The original story above aired on Sept. 28, 2013 on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
MYSTERY WIRE — With the Cold War heating up, President John F. Kennedy was looking for new ways to protect America from its enemies. One plan brought him to the Nevada Test Site 58 years ago in 1962.
Kennedy had challenged the nation to put a man on the Moon while speaking to Congress in May of 1961, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Then, on September 12 of 1962 during a speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, proclaimed not only America would land a man on the moon, but also “do the other things.”
America did land humans on the moon, but one of the other things, sending humans to Mars using an atomic rocket engine developed in the Nevada desert, never happened.
A couple months after Kennedy made his 1962 moon speech he visited Las Vegas and spent time at the Nevada Test Site in the desert about 80 miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip.
“Most of us didn’t even know in advance that he was coming,” said Dick Mingus, who was working as a security sergeant at Mercury on the test site when Kennedy came.
Mingus was assigned to help escort the presidential party on a trip to Area 25, also known as Jackass Flats. “I was told to meet Air Force One at Indian Springs,” Mingus said. According to the itinerary from the day, Kennedy took an hour-long helicopter flight from Indian Springs over the test site to see for himself what atomic bombs had wrought. And then onto Area 25, which had been set aside for a different kind of atomic research.
Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the Department of Energy, said, “The whole purpose of this was to find new, peaceful uses for nuclear power. So, this side of the site was set aside, no nuclear weapons testing.”
The focal point of the JFK visit was this still glimmering facility known as ETS1 which in its day witnessed spectacular bursts of nuclear fire. The program to build the world’s first nuclear rocket engine had begun in the ‘50s.
But Kennedy became its champion, and his visit was a chance to check on its progress. The NERVA program had already achieved remarkable successes. The first nuclear rocket engine called Kiwi would be moved by rail car from the assembly building over to the testing facility. Gigantic egg-shaped doors would roll in behind it, a tank of hydrogen fed the reaction and then, boom.
Mingus used to watch the tests from a rooftop nearby and he went on to work for the National Atomic Testing Museum, where the NERVA engines are on display.
“This is a real thing, and it actually has been used,” Mingus said. “It’s the most powerful rocket engine ever built or tested.”
Morgan described the engine: “When you pushed that button, you had a nuclear reaction going on that was heating up that hydrogen and giving a thrust. To an end state of that, it’s just amazing to think of the engineering.”
Photos from the Kennedy trip show the president inspecting the facilities and the engines themselves like a touring rock star. He didn’t see an actual test that day, but he met the enthralled test site employees working on the program. A half-century later, memories of his visit remain vivid.
“It’s the bed that George Washington slept in. You’re walking the same grounds that President Kennedy walked around,” Morgan said.
“I guess it would be a high point in my life,” Mingus said.
When Kennedy returned to Las Vegas, less than a year later in September 1963, he was excited about the ultimate potential of the NERVA project. Tests proved it worked, which meant travel to Mars or beyond was feasible.
During this visit, President Kennedy spoke about the threat of nuclear weapons; the kind also being tested in the Nevada desert. “Science being developed in this state, which will allow us to go beyond the moon.”
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The timing of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Las Vegas in 1963 was significant in several ways. The U.S. Senate had just ratified the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which had huge implications for jobs at the Nevada Test Site. President Kennedy was also in Las Vegas to smooth over some bad feelings after his brother, the attorney general, authorized wiretaps of Las Vegas casinos earlier in the year.
Two months after this Las Vegas trip, Kennedy went to Dallas where he was assassinated.
Those who worked at the former test site still think of what could have been. “It could have happened. You could have had nuclear-powered rockets taking people to Mars by now. Could have been the reality of this,” Morgan said.
“I really believe if this program would have continued, we would be there,” Mingus said. “Mars or beyond, because this program was … gave the power that we’ve never had before.”
The NERVA program did not end when the president was killed. By 1969, the year we landed on the moon, NASA had already drawn up plans to send 12 astronauts to Mars via nuclear rocket because they saw that it worked.
Work on NERVA continued for another two years until the budget was eliminated in 1972.
The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas has an exhibit, including the original NERVA engines. The test site, now called the Nevada National Security Site, still arranges group tours once a month, but seats on the tour usually book months in advance.