During most of my childhood, I recall peering at the sky in search of contrails. Fluffy white clouds dotting the sky, stitching a line from one horizon to another, condensation created by engines and airframe high in the atmosphere.
The problem here was that it wasn’t airplanes that were able to hold so much of my attention. I was more worried about seeing a Soviet MIRV.
MIRV. Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle.
Nuclear weapons. In the imaginings of my youth, I would see a line of four or five spreading out from a single source. They would arc through the deep blue California sky as if God had swept a rake overhead. Then the inevitable flash and we collectively find out if religion managed to get the afterlife right.
The real birth of the American nuclear arsenal started at Trinity on July 16, 1945 in White Sands, New Mexico. However, the Cold War was fought primarily from Mercury, Nevada and the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Between 1950 and 1992, the United States conducted over a thousand above and belowground nuclear tests. A total of 828 craters dot an area the size of Rhode Island, leftovers from the detonations below. Houses used as targets in the Apple II atmospheric tests still stand a lonely watch over the desert floor, bookshelves and wallpaper left to rot in the blazing heat and light.
In 1992, then President George H.W. Bush placed a moratorium on belowground testing in lieu of ratifying the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
That event would leave a single “shot” (as detonations are referred to in the business of nuclear weapons) incomplete: Icecap. This was to be the twenty-fifth joint design test to be conducted between the United States and Britain.
So named for the thousands of pounds of dry ice to be loaded into the bottom of the test rack, Icecap was intended to determine if the device would function if frozen to the same temperatures it would experience in space after being launched by a ballistic missile.
Three weeks from detonation, the device installed in the test stand, CTBT stopped Icecap cold. The physicists, designers, engineers, and mechanics walked away from the structure as dictated by politics. With the exception of the warhead, everything was left behind. After all, $70 million (USD) had been poured into the project, someone would want the test complete. All they needed to do was wait a few months for the government to realize what it was they were wasting.
Fifteen years later, motes of fine dust rise from the dry lakebed of the Nevada Test Site and settle on a worn hiking boot. Stepping from the car, I would look up at the intact 157-foot Icecap tower. In 1995, President Bill Clinton extended the testing halt indefinitely. The British government would never recoup the expenditures for the test and it is now too expensive to disassemble.
The steel and aluminum structure still encloses the test rack, cables, and equipment necessary to finish the job. Sitting astride a 1,600-foot deep shaft into which the device would be lowered, it is now home to what my tour guide called “a fairly large owl.” Miles of coaxial cable, wire, diagnostic sensors, and hand-marked yellow tape still adorn the blue frame of the test stand. On inquiring about why that color and not say white, green, blue, or orange, I was informed by my tour guide “it’s well known that nuclear weapons will not function without yellow tape.”
"According to The Lore, the tradition started at Trinity and carried on from there. Now it’s, or at least it was, just common practice."
I love these words: “The Lore.” When I hear the guide speak, I imagine a single, massive leather-bound volume resting in an enormous open and empty space. Illuminated in the darkness by a piercing shaft of white light, it sleeps on a single podium of black granite. This lone tome holds all of the knowledge one needs to design and detonate a nuclear weapon. Recipes. Engineering. Components. Wire lengths. Dimensions. The address of a specific Radio Shack in Peru, Indiana that still has a line on those “good” capacitors. Yellow tape.
“Really,” I mutter while reaching out to give the rack a hefty shove. In response, some 100,000 pounds of metal begins to swing almost imperceptibly through a slow arc in the dead air. Another effort yields a circular motion of about two inches. It suddenly occurs to me that doing this was a particularly stupid idea.
“Hey, uh, this thing is moving,” says a shocked Patrick, the only other person on this personalized tour other than the guide and myself. “Is it supposed to do that?”
“Sorry, my fault.” Mental note: do not idly play with the nuclear weapons test equipment, as it is likely expensive.
“Yeah, the hoist on the twelfth floor is the only thing holding it up,” my tour guide, a former weapons designer, says. Earlier in the day he had pointed out his first craters from tests at NTS. “This isn’t exactly a public facility, and anyone else that visits here probably wouldn’t think to do that.”
After a few moments of shamed silence, I suddenly remember I have a near impossible to obtain photographic pass and inquire: “Can I shoot this?"
“Go right ahead.” He says before turning to walk around the opposite site of the rack, an almost wistful look passing over his face. “There's nothing here anymore."
Built to test a weapon that hopefully would never see use, Icecap is now an aging sentry guarding the nightmares of my Russian analog.
And yes, I still watch the sky for contrails.