Manhole Covers in Space -- and Online

By Debbie Moorhouse

A question on the letters page of the September 2002 issue of Fortean Times -- a British magazine which covers fringe science or "Fortean" subjects -- piqued my interest. Was it true that a manhole cover, accidentally blasted upwards at escape velocity during the American nuclear tests in the 1950s, was in fact the first manmade object in space, beating Sputnik 1 by a long way? Or was it just an urban myth?

The Internet is the natural home of the urban myth: the two could have been made for each other. The question therefore was: could it find room for the truth as well?

It's often thought necessary to give dire warnings about not trusting anything you see or read online. I would go further -- don't trust ANY source implicitly. The advice my history teacher gave me all those years ago seems to me to apply as well to the net as to anything else: When considering the validity of a source, ask yourself these questions: who created it, when (especially in relation to the events described), and why? With this in mind, and convinced that the story had to be nonsense, I nonetheless made some enquiries on the Internet, using Google as my base.

Here's what I found out.

"The first man-made object sent into space was a manhole cover which by now has travelled well past Pluto!" (SAAO). Sadly, the link promising the 'full story' is broken. Isn't it always the way?

At xent.com, a poster quoted Eric Shulman as writing, in his book A Briefer History of Time (pub. 1999), that "the first artificial object in space had been launched by accident several months earlier [than Sputnik 1] when a manhole cover was left on a 500 foot deep hole [during underground nuclear testing] . . . velocity was high enough for the manhole cover to have escaped not only from the Earth, but also from the solar system."

Another poster rigorously debunked Shulman's (alleged) version of events. It wasn't a manhole cover; it was a steel plate. It wasn't an accident -- so presumably it was deliberate. In this poster's opinion, the plate "came down in a fine rain of liquid steel spread all over the Nevada desert." A third poster debunked that idea. As most of the shockwave energy would have impacted the plate, while the radiant energy would have been absorbed by the walls of the shaft over which the plate was bolted, he thought it entirely possible the plate could have survived the explosion. However, he had doubts that the plate would have achieved escape velocity.

Curiouser and curiouser. Clearly, this "manhole cover" had some objective existence. Further research revealed that there's even a five-minute Australian animated film called "Great Moments in Science: Manhole Cover in Space." Irritatingly, no further information about the film can be found. It's out there somewhere.

I decided to pursue the "first manmade object in space" line, as I was now becoming curious as to whether or not Sputnik 1 actually deserves that accolade.

Four pages of Google search results all seemed convinced that Sputnik 1 should keep its crown. But wait -- what about this reference at the ABC Online Forum? If Google hadn't cached it, we'd never know what the posters were talking about at ABC (don't bother following this link, it's a 404). As it is, however, the manhole cover makes a reappearance. By now I was almost getting fond of it. The poster who mentions it is actually asking whether or not bullets fired in the air come back down and kill people, but his interest in that question started with the story of the manhole cover being blasted into outer space during atom bomb tests. So far, so consistent.

Another poster raises a third candidate for initial space insertion: "No, the first man-made object in space was a German WW2 modified V-2 rocket, in late 1944 I think." What? Here I was thinking it was between Sputnik 1 and the manhole cover. Another poster tries to introduce a cannonball fired by General Lee's giant cannon during the 1860s, but surely that's spurious. I can only entertain so many contenders. No balls please.

Here then are the serious candidates for the "first man-made object in space" crown.

  1. V2 (1944?)
  2. Manhole cover (1950s?)
  3. Sputnik 1 (October 4th 1957)

The Dodge Elementary School in Nebraska wants to introduce Pioneer 10, on its way out past Pluto, as a contender. On what basis? Perhaps they mean first man-made object to leave the solar system. I'm definitely not entertaining that as a contender.

Instead, I examined the V2's claim. Remember: the prize is to be the first man-made object in space. Out past the atmosphere. Up in the vacuum. No orbiting required.

The V2 -- unsurprisingly, a successor to the V1 or doodlebug which was used by the Axis powers to bombard London and the Home Counties during World War Two -- was developed by a team headed by German scientist Werner Von Braun during the 1940s. Whereas the V1 was launched from a purpose-built ramp, the V2 was a more conventional rocket design which launched vertically. Captured V2's (and indeed captured scientists) formed the basis of America's nascent post-war space program. So perhaps it's not wholly implausible that one might have ventured into space -- but before Sputnik?

Astonishingly, it turns out that the V2 story has more than a grain of truth to it. And the information comes from no less a place than the Smithsonian. Apparently, modified V2 rockets were used by the US Naval Research Laboratory to investigate the sun's spectrum. On October 10th 1946, a successful flight reached 173 km above the Earth's surface. But is that space? Earth's atmosphere does extend a long way out, after all. It's at this point that it occurs to the amateur student of science and would-be researcher that perhaps they ought to have defined their terms before starting on this Internet odyssey. This is what happens when you're making it up as you go along.

So, where does space begin exactly? This is a question with no easy answer, but according to NASA (who should know), astronaut status is awarded in America to anyone who gets above 50 miles. However, a more technical definition would apparently be 75.76 miles. Makes me wish that America had adopted either the metric or the imperial system exclusively. Swapping between the two gives me a headache. Where does 173 km get you in miles? According to this useful converter, it's about 107 miles.

The V2 is clearly a serious contender. It antedates Sputnik 1 and even the putative manhole cover. By NASA's own definitions, it made it into space. So why is Sputnik 1 so frequently referred to as the 'first man-made object in space'? It's a mystery. Perhaps Sputnik 1's primacy is the real urban myth here -- and one that nobody is keen to challenge. After all, Sputnik 1 went up and stayed up -- for a while -- and it beeped. The V2 came straight back down, and it probably didn't beep. But it was American. Well, by adoption.

Sputnik 1's height above the Earth seems to have varied enormously as it orbited -- from 200 km (124 miles) to 940 km (584 miles). The R7 Semiorka rocket which launched the basketball-sized satellite also made it into orbit, and both were visible in the night sky. So Sputnik 1 went higher, even if it didn't get there first.

Further investigation of Sputnik 1 reveals that it was probably also beaten into space by an earlier Soviet launch. Shortly before placing Sputnik 1 into orbit, the Soviet Union claimed to have achieved a height of 815 miles with an ICBM in August 1957. The claim was unverified and was generally held to be bogus. Beeping eighty times a minute, from two alternating transmitters, Sputnik 1 made it impossible for anyone to deny that the Soviet Union had achieved what the United States so far could not: orbital insertion. Radio hams all over the world tuned in to listen to Sputnik 1 beep (you can listen to a Sputnik recording at spaceframe.org -- click on 'Beep-Beep'). Forty years later, in 1997, a commemorative satellite was launched which emitted the same sound.

Now the contenders line up like this:

  1. V2 (October 10th 1946) -- 107 miles (172 km)
  2. Manhole cover (1950s?) -- ?
  3. Soviet ICBM (August 26th 1957) -- 815 miles (1,312 km)
  4. Sputnik 1 (October 4th 1957) -- 124 to 584 miles (200-940 km)

The V2 wins the "first man-made object in space" prize. Unless of course there are other contenders which haven't yet come to light. But what about the manhole cover, which started this investigation? What clues do we have by which to uncover the truth? On what, if anything, are its advocates agreed?

The incident happened in the 1950s. It happened during American nuclear testing in the Nevada desert. The test was being conducted underground. A high-speed camera recorded the manhole cover's velocity as sufficient to escape Earth's gravity.

Surely that's enough by which to track it down? After all, I'm famous among my acquaintances for my search skills. No, honestly! One of the posters at xent.com mentioned a relevant article in New Scientist -- in somewhat derogatory terms, admittedly. Maybe that would be a useful source of information? As a subscriber to New Scientist, I get free access to the magazine's archive -- and I got 50% off the newsstand price. It's not often you pay less to get more. Unlike previous occasions, the archive turned up exactly what I was looking for on the first try: an article by Karl Kruszelnicki, published in 1995, entitled "Wooden spaceships and orbiting manholes." Tempting though the idea of a wooden spaceship can be, I resolved to restrict my investigation to the manhole cover.

Citing no less an authority than the Smithsonian as his source -- maybe I should have bookmarked them -- Kruszelnicki recites a very familiar-sounding tale:

In the summer of 1957, a team working on Project Thunderwell drilled a hole about 160 meters deep in the Nevada desert. . . . It was sealed with a manhole cover . . . weighing a few hundred kilograms. High-speed cameras were positioned to record the blast and the [nuclear] weapon was detonated. Later analysis. . . showed that the cover had moved at a speed about six times faster than escape velocity. It was fast enough to escape, not just the Earth's gravitational field, but the Sun's as well.

Kruszelnicki goes on to suggest that the manhole cover may by now have passed Pluto as some kind of "interstellar ambassador." I have my doubts about the wisdom of representing the intentions of the human race with a fast-moving chunk of radioactive steel. Still, some inconceivable alien might find it a tasty snack.

It turns out that Kruszelnicki is also responsible for another piece of Manhole Cover folklore -- the Australian animated film about the manhole. According to the Web site of the blarter music group (who did the incidental music for the series), "Great Moments in Science is an animated series written and presented by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. . . . It features episodes with stories such as the first man-made object in space ('Manhole Cover')."

Project Thunderwell sounded vaguely familiar. I was sure I'd heard about it somewhere before. A Google search on the name led me, somewhat abruptly, to the end of my quest. All the information I was looking for was here.

Underground tests, the Nevada desert, a manhole cover (sorry, steel plate)! Yes! There is some truth to the story after all. . . . It seems the test we're interested in was part of a series known as "Operation Plumbbob."

The year: 1957. The place: the Nevada desert. The aim: to verify that a particular design of device would not unintentionally produce a nuclear yield even if some or all of the high-explosive intended to detonate the device burned or exploded.

Although officially only insignificant levels of nuclear yield were anticipated, the tests were conducted in underground shafts, the purpose of which was to drastically reduce the risk of fallout. The man charged with designing the underground tests was astrophysicist Robert (Bob) Brownlee.

One of these safety tests was named Pascal-B. (Many of the tests were named after dead scientists. That's what scientific fame brings, it seems -- the opportunity to be symbolically vaporized. Kind of like being burnt in effigy, but more effective.) Pascal-B took place on August 27th 1957.

Pascal-B was conducted in a 500-foot-deep, 4-foot-wide shaft sealed by both a concrete plug and a 4-inch-thick steel plate, known as a "cap," which was welded in position. Dr Brownlee's account of the Pascal-B test can be found here.

The weight of the steel cap has been calculated from its recorded dimensions as being about 900 kg (1,984 pounds). Contrast this with the weight of Sputnik 1 -- 184 pounds, or 83 kg. A significant release of energy would be needed for so heavy an object to maintain escape velocity. Add to that the cap's highly unaerodynamic shape, and it begins to seem likely that its reputation for escaping Earth's gravity rests solely on the undisputed fact that it was never seen again.

Asked before the Pascal-B test what would happen to the cap, Brownlee explained, "The shock reflects back down the hole but the pressures and temperatures are such that the welded cap is bound to come off the hole." Asked how fast the cap would be going, Brownlee replied, "Six times the escape velocity from the earth" (i.e., 67 km/sec or about 42 mi/sec). This figure, it seems, was an estimate based on a simulation which may not have accurately reflected Pascal-B's actual yield. To find out if the cap really would achieve (more than) escape velocity, the team did indeed decide to film the test using a high-speed camera. Unfortunately, the cap only appeared in one frame of the film. Bob Brownlee observed, however, that it was "going like a bat."

Attempts to make accurate calculations of the velocity the cap might have achieved are hampered by the fact that the Pascal-B device's actual yield seems contentious -- the official record has it as 'slight,' as was anticipated when the test was designed, nuketesting.enviroweb records it as 300 tons, and Paul Adkins' Codeword Dictionary (yes, I cheated, I used a book) claims it was a mere 30 tons. Is this obfuscation perhaps deliberate? After all, the test was meant to show that the device's design was safe. Another underground safety test, Pascal-A, had already sent onlookers running for their lives on July 26th 1957, when it shot a huge blue flame into the air (like "the world's finest Roman Candle," according to Brownlee), releasing a 55 ton yield, rather than the expected 1-2 lbs.

At enviroweb it's been calculated that for the cap to have achieved six times escape velocity would have required it to absorb more kinetic energy than was actually released by the explosion. So clearly that figure is way off. It's frustratingly difficult to try to establish just how fast the cap might have been traveling. Even though it only appears in one frame of the film, if we knew how many frames a second were being shot, we could make a "best guess." But we don't. Without an accurate figure for the amount of energy released into the cap by the bomb, it's impossible to make an accurate calculation of its velocity. So the astronomer friend I was chatting with (online, of course, in the spirit of this investigation) and I were not even best-guessing, we were.  . . speculating. Wildly.

However, given a 50kt device (this is a guess) which actually detonated (this is an assumption for the sake of argument), the maximum amount of energy the cap (with the dimensions given above) could have absorbed would be 8.4e8 J (assuming a perfectly symmetrical sphere). That gives the cap a velocity of 1.4 km/sec (about 0.8 miles/sec) and the ability to reach an altitude of just under 95 km or 59 miles before beginning the fall back to Earth. That makes the cap an astronaut (assuming the effect of drag is negligible). But use different numbers and you will of course get a different result. This is what can be most frustrating about researching online: at some point the supply of information simply runs out.

That the cap was never found is not proof that it didn't come down sometime, somewhere in the Nevada Desert. In 1989, part of a jet engine fell from a DC-10 travelling at a mere 37,000 feet (11,277 meters) over Iowa. Although the aircraft's flight path was documented, allowing the likeliest area of search to be identified, and a large reward was offered, it was months before the missing part was found, by chance, in a cornfield.

The concrete plug, on the other hand, was vaporized instantly.

It's only rarely that an urban myth can be reliably traced to its source. But it seems very likely, in the case of the "Manhole Cover in Space," that the source for both the New Scientist article and the mention in Shulman's book is the Smithsonian. The story in its present form seems to have originated in an article in the February/March 1992 edition of their Air and Space magazine. But that does beg the question of where the author of that article got the idea from. Somewhere on the Internet perhaps? The Smithsonian's Web site doesn't seem to have any light to cast on the subject. A search using crucial keywords like "manhole" returns no results. Perhaps they'd rather forget all about their contribution to Internet legend. But the truth is, you can't put the genie back in the bottle.

And "Project Thunderwell"? It appears that too has been tacked on to the manhole cover story by mistake. Thunderwell was a paper project that never got off the ground. The idea was to launch rockets into space using nuclear devices. The rocket would be placed above a shaft filled with water. Detonation of a nuclear device at the bottom of the shaft would produce super-heated steam which would propel the rocket into orbit. And now I know where I've heard of it before -- Arthur C. Clarke was proposing at one time to use this "propulsion system" for the interplanetary spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the event, Clarke settled for a plasma drive. If it hadn't been for some confusion at the Smithsonian, Thunderwell would probably have passed into obscurity along with the V2 that made it into space over 10 years before Sputnik 1. I wonder what the next incarnation of the 'first man-made object in space' story will be.

But don't take my word for it that the steel cap isn't on its way to Pluto.

 

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Debbie Moorhouse is an Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.

Further Reading

Jan Harold Brunvand: Too Good to be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends

Thomas J. Craughwell: Alligators in the Sewer: And 222 Other Urban Legends

The AFU & Urban Legends Archive

Snopes.com