FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Project Pluto: The Ultimate WMD

An illustration of how much our military-political world has changed since the Cold War era can be found in a 1990 article from Air & Space Magazine. The article discusses Project Pluto, a nuclear-powered, unmanned supersonic ramjet bomber that would have rained hydrogen bombs along its flight path. Its official acronym was SLAM (Supersonic Low Altitude Missile), and a James Bond villain couldn't dream up a deadlier or more dramatic weapon.

Along the way, Pluto would have spewed radioactive particles, and its hypersonic shock waves would have been strong enough to kill people on the ground -- a true doomesday weapon if there ever was one. After commissioning Lawrence Livermore Laboratories to develop the project in 1957, the military thought better of it and cancelled it in 1964. Not only was the necessary technology unavailable at the time, but its developers realized that Pluto would have to fly over US and allied territory in order to reach its targets, making it a threat to friend and foe alike. Plus, there was no safe way to test such a device.

In an era when car bombs in Iraq are a more immediate threat to our military than H-bombs in the Soviet Union, Project Pluto could not appear less relevant. However, one paragraph in the article stood out, and should be instructive to anyone investigating emerging technology:

Like Hula Hoops and Slinkies, Pluto is now an anachronism, an all-but-forgotten remnant of an earlier -- but not necessarily more innocent -- era. At the time, however, deadly as it would have been, Pluto had the almost irresistible appeal of any radically new technological innovation. Like the H-bombs it would carry, Pluto was "technically sweet" to many of the scientists and engineers who worked on it. [Emphasis added]

Though long dead, the Pluto Project continues to remind us that technology cannot exist in a vacuum, but must go hand in hand with purpose, perspective and consequences.

Source: Boing Boing