawling across a great big archery target. "Here I am, crossing the bulls eye," I thought "and I don't even have to be here any more, I'm a civilian!" (There was no doubt that Vandenberg was on the Russian target list, considering those Atlas missiles).

I don't remember much about the rest of that day, I do remember hearing that there had been food riots in grocery stores in Los Angeles. Eventually we must have heard about the Russian ships stopping and then turning back. Defcon Two must have been lifted because I did get to go home that evening and the whole world started to relax. We felt like we had been close to the edge, but we had been there before - several times. Maybe we had gotten used to it.

But it turned out later that we had never known how close we really did get. Never mind Nikki and Johnny and their classic eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation - the real danger, it turns out, was on the Cuban beaches. Turned out there had been missiles in Cuba we didn't know about, tactical missiles with nuclear warheads targeted on the potential landing grounds, manned by crews with Russian officers. Florida was filling up with ordinance and troops getting ready to invade Cuba and if we had the Russians were authorized to launch at our invasion forces without getting any further O.K. from anybody... and I think they would have.

What would have happened next is anybody's guess, but I think that at the very least, Cuba would certainly have become a very unhealthy place to visit for awhile. Might still be. Good thing we didn't try it. After that, everything was sort of anti-climactic.

Eventually we got our second test flight off. Our motor worked fine, but the missile blew up at about 100,000 feet. (It was always a relief to find out it was somebody else's motor.) The Minuteman program kind of hit a snag then while they tried to iron out some kinks. It seems to me they were having troubles at Canaveral too. My boss quit and I was called back to Utah to write documentation concerning set-up and repair of first stage motors. Minuteman soon got its kinks worked out and became a completely reliable missile. As time went along and we filled more and more silos with missiles it became obvious that sooner or later we were going to run out of work.

Then the layoffs started. It got to the point where it was about 200 people every two weeks. It was startling and a little depressing to walk through a great big office space, where there had once been about 200 people, now deserted and gloomy because the only light was coming from some far-away side windows. All the desks were dusty and there was a bitter message scrawled in the dust on one of them.

Looking at that kind of brought reality home to me. I felt like I could sense inevitable doom gathering somewhere in the shadows behind me... why wait?

I could see what was coming all too clearly, so I asked my boss to lay me off too. He was relieved - I think I solved a problem for him. I drove the moving van back east myself, then joined Bell Labs working on the Nike-X interceptor missile program...but that, again, is another story.

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