Birds and aircraft have a fundamental problem: their range and endurance are limited. To remain aloft requires the expenditure of energy. Eventually, birds must land and rest, and aircraft must refuel. The invention of nuclear power in the 1940s appeared to offer a way to cut this Gordian knot. A nuclear-powered aircraft could, it seemed, provide dramatically improved range and endurance compared to chemically fuelled powered aircraft.
Such ambitions were strengthened as the Cold War between the US and the USSR worsened. The Cold War released immense funding for military purposes while providing an operational rationale: a requirement for very long-range bombers able to strike military-industrial complexes deep in the Soviet heartland. The generous funding now available meant numerous new high technology possibilities could be considered, built, trialled and if successful enter mass production. An obvious candidate to research and investigate seemed nuclear-powered aircraft.
The original ideas about using nuclear power for aircraft propulsion had appeared around 1944. These led to a minor research program, the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft study, beginning in mid-1946. Undertaken by Fairchild, this examined reactor technologies and engine transfer systems. These studies proved encouraging and so in 1951, with the Cold War deepening, the United States Air Force (USAF) proposed to begin actively developing manned aircraft nuclear propulsion. Contracts were let for three main elements: two X-6 prototype test aircraft, a nuclear propulsion system (reactor and turbojets) and an NB-36H reactor flight-test aircraft.
Convair received the X-6 contract. The aircraft was envisaged as being of comparable size to the company’s B-36 Peacemaker bomber with a length of 50m, a wingspan of 70m and an empty weight of some 100 tonnes. The X-6 was planned to have 12 turbojets; eight conventionally fuelled used for take-off and landing, and four nuclear-powered used during in-flight trials. This was an ambitious but expensive test program and was cancelled by the incoming Eisenhower administration in 1953 on budgetary grounds. However, the other two elements continued.
Please click here to read the full “Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far” article originally published at Balloons to Drones written by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow, Peter Layton