Nuclear Connection Project
NCP Papers

NCP-02: The NEPA and UFOs


     Loren Gross

In General Twining's famous "Flying Saucers Are Real" letter of September 1947, he directed that information collected about the phenomenon be sent to a number of agencies, with one of them being the NEPA project or "Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft." 

The possibility of proving that a nuclear-powered aircraft of some sort existed would have been a powerful motivation to certain people in their quest for information about UFOs. Any of the persons involved in the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation NEPA division situated at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for example, would have a lot to gain if it could be proved atomic engines were feasible, be they Russian or Martian, The budgetary hassles with Congress would be put to rest. Jobs would become secure in the case of civilians, and in the case of the military the prestige invested would not be lost. With that in mind, it is not surprising that Colonel John Hood of the Air Material Command Field Engineering Office, Oak Ridge, whose pet project was apparently the Air Force's proposed atomic plane, led the effort to investigate strange radiation readings at the Tennessee facility. 

A brief history of the NEPA project: 

In October, 1945, Congressional hearings initiated a controversy that persisted for years and cost hundreds of millions in tax dollars. 

Senator Homer Ferguson asked: "Do you see a future for atomic power in an airplane?" 

J. Carlton Ward, Jr., President of Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation, testifying on Capital Hill, replied: "The whole tactical concept of war will change to the nation that first solves that problem." 

The next day the Chicago Tribune headlined: "PREDICTS ATOM WILL END LIMIT ON PLANE RANGE." 

Many experts, however, did not find the answer so clear cut. "Hogwash," snorted atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. "Too dangerous," roared nuclear expert Edward Teller. Other detractors, senior engineers, exclaimed: "slow, expensive, complicated, and possibly useless." 

The United States Army Air Force, desperate to establish itself as a separate service branch so it could drop the word "Army" from its title, saw in Carlton Ward's words a possible salvation, for without a very long range bomber the Air Force would forever be tied to the Army in a support role. A nuclear powered plane would in theory have almost unlimited range and would dominate the globe, exciting thoughts for Air Force Generals. The High Command obtained funding and eventually 14,000 people in seven states were hard at work on a futuristic bomber. A commitment of money did not, however, give the project respectability in the eyes of many in the Atomic Energy Commission. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee had its nuclear aircraft team assigned to a dilapidated building behind the power plant. 

In 1947 the Pentagon's Scientific Advisory Committee, headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Harvard University President James Conant, recommended termination of research on the atomic powered plane since the radiation shielding problem seemed insurmountable (and not helping matters any was that veterans of the Manhattan Project resented the Air Force's intrusive behavior). This rebuff to the Air Force's ambitions was not calmly received, especially when the United States Navy's atomic-powered submarine plans were going forward quickly without serious technical difficulties. There's no love lost between the Air Force and the Navy in the competition for the most advanced weapon systems. 

Vigorous lobbying in Congress won for the Air Force a review of the atomic bomber project before termination was implemented. In the summer of 1948 some 45 engineers, metallurgists, aeronautics specialists, and physicists, gathered at Lexington, Massachusetts, for a secret brainstorming session. After extensive talks the Air Force managed a narrow victory and the project was allowed to continue on the recommendation of the experts. 

The attraction of an atomic powered bomber to the Air Force almost seemed to border on the unreasonable. A more rational solution to the Air Force's problem of achieving a long range capability was in-flight refueling of conventional bombers (A solution pushed by the Air Force's think tank RAND and one that was eventually adopted), but the in-flight concept was intentionally ignored. 

It might be asked: "What about rockets?" Here the problem was again one of range. The only thing available was improved versions of the Nazi V-2 brought to the U.S. after the war in Europe and the range of that missile was only some 250 miles, hardly making it the intercontinental weapon system the Air Force wanted. 

Besides design difficulties involved in the problem of increasing range, there was heated debate among the services about which one should be in charge of rocket warfare. Many felt missiles should be considered a kind of artillery therefore the gunnery experts of the Army and the Navy were encouraged to seek exclusive control of what was asserted to be basically a ballistic weapon. Missiles, it was argued, did not "fly" so why give them to the Air Force? The Air Force put up a half-hearted fight since it did not look forward to being "silo-sitters," the soul of that service imbued with the romance of flight. Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Le May typified the mood. He allocated meager funds for Air Force missile research, and to a critic of his missile prejudice Le May snapped: "Sir, a missile has neither loyalty nor discrimination." 

Of course the Air Force would have had no trouble at all with their atomic plane plans if it could be proved the Russians had already developed a similar craft that could travel to North America, maneuver, and then return to Asia. Le May could have had a blank check from Congress. 

Here something else enters the picture. The Air Force had an enormous amount of verbal Intelligence that indicated the possible existence of an aircraft of foreign manufacture that did have extreme range capabilities, while displaying powers of maneuverability that were on the same level of amazement as atomic energy. This verbal Intelligence was of a most extraordinary character. The Air Force was receiving hundreds of "flying saucer" reports. 

It was probably no accident that James Conant of Harvard was the chief of the Air Force's first UFO investigative effort, project SIGN. At the time of project SIGN, Conant, serving on the Pentagon's scientific advisory committee, was under great pressure to evaluate whether the atomic bomber was a rational concept. There were just too many questions and no assurance how much time and money it would take answer them. 

This view of events shows how concerned the Air Force was about the possibility "flying saucers" were atomic powered aircraft. It also shows that there was a very substantial reason for censorship of UFO material other than the "aliens from space" idea pushed so hard by Keyhoe. 

Although the atomic powered aircraft plan was scrapped some years ago ( it was a billion dollar bust) much information concerning the work is still classified and those files might well contain a number of interesting documents pertaining to the UFO mystery. 

Source: APPENDIX, "UFOs: A History 1952 November December", by Loren Gross

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