Sidebar: The Intercontinental Ballistic Vehicle

Intercontinental Ballistic Vehicle schematic

A schematic of the IBV as printed in LIFE Magazine, March 7, 1955 via Google Books. Artist unknown, possibly Michael Ramus. © Time, Inc. Click for a larger view.

We’ve previously discussed Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt’s wildly ambitious Silbervogel, a suborbital spaceplane that they worked on in Germany prior to the end of WWII. Mentioned in passing at the time was Stalin’s interest in it after the war, and Mstislav Keldysh’s unsuccessful attempt to scale back its necessary technological innovations so that the USSR could build something similar. What we didn’t look at at the time was the high-water mark of Sänger and Bredt’s craft in the United States.

Their core design paper was translated into English in 1946 as A Rocket Drive for Long Range Bombers (and is readily available today on the web), but otherwise there was not a lot of interest in it in the West. Sänger and Bredt lived in France for several years after 1945, having secured positions there, but worked on other projects.

Grigori Tokaev/Grigori Tokaty

Grigori Tokaty (to use his preferred name) in 2001, more than a half-century after revealing Stalin’s interest in rocket bombers to the West. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Then, in November 1947, Soviet rocket engineer Grigori Tokaev defected to the United Kingdom. According to him, Stalin had become aware of the work on Silbervogel, and assigned the trio of Tokaev, Stalin’s son Vasily, and future head of the KGB Ivan Serov to the case. The Germans scientists were to be convinced to come to the USSR (Tokaev’s preferred approach) or kidnapped (Serov, naturally, for a man nicknamed “The Butcher”). The pursuers were unaware that the two they sought were no longer in Germany, though, and none of the three trusted any of the others, so nothing came of it. In 1949, Tokaev became an author under the Ossetian version of his last name, Tokaty, writing several popular articles about Soviet ambitions with long-distance airpower and other then-advanced weapons, then getting into an extended war of words about them with the hard Left in the UK.

Into this furor stepped John Earley and Garret Underhill in LIFE’s March 7th, 1955 issue, with an article named “From Continent to Continent”. Based on their own understanding of Sänger and Bredt’s work, as well as Tokaty’s story, they sounded the alarm. Keldysh’s aforementioned failure would not become known outside the USSR for many years, and the two LIFE authors felt that instead the USSR was probably working on the project with alacrity.

Their particular iteration of Silbervogel was closely based on the German design with a few variations suggesting that the authors didn’t really know what they were doing (for example, changing its trapezoidal cross-section to a circular one, which would be hell on re-entry). Launched from a rocket-propelled sled it would get up to a speed of 10,600 MPH (17,000 km/h) and 113 miles (182 kilometers) in height, then skip/glide its way around much of the planet. On a sortie from the Soviet Union, the authors thought that this craft would fly over the Arctic, bomb the United States, and then make a landing in the Pacific “for recovery by submarine”—which seems a bit optimistic but may reflect the idea in Sänger and Bredt’s original paper that WWII German Silbervogels could land in the Japanese Mariana Islands.

Really, “From Continent to Continent” is a bit of a head-scratcher until one realizes that it’s not a proposal, but is instead largely a con job, presumably written for the purpose of stirring up trouble and increasing circulation. For example, as can be deduced from the previous paragraph, the authors took the particular tack of describing how the IBV would be used to attack the United States even though the ostensible purpose of their article was to suggest that the US build one themselves, by their estimate in three years for a mere $23 million. Its mission as an American craft was left unstated, and was surely not the exact inverse of their favoured blood-curdling scenario of a Soviet attack.

There’s also the way the article’s authors are described: “[John] Earley, a rocket designer, and [Garrett] Underhill, a former Army officer who is an expert in Russian weapons” looks crafted to make unsuspecting readers think that they were insider sources for another, different LIFE correspondent. They’re almost certainly the authors of the piece themselves, even though it’s unbylined. I can find no other references to John Earley, but Garrett Underhill was the military affairs editor for LIFE in 1955 and had been out of the military intelligence business for most of a decade. Incidentally, if you’ve heard of Underhill, it’s as a minor figure in JFK conspiracy circles who committed suicide in 1964.

Taken as a whole, the IBV is more interesting as a snapshot of its time than it is as a quite ill-founded proposal. In a way it’s the flip side of the contemporary Moonship of Wernher von Braun: it was a popularization of the future military use of space, as opposed to its scientific exploration. The major difference between them is that von Braun’s fundamental vision was the one that took hold, making the way it was laid out in Collier’s and by Disney into well-known classics. Meanwhile the IBV has long since dropped into obscurity.

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6 thoughts on “Sidebar: The Intercontinental Ballistic Vehicle

  1. That shape reminds me of nothing so much as racing cars of the 1950s (rather more than it does the canopy-forward jet fighters of the era). Perhaps they were the inspiration for shrinking the thing and putting the cockpit on the top surface?

    (Incidentally, for both this and the Silbervogel, a re-entry shield that has to open to drop the bomb, then seal again? Hmm.)

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