Nuclear and Atomic Airships

Thanks to Toshiba’s new generation of micro-nuclear reactors, the dream of some engineers may finally become a reality.

No, the reactors aren’t small enough to fit into the DeLorean Dr. Emmett Brown drove in “Back to the Future,” but they are compact and light enough to power super-airships.

If nuclear-powered dirigibles of the sky do become a reality, they won’t have to land very often. Theoretically they could remain airborne for a year or more.

And they would be massive. Some designs call for airships more than a half mile long. Imagine one of those flying overhead.

While military versions might conceivably schedule air missions lasting months at a time—similar to United States naval crews aboard nuclear carriers and submarines—it’s unlikely that the will be employed for intelligence gathering missions for that long a time.

The new generation of 21st Century airships are expected to meet the demand for domestic and international shipping. Nuclear dirigibles fill a large gap between the relatively inexpensive shipment by truck or rail and the much more expensive alternative of air cargo.

Engineers have had a love affair with the idea of nuclear airships and airplanes for six decades. The affair has run hot and cold depending on the technology and political climate.

Back in 1966, TIME Magazine ran a story about nuclear airships. The story revealed that some aeronautical professors believed only an airship could conceivably be large enough to carry the weight of a fission reactor in its belly. Since sodium reactors were being used to power the Nautilus atomic submarines, why not airships, they thought.

But it was not to be.

The idea was kicked down the road another couple of years. And then another couple of years.

Leviathans of magazine art

The concept never seemed to gain any real traction but it kept graphic artists for popular periodicals busy. Legions of illustrators must have put food on their families’ tables with the steady commissions they made painting pictures and drawing jaw-dropping illustrations of gigantic nuclear airships slipping through the stratosphere ot dwarfing the skylines of major cities.

Mechanix Illustrated (MI) popularized “artist’s conceptions” of huge atomic zeppelins. The first such cover illustration appeared on one of their 1953 issues. It wasn’t hard to see that the editor of MI was wedded to the idea. The lengthy article, gushing on about the mighty atomic air fleets of the future even included a detailed schematic cutaway revealing the intricacies of an airship that didn’t exist and never would—except in the Christmas morning wishes of the boys at MI.

A rival magazine, Modern Mechanix, had a love affair with zeppelins period. In a 1934 issue they featured a huge airship-carrier complete with an airborne flight deck for biplanes. Inside the magazine the illustrations showing how it all worked were incredible. 

Popular Mechanics picked up the tradition. They loved to adorn their covers with the latest rakish designs of one-mile long super-powered nuclear juggernauts. some of the air leviathans illustrated were so large they were depicted as floating cities in the sky.

USSR joins the nuclear airship parade

The former Soviet Union also had engineers captivated by the idea of nuclear-powered airships. One fantastic conception provided an ultra-detailed cutaway view of the State’s promise of the glorious future of flight.

Maybe the illustration was actually an omen of communist Russia’s eventual future. The 1960s design would never have gotten off the ground as the atomic dirigible had no room for the lifting gas!

A forward-thinking concept

During the latter part of 2010, Randy Pensinger, a software engineer, penned an interesting article suggesting a new airship incorporating a never-before-tried synergy of technologies: nuclear powered, solar driven hot-air ships.

Pensinger’s idea, though novel, is one that could work. He envisions upgraded, scaled-up reactors like the kind NASA used in the Cassini space probe to Saturn. Creating an amalgam of technologies, he proposes mating the low-power nuclear pile with solar power. The nuke powerplant would produce hot air creating a lighter-than-air ship, and the solar panels would dive electric motors providing propulsion.

Nuclear airships may already exist

Peel back some of the reports gathered by UFO investigators and it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that several types of well-reported UFOs—especially one in particular—may be United States Air Force stealth nuclear-powered airships.

The airship platform, seen and reported around the globe since the early 1990s, became infamous during one night in 1997 over Phoenix, Arizona. The sightings (there were thousands of people that saw and reported the UFO across Arizona, not just Phoenix) have been labeled “The Phoenix Lights.”

Although the popular PBS television show NOVA aired an hour-long show attempting to debunk the sightings of the object over Phoenix, NOVA purposefully left out some of the most intriguing details.

The eyewitness descriptions fall in line with a very large, silent, stealthy dirigible having a V-shaped configuration.

Other than some very detailed description of the object by witnesses that testified they saw the thing pass right over their head blocking out the stars, the route that has been reconstructed is absolutely fascinating.

If the reports and the timeline of various sightings are traced across the state, the initial reports came in from Prescott, a city north-nortwest of Phoenix. After the Phoenix reports, the object was reported seen near Casa Grande and then Tuscon. Both lie on a flight path south-southeast of Phoenix.

Finally, reports following the Tuscon sightings indicate the object was traveling back in a northwesterly direction. If the flight path is extrapolated from the object’s last position and heading, the direction takes it right to Groom Lake in Nevada—home of the infamous Area 51—the USAF secret flight test base that “doesn’t exist” and the military methodically denies exists (although thousands of photographs of it exist). Groom Lake is the perfect place to hangar a huge, nuclear-powered stealth airship.

How big was the object seen over Arizona? Some witnesses claim its wingspan was at least a mile wide.

Whether the UFO was truly a UFO, or a stealth platform well-known at the Groom Lake test facility, remains to be determined.

In the meantime, engineers are loathe to put the idea of a nuclear powered airship to rest. Like Dracula, the concept keeps rising from its grave.