Enlarge / The mushroom cloud from the Soviet detonation of “Tsar Bomba” on October 30, 1961, was so giant that the photographers had a tough time capturing its full dimensions.

The detonation of the primary nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is seared into our collective reminiscence, and the world has been haunted by the prospect of a devastating nuclear apocalypse ever since. Much less well-known however equally important from a nuclear arms race standpoint was the Soviet Union’s profitable detonation of hydrogen “superbomb” within the wee hours of October 30, 1961.

Dubbed “Tsar Bomba” (loosely translated, “Emperor of Bombs”), it was the scale of a small faculty bus—it would not even match inside a bomber and needed to be slung under the stomach of the aircraft. The 60,000-pound (27 metric tons) check bomb’s explosive yield was 50 million tons (50 megatons) of TNT, though the design had a most explosive yield of 100 million tons (100 megatons).

The US had carried out the primary profitable check of a hydrogen bomb (codename: Ivy Mike) in 1954 and had been pondering the event of much more highly effective hydrogen superbombs. However the Soviets’ profitable check lent larger urgency to the matter. Finally, President John F. Kennedy opted for diplomacy, signing the Partial Nuclear Take a look at Ban Treaty on October 7, 1963.

However US nuclear coverage—and therefore world historical past—may need turned out very otherwise, in keeping with Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science on the Stevens Institute of Expertise in New Jersey and writer of Restricted Knowledge: The Historical past of Nuclear Secrecy in the USA, launched earlier this yr. He additionally maintains the NUKEMAP, an interactive device that allows customers to mannequin the affect of varied kinds of nuclear weapons on the geographical location of their alternative. 

Wellerstein has analyzed just lately declassified paperwork pertaining to the US response to Tsar Bomba in the course of the Kennedy administration. He described his conclusions in an interesting article just lately printed within the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the check.

Wellerstein offers a very vivid description of the Tsar Bomba detonation in his introduction:

At 11:32 a.m., the bombardier launched the weapon. Because the bomb fell, an infinite parachute unfurled to gradual its descent, giving the pilot time to retreat to a secure distance. A minute or so later, the bomb detonated. A cameraman watching from the island recalled:

A fireplace-red ball of monumental measurement rose and grew. It grew bigger and bigger, and when it reached monumental measurement, it went up. Behind it, like a funnel, the entire earth gave the impression to be drawn in. The sight was improbable, unreal, and the fireball appeared like another planet. It was an unearthly spectacle!

The flash alone lasted greater than a minute. The fireball expanded to just about six miles in diameter—giant sufficient to incorporate the complete city core of Washington or San Francisco, or all of midtown and downtown Manhattan. Over a number of minutes it rose and mushroomed into a large cloud. Inside ten minutes, it had reached a top of 42 miles and a diameter of some 60 miles. One civilian witness remarked that it was “as if the Earth was killed.”

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