Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy was in Las Vegas, in part, to talk about the space program, investigative reporter George Knapp looks back on Kennedy’s space initiatives. A classified nuclear rocket project at the Nevada Test Site highlighted the president’s visit. Aired on Sept. 28, 2013 on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
The timing of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Las Vegas in 1963 was significant in several ways. The president was here, in part, to repair political bridges after his brother, the attorney general, had authorized wiretaps of Las Vegas casinos earlier in the year. Plus, the U.S. Senate had just ratified a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which had huge implications for jobs at the Nevada Test Site.
But in his speech at the convention center, Kennedy spoke cryptically about another project underway in the Nevada desert, one that could have taken us to the stars.
In May of 1961, Kennedy had challenged the nation: “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.” From his first address to Congress, Kennedy made his bold intentions known. He wanted the U.S. to not only go to the moon, but to Mars and beyond.
The space program was still on his mind when he landed in Las Vegas on Sept. 28, 1963, his final visit to the city. With Nevada senators Howard Cannon and Alan Bible in his party, Kennedy spoke about the threat of nuclear weapons, the kind being tested above ground in the Nevada desert.
But he also mentioned, “science being developed in this state, which will allow us to go beyond the moon.” Kennedy had seen that science with his own eyes less than a year before during a whirlwind trip to the Nevada Test Site.
“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, in December 1962.
“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 he returned to Las Vegas, less than a year later, Kennedy was still jazzed about the ultimate potential of the NERVA project. Tests proved it worked, which meant travel to Mars or beyond was feasible.
Two months after his Las Vegas trip, JFK went to Dallas.
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.
Dick Mingus, National Atomic Testing Museum: “I really believe if this program would have continued, we would be there … 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.
But in 1972, the budget for the program was eliminated and whatever promise the nuke engine had died with it.
The memories live on. The atomic museum in Las Vegas has a wonderful exhibit, including the NERVA engines themselves. The test site, now called the Nevada National Security Site, still arranges group tours once in a while.