The Tsar Bomba is the King of all Bombs. No other man made explosion has come close to the power of 1961 Tsar Bomba test. Tested by the Soviet Union, its yield was ten times greater then all of the munitions exploded during World War 2. The irony of the Tsar bomb was that despite its power, it was useless as a weapon. ---
The actual development of the bomb began in July 1961. The device was designed to have a yield of 100 megatons, as requested by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union did not make the development of the bomb secret, in fact, it was well publicized. Nikita Khrushchev repeatedly made claims the Soviet Union had a 100 megaton bomb, and that a scaled-down version of the device would be tested.
A nuclear testing moratorium suspended all tests since 1958. The decision to resume testing by the Soviet Union was a calculated one, designed to coincide with the recent erection of the Berlin Wall in August of 1961. Weapons designers and scientists conjured up new kinds of nuclear weapons designs to be tested, including the Tsar Bomba.
The designers nicknamed the bomb ‘Big Ivan’. The bomb was assembled at Arzamas-16, a secret Soviet nuclear weapons research facility located in the Urals. It weighed 27 tons and was eight meters long. The bomb was a three-stage device originally designed to have a 100 megaton yield. For the test, however, the uranium tamper would be replaced with a lead one, decreasing the yield to 50 megatons but also eliminating much of the radioactive fallout that would be generated by the test. At full yield, Tsar alone would increase the world fission output by 25%. The lead tamper also made the bomb the cleanest device ever made, with 97% of the yield coming from the fusion reaction. Even at the decreased yield, it was approximately 4000 times more powerful then the Little Boy bomb.
A giant 5400 square foot nylon parachute was made for the bomb to slow down its descent to allow the bomber time to escape to a safe distance from the explosion. In the event of a parachute malfunction, the bomber would still be safe because sensors were installed in the bomb to ensure it would only detonate if the plane was a safe distance from the blast.
By October 24th, the final report of the development was published. The development of the bomb, from initial conceptual design to test, took only 16 weeks. The fabrication was rushed, many calculations were skipped, and last minute modifications to the design were made. Facing the tight schedule, bomb assembly began even during design development. Khrushchev had already announced the planned test of a 50 megaton bomb to the world, and a massive testing series began in September 1961. The railroad car the bomb was built on was camouflaged as a regular freight train and the completed bomb was transported to the waiting bomber at Olyena Air Base on the Kola Peninsula.
The Tu-95 bomber that would deploy Tsar had to be specially modified for the test. And entire section of the bottom fuselage had to be removed to make room for the bomb as it was too large to fit in the standard bomb bay compartment. Despite this drastic modification, more then half of it was still hanging outside the plane. A special lift mechanism hoisted the bomb into place and held it till release. The bomber had to be painted with a special white coating to protect it from the immense thermal pulse generated by the colossal explosion.
Massive political propaganda was attached to this test by the USSR; the careers, and possibly lives, of the design team were at stake.
The location for the test was the Sukhoy Nos Peninsula Aerial Nuclear Testing grounds on Novaya Zemlya, also known as Test Site C. Between 1957 to 1962, over 80 nuclear tests were conducted here. The largest man made explosions were detonated over the Sukhoy Now testing grounds. On December 24, 1962 a 24.2 megaton test was conducted at Test Site C, along with a 21.1 megaton test on August 5, 1962 and a 19.1 megaton test on September 25, 1962. These were the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th largest nuclear tests ever conducted, respectively.
The relatively flat terrain of the Sukhoy Nos Peninsula made it a favorable location for nuclear tests. Aerial tests were conducted high above the surface of the Earth to minimize local radioactive fallout. Bombers loaded with atomic and hydrogen bombs would fly out of airbases in the Kola Peninsula from Olyena Air Base and drop their ordinance over Test Site C.
The Tsar drop plane was to be piloted by Major Andrei E. Durnovtsev, who would be made Hero of the Soviet Union following the test. Once there, the bomb would be released at an altitude of 33,600 feet. Barometric sensors inside to bomb were set so that the bomb would explode at an altitude of 13,000 feet. The massive parachute deployed, giving the bomber enough time to reach a safe distance. All crew members put on darkened goggles to protect their eyes from the brilliant flash of light. Six camera crews were assigned to film the explsion, both from the air and from the ground. Major General Nikolai Pavlov, head of the design team and test supervisors, monitored the test 1000 kilometers away at the Olenya base.
One second after detonation, the fireball was over 4 miles wide. Despite the high altitude of the test, the fireball swelled down to the Earth’s surface almost licking the ground. The shockwave of the blast almost killed the crew of the Tu-95 that dropped the plane as the fireball almost reached the height of the release plane. Despite cloudy skies, the flash of light was clearly visible 1,600 miles away. The shockwave destroyed buildings and tore roofs off of homes hundreds of miles from ground zero. Windows in Norway and Finland were shattered. The scientific settelment on the Matochkin Strait called Severney, some 35 miles south of the explosion, was devastated. The thermal pulse of the blast was felt 500 miles from the epicenter. Radio communications were knocked out for an hour and no word of the safety of the Tu-95 and its crew could be reported for some time.
Tsar mushroom cloud
One observer described the test: "The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards.... Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural." A cameraman man recalled seeing "a powerful white flash over the horizon and after a long period of time he heard a remote, indistinct and heavy blow, as if the earth has been killed!”
Tsar caused massive devastation. Complete destruction extended to a radius of 40 miles surrounding the blast and severe damage as far as 60 miles. Ground zero after the test was described as: "The ground surface of the island has been leveled, swept and licked so that it looks like a skating rink ... The same goes for rocks. The snow has melted and their sides and edges are shiny. There is not a trace of unevenness in the ground.... Everything in this area has been swept clean, scoured, melted and blown away."
Along with the drop plane, a Tu-16 airborne laboratory observed the blast and a IL-14 with high ranking officials also observed the blast from a distance of several hundred miles. Andrei Sakharov stayed at Arzamas-16 during the test, awaiting a phone call about the result. Once communication was established with the observation team, the successful result of the test was known. A telegram was sent to the Kremlin concerning the test:
To: N.S. Khrushchev, The Kremlin, Moscow: The test at Novaya Zemlya was a success. The security of the test personnel and of nearby inhabitants has been assured. Those participating in the tests have fulfilled the task of our Motherland. We are returning for the Congress.
Seismographs all over the world picked up the shockwaves from a tremendous blast in Northern Russia. World wide protest ensued after the test. Tsar was never a practical weapon and only a few were probably ever stockpiled. Only the slow Tu-95 bomber aircraft was able to deliver it, becoming easy targets for American fighters as they would approach from the north. Tsar could not be safely deployed against Western European targets because the radiation that would have been caused by the blast would spread to the Soviet border. Since the only cities that would be practical targets for such a device were the New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, the use of Tsar was considered overkill for any other target.
Panoramic view of Tsar ground zero several days after the explosion
Ideal tactics for use of nuclear warheads would be to shower a target with multiple, tactical weapons, rather then using one massive blast. Multiple, smaller devices could be put on ICBMs and target any city around the world. Smaller devices were also cheaper and easier to stockpile. The Soviet Union developed many high yield nuclear warheads as compensation for a relatively inaccurate ICBM arsenal.
The Tsar test of October 1961 had a profound affect on Andrei Sakharov. The Tsar Bomba was the last project he worked on fully for the Soviet Union. From then on, he would become an outspoken critic of the USSR and eventually would be forced into exile for seven years in Gorky. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace for his humanitarian work and would continue to challenge the Soviet Union up until his death in late 1989.
However, not even Sakharov could ignore the potential of the terrible device he had created. Always with peaceful intentions in mind, Sakharov suggested using such large explosions for preventing catastrophic earthquakes and to create particle accelerators to probe into matter. He even argued for its use to deflect incoming asteroids and comets.
Today, the 1961 Tsar Bomba test is remembered as a relic of the most dangerous period in history this world has ever seen. A replica of the bomb is on display in the Russian Atomic Museum located in the former secret city where it was built, Arzamas-16. The Novaya Zemlya test site was closed in 1990, but experiments are still carried out. Sub-critical tests have been conducted there in recent years, and the island is now used as a dump for radioactive waste.