The Fastest Object In The History Of Earth Didn't Have An Engine


Operation Plumbbob/Priscilla Test (1957) — National Nuclear Security Administration [Public Domain]

If I asked you to name the fastest object made by man to cross the surface of the Earth, what would come to mind? Maybe a jet, like the SR-71 Black Bird? It comes in with a speed of about 2100 miles per hour. Makes your Toyota look like a lawnmower doesn’t it?

Then again, maybe you’d say a missile? After all, they’re fast enough to knock a plane out of the air. According to the New York Times, The United States (U.S.) is working on a hypersonic missile that can fly between fifteen to twenty times the speed of sound, or over 11,000 miles per hour. Now, that’s pretty quick, but what about a different type of rocket you’re familiar with?

Needing escape velocity to breach the atmosphere and climb into orbit, the space shuttle reaches an amazing 17,500 miles per hour. However, this rocket-boosted monster is a piker compared to the Earth’s champion sprinter. To confuse you a bit more, this speedster doesn’t even have an engine or electronics.

The winner you ask. A manhole cover. Well, more specifically a pipe cover. On an August day in 1957, this cover hit an estimated speed of sixty kilometers per second or 125,000 miles per hour. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. It turns out all you need is compressed energy and a nuclear explosion to make a feat like this occur.

This is one of the strange unplanned events which occurs when Man experiments with a dangerous new technology with unlimited potential. Any little test undertaken in these times can become unfathomably big. For instance, seeing what would happen to the lid on a pipe after an underground nuclear explosion.

So, how did we get to this point of blistering speed in history? It’s an interesting and strange story.

Testing and the wild west of the atomic age

The 1950s began an atomic arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Obviously, you needed to do more than just build these weapons; they needed to be tested. Rebecca Harrington’s article in Tech Insider explains this testing led to problems, namely radiation. In many ways, the early days were like an atomic Wild West.

In fact, there’s an infamous instance where Kodak in New York could detect radiation derived from tests all the way in Nevada. Due to the fact radioactive isotopes had previously damaged their production of X-ray film, the company kept sensitive Geiger counters.

Late January 1951, Kodak picked up twenty-five times the normal radiation in snowfall by their facility in New York — almost 2500 miles away from the test site. As you can see, the wind was spreading the fallout all over the country. Eventually Kodak threatened to sue the U.S. government. Not for ethical reasons, but because their film kept getting destroyed.

Per capita thyroid doses in the continental United States of Iodine-131 resulting from all exposure routes from all atmospheric nuclear tests (1951–1962) — Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, this wouldn’t do, so an alternative had to be figured out. Harrington says the answer was to move tests underground where they could hopefully be better contained.

Underground tests and the world’s fastest lid

The government turned to an astrophysicist named Robert Brownlee to design the experiments. In Iain Thomson’s interview with Brownlee at the Register, the scientist says the plan was to set off smaller scale bombs underground so the radiation could be controlled. The series of tests were called Operation Plumbbob.

In July of 1957, the test called Pascal-A took place in a three-foot-wide and 485-foot hole drilled in the Nevada desert. “We figured you could keep everything in but for a few percent by going underground,” said Brownlee, “But Mother Nature can outwit you in a great variety of ways.”

Unfortunately, the yield was 50,000 times greater than expected and created what the scientist colorfully referred to as “the world’s finest” display of fireworks. The next test called Pascal-B attempted to fix this problem. The next hole was a bit deeper and had a metal lid weighing about 1,000 lbs. welded on top of the chamber.

Brownlee explained to Thompson that due to the pressure exerted, they figured the lid was likely to pop off. A reasonable person might consider this a safety concern, however, that reasonable person didn’t come to work that day. Brownlee indicates the scientists were more interested to see how fast the cap would go once it blew off. Remember those kids in your neighborhood who played with M-80's? Now you know what they did when they grew up.

In order to keep track of the cap, a camera was set up which would capture a picture every millisecond. Again, mother nature had other plans for the scientists. The camera did capture the lid coming off — only one picture.

Remember the camera was taking pictures of every millisecond. So, how fast did this thing go if it wasn’t vaporized?

What happened to the lid?

Test Craters Across Nevada Test Site — US Geological Survey [Public Domain]

While in his conversation with Thomson, Brownlee said he originally figured the lid had been destroyed. However, in his interview with Harrington at Tech Insider, the scientist explained later in life he changed his mind. Time working with rockets and seeing how the metal reacted made him realize the lid wouldn’t have had time to vaporize.

In his best estimate, it was traveling at five times the speed necessary to escape the Earth’s atmosphere. So, it likely flew into space. If this is the case, the lid beat Sputnik into orbit by about a couple of months.

While the feat can’t be 100% proven — remember a camera and sensors didn’t exist at the time fast enough to keep up with the cap — Brownlee seems certain the cap made it to space.

Fast times with unknown tech

This whole incident takes us back to a crazy time. Often when mankind develops a new technology with many unknowns, they play and experiment with it. This time, it just happened to be nuclear technology. It may have been a terrifying time for many, but it was likely an exciting and crazy time to be a scientist.

Serious science had its intermittent bouts of Homer Simpson-style experiments thrown into the mix. Likely, no one even batted an eye at crazy suggestions because everything was so new and unknown.

  • We got to see, well actually not see, a cap fired at 125,000 miles per hour into space.
  • Also, there was a nice set of legal battles with Kodak over radioactive fallout. Not over people’s health mind you, over the destruction of X-ray paper.
  • Don’t forget about the almost 500-foot holes with giant fireballs shooting out of them too.

So, next time you hear Elon Musk make a wild suggestion, realize it’s just par for the course in the crazy world of science. Also, if Musk happens to mention one of his rockets heading to Mars passed a giant manhole cover, he likely isn’t under the influence of a mind-altering substance.

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