Did A Steel Plate Beat Sputnik Into Space?

 Sputnik in space
 Was the first man-made object propelled into space actually a 1 ton armor plate? On August 27th, 1957 — just two months prior to Sputnik 1 — an underground nuclear test was conducted in southern Nevada. 

During the explosion, a steel plate cap was blasted off of a test shaft. The plate could be seen in the initial high-speed video frames, and it was estimated to have reached a speed six times the sufficient escape velocity to depart Earth. To this day, no one knows if this strange artifact of early Space Age folklore still roams the void of space, or simply vaporized due to atmospheric compression at “launch”.


During the Pascal-B nuclear test, a 900-kilogram (2,000 lb) steel plate cap (a piece of armor plate) was blasted off the top of a test shaft at a speed of more than 66 kilometres per second (41 mi/s).

Before the test, experimental designer Dr. Brownlee had performed a highly approximate calculation that suggested that the nuclear explosion, combined with the specific design of the shaft, would accelerate the plate to six times escape velocity  The plate was never found, but Dr. Brownlee believes that the plate never left the atmosphere, as it may even have been vaporized by compression heating of the atmosphere due to its high speed.

Big Explosion

The calculated velocity was sufficiently interesting that the crew trained a high-speed camera on the plate, which unfortunately only appeared in one frame, but this nevertheless gave a very high lower bound for the speed.

After the event, Dr. Robert R. Brownlee described the best estimate of the cover’s speed from the photographic evidence as “going like a bat out of hell!” The use of a subterranean shaft and nuclear device to propel an object to escape velocity has since been termed a “thunder well”.

This incident was reputedly used as part of the technical justification for the Orion project for possible use of nuclear blasts for outer-space propulsion.

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