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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (ALA Notable Books for Adults) Kindle Edition
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“An excellent journalistic investigation of the efforts made since the first atomic bomb was exploded, outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, to put some kind of harness on nuclear weaponry. By a miracle of information management, Schlosser has synthesized a huge archive of material, including government reports, scientific papers, and a substantial historical and polemical literature on nukes, and transformed it into a crisp narrative covering more than fifty years of scientific and political change. And he has interwoven that narrative with a hair-raising, minute-by-minute account of an accident at a Titan II missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980, which he renders in the manner of a techno-thriller . . . Command and Control is how nonfiction should be written.” —Louis Menand, The New Yorker
“A devastatingly lucid and detailed new history of nuclear weapons in the U.S. . . . fascinating.” —Lev Grossman, TIME Magazine
“Command and Control ranks among the most nightmarish books written in recent years; and in that crowded company it bids fair to stand at the summit. It is the more horrific for being so incontrovertibly right and so damnably readable. Page after relentless page, it drives the vision of a world trembling on the edge of a fatal precipice deep into your reluctant mind... a work with the multilayered density of an ambitiously conceived novel . . . Schlosser has done what journalism does at its best when at full stretch: he has spent time—years—researching, interviewing, understanding and reflecting to give us a piece of work of the deepest import.” —
“The strength of Schlosser's writing derives from his ability to carry a wealth of startling detail (did you know that security at Titan II missile bases was so lapse you could break into one with just a credit card?) on a confident narrative path.” —The Guardian
“Perilous and gripping . . . Schlosser skillfully weaves together an engrossing account of both the science and the politics of nuclear weapons safety . . . The story of the missile silo accident unfolds with the pacing, thrill and techno details of an episode of 24.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Disquieting but riveting . . . fascinating . . . Schlosser’s readers (and he deserves a great many) will be struck by how frequently the people he cites attribute the absence of accidental explosions and nuclear war to divine intervention or sheer luck rather than to human wisdom and skill. Whatever was responsible, we will clearly need many more of it in the years to come.” —New York Times Book Review
“Easily the most unsettling work of nonfiction I've ever read, Schlosser's six-year investigation of America's ‘broken arrows’ (nuclear weapons mishaps) is by and large historical—this stuff is top secret, after all—but the book is beyond relevant. It's critical reading in a nation with thousands of nukes still on hair-trigger alert . . . Command and Control reads like a character-driven thriller as Schlosser draws on his deep reporting, extensive interviews, and documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act to demonstrate how human error, computer glitches, dilution of authority, poor communications, occasional incompetence, and the routine hoarding of crucial information have nearly brought about our worst nightmare on numerous occasions.” —Mother Jones
“Eric Schlosser detonates a truth bomb in Command and Control, a powerful expose about America’s nuclear weapons.” —Vanity Fair
"Nail-biting . . . thrilling . . . Mixing expert commentary with hair-raising details of a variety of mishaps, [Eric Schlosser] makes the convincing case that our best control systems are no match for human error, bad luck, and ever-increasing technological complexity." —Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Vivid and unsettling . . . An exhaustive, unnerving examination of the illusory safety of atomic arms." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“The lesson of this powerful and disturbing book is that the world’s nuclear arsenals are not as safe as they should be. We should take no comfort in our skill and good fortune in preventing a nuclear catastrophe, but urgently extend our maximum effort to assure that a nuclear weapon does not go off by accident, mistake, or miscalculation.” —Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative; Co-Chair, Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future; Director, the Center on Congress at Indiana University --This text refers to the paperback edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Day or night, winter or spring, the silo always felt the same. It was eerily quiet, and mercury vapor lights on the walls bathed the missile in a bright white glow. When you opened the door on a lower level and stepped into the launch duct, the Titan II loomed above you like an immense black-tipped silver bullet, loaded in a concrete gun barrel, primed, cocked, ready to go, and pointed at the sky
The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as six thousand miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants—a rocket fuel and an oxidizer—that were “hypergolic.” The moment they came into contact with each other, they’d instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about seventy feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer. Stage 2, the upper section where the warhead sat, was smaller and held about one fourth of those amounts. If the missile were launched, fuel and oxidizer would flow through the stage 1 pipes, mix inside the combustion chambers of the engine, catch on fire, emit hot gases, and send almost half a million pounds of thrust through the supersonic convergent-divergent nozzles beneath it. Within a few minutes, the Titan II would be fifty miles off the ground.
The two propellants were extremely efficient—and extremely dangerous. The fuel, Aerozine-50, could spontaneously ignite when it came into contact with everyday things like wool, rags, or rust. As a liquid, Aerozine-50 was clear and colorless. As a vapor, it reacted with the water and the oxygen in the air and became a whitish cloud with a fishy smell. This fuel vapor could be explosive in proportions as low as 2 percent. Inhaling it could cause breathing difficulties, a reduced heart rate, vomiting, convulsions, tremors, and death. The fuel was also highly carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the skin.
The missile’s oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide, was even more hazardous. Under federal law, it was classified as a “Poison A,” the most deadly category of man-made chemicals. In its liquid form, the oxidizer was a translucent, yellowy brown. Although not as flammable as the fuel, it could spontaneously ignite if it touched leather, paper, cloth, or wood. And its boiling point was only 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures any higher, the liquid oxidizer boiled into a reddish brown vapor that smelled like ammonia. Contact with water turned the vapor into a corrosive acid that could react with the moisture in a person’s eyes or skin and cause severe burns. When inhaled, the oxidizer could destroy tissue in the upper respiratory system and the lungs. The damage might not be felt immediately. Six to twelve hours after being inhaled, the stuff could suddenly cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema leading to death.pPowell and Plumb were missile repairmen. They belonged to Propellant Transfer System (PTS) Team A of the 308th Strategic Missile Wing, headquarters was about an hour or so away at Little Rock Air Force Base.
They’d been called to the site that day because a warning light had signaled that pressure was low in the stage 2 oxidizer tank. If the pressure fell too low, the oxidizer wouldn’t flow smoothly to the engine. A “low light” could mean a serious problem—a rupture, a leak. But it was far more likely that a slight change in temperature had lowered the pressure inside the tank.
Air-conditioning units in the silo were supposed to keep the missile cooled to about 60 degrees. If Powell and Plum didn’t find any leaks, they’d simply unscrew the cap on the oxidizer tank and add more nitrogen gas. The nitrogen maintained a steady pressure on the liquid inside, pushing downward. It was a simple, mundane task, like putting air in your tires before long drive.
Powell had served on a PTS team for almost three years and knew the hazards of the Titan II. During his first visit to a launch complex, an oxidizer leak created a toxic cloud that shut down operations for three days. He was twenty-one years old, a proud “hillbilly” from rural Kentucky who loved the job and planned to reenlist at the end of the year.
Plumb had been with the 308th for just nine months. He wasn’t qualified to do this sort of missile maintenance or to handle these propellants. Accompanying Powell and watching everything that Powell did was considered Plumb’s “OJT,” his on-the-job training. Plumb was nineteen, raised in suburban Detroit.
Although an oxidizer low light wasn’t unusual, Air Force technical orders required that both men wear Category I protective gear when the silo to investigate it. “Going Category I” meant getting into a Rocket Fuel Handler’s Clothing Outfit (RFHCO)—an airtight, liquidproof, vaporproof, fire-resistant combination of gear designed to protect them from the oxidizer and the fuel. The men called it a “ref-co.” A RFHCO looked like a space suit from an early-1960s science fiction movie. It had a white detachable bubble helmet with a voice-actuated radio and a transparent Plexiglas face screen. The suit was off white, with a long zipper extending from the top of the left shoulder, across the torso, to the right knee. You stepped into the RFHCO and wore long johns underneath it. The black vinyl gloves and boots weren’t attached, so the RFHCO had roll-down cuffs at the wrists and the ankles to maintain a tight seal. The suit weighed about twenty-two pounds. The RFHCO backpack weighed an additional thirty-five and carried about an hour’s worth of air. The outfit was heavy and cumbersome. It could be hot, sticky, and uncomfortable, especially when worn outside the air-conditioned silo. But it could also save your life.
The stage 2 oxidizer pressure cap was about two thirds of the way up the missile. In order to reach it, Powell and Plumb had to walk across a retractable steel platform that extended from the silo wall. The tall, hollow cylinder in which the Titan II stood was enclosed by another concrete cylinder with nine interior levels, housing equipment. Level 1 was near the top of the missile; level 9 about twenty feet beneath the missile. The steel work platforms folded down from the walls hydraulically. Each one had a stiff rubber edge to prevent the Titan II from getting scratched, while keeping the gap between the platform and the missile as narrow as possible.
The airmen entered the launch duct at level 2. Far above their heads was a concrete silo door. It was supposed to protect the missile from the wind and the rain and the effects of a nuclear weapon detonating nearby. The door weighed 740 tons. Far below the men, beneath the Titan II, a concrete flame deflector shaped like a W was installed to guide the hot gases downward at launch, then upward through exhaust vents and out of the silo. The missile stood on a thrust mount, a steel ring at level 7 that weighed about 26,000 pounds. The thrust mount was attached to the walls by large springs, so that the Titan II could ride out a nuclear attack, bounce instead of break, and then take off.
In addition to the W-53 warhead and a few hundred thousand pounds of propellants, many other things in the silo could detonate. devices were used after ignition to free the missile from the thrust mount, separate stage 2 from stage 1, release the nose cone. The missile also housed numerous small rocket engines with flammable solid fuel to adjust the pitch and the roll of the warhead midflight. The Titan II launch complex had been carefully designed to minimize the risk of having so many flammables and explosives within it. Fire detectors, fire suppression systems, toxic vapor detectors, and decontamination showers were scattered throughout the nine levels of the silo. These safety devices were bolstered by strict safety rules. Whenever a PTS team member put on a RFHCO, he had to be accompanied by someone else in a RFHCO, with two other people waiting as backup, ready to put on their suits. Every Category I task had to be performed according to a standardized checklist, which the team chief usually read aloud over the radio communications network. There was one way to do everything—and only one way. Technical Order 21M-LGM25C-2-12, Figure 2-18, told Powell and Plumb exactly what to do as they stood on the platform near the missile. “Step four,” the PTS team chief said over the radio. “Remove airborne disconnect pressure cap.” “Roger,” Powell replied. “Caution. When complying with step four, do not exceed one hundred sixty foot-pounds of torque. Overtorquing may result in damage to the missile skin.” “Roger.” As Powell used a socket wrench to unscrew the pressure cap, the socket fell off. It struck the platform and bounced. Powell grabbed for it but missed. Plumb watched the nine-pound socket slip through the narrow gap between the platform and the missile, fall about seventy feet, hit the thrust mount, and then ricochet off the Titan II. It seemed to happen in slow motion. A moment later, fuel sprayed from a hole in the missile like water from a garden hose. “Oh man,” Plumb thought. “This is not good.” --This text refers to the paperback edition.
- ASIN : B00C5R7F8G
- Publisher : Penguin Books (September 17, 2013)
- Publication date : September 17, 2013
- Language : English
- File size : 2346 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 640 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #75,297 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Then he divided those books into chapters, scrambled them together, and came up with a long, utterly disjointed series of chapters that were arranged in no logical order. My suggestion is that the reader thumb through this book and put post-it notes at the beginning of each chapter related to the Damascus incident (They're easy to identify.), then read Book 1 as a continuous narrative.
The book does an excellent job of documenting in super detail just how close this country has come to having accidental multi-megatonnage thermonuclear weapons blasts. After reading this book, I feel that one day a thermonuclear weapon with be accidentally discharged, even with the extra layers of safety that have been added over the decades. I will read this book again, to better absorb the information Mr. Schlosser so painstakingly researched and documented.
To put to rest any concerns I had I contacted Al Childers after learning he had spoken to Mr. Schlosser. I have always had the highest regard for Al and his opinions; hence I participated in the project. After leaving Little Rock AFB we both were transferred to Vandenberg AFB and worked in the same building.
I appreciate the integrity of Eric Schlosser who did what any good writer, or investigator, should do. He collected the facts and reported them, how refreshing is that in this era where so many run off and write, or report, half cocked. This entire book was researched in more detail than I ever imagined. Although I was there that night Mr. Schlosser reported things I didn't know simply because I didn't have the right or need.
I have read several reviews in which the writers refer to the incident at Searcy, AR as being more serious. I would like to take this opportunity to simply say that while the loss of life is never to be taken lightly, the circumstances between these two accidents were as different as night and day. Sometimes it seems those writing the reviews forget that the Titan II at Searcy was not on alert meaning it had no warhead. The Titan II at Damascus was on full alert and armed. Mr. Schlosser got it right and was not swayed by the loss of life vs. the reason for his book!
Several of my fellow airmen who went back on site that night have passed away. I hope we, as a nation, never forget what they did that night while the nation slept, unaware of the risks those men were taking. I hope their families will have an even greater appreciation for what they did to try and save a resource as well as each other's lives. Finally thank you Eric Schlosser for getting it right and Chuck Wilson for the countless hours he spent with me fact checking.
Top reviews from other countries
The book looks at the history of nuclear weapons, their development, their use, their deployment, their storage, their control (or lack of) and of course, the many near-misses we've had with them over the years.
This book is right up there with Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" in terms of detail, research and quality. Whereas Rhodes focuses on the people, the hows and whys of the atomic bomb, Schlosser really looks at the way the bomb has been managed over the years, the lack of control over it, the almost cavalier attitude to safety, and how we've managed (just) to avoid disaster time and time again.
Highly recommended if you're in to this sort of thing.
The book alternates between the tragedy at site 374-7 and a more or less chronological history of US nuclear weapons safety and command and control. The author has clearly done a huge amount of research both into the specifics of what happened at site 374-7 and the US nuclear weapons program, including extensive interviews with key individuals as well as researching archives, papers, reports and secondary sources. If this is a story with numerous heroes, particularly the men who struggled valiantly to avoid a disaster at site 374-7 and who maintained and stood ready to launch nuclear weapons it is perhaps surprisingly a story with few villains. Curtis LeMay is still a figure of derision and hate to many yet the picture which emerges in Schlosser's book is more nuanced and not unsympathetic. He appears as a tough and uncompromising commander yet one who was certainly no war monger and who had a real sense of care towards his men and who was in many ways a progressive character. And his personal courage is undeniable, Schlosser allows readers to draw their own conclusions after commenting on a man who had flown numerous bombing missions over Germany being assailed by cries of "sieg heil" in 1968. The book examines the nuclear policies of several Presidents including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter and Reagan as well as men like McNamara. In each case whilst the flaws are recognised the author is far from unsympathetic and presents a balanced picture. And clearly the book tells the stories of many technical, military and scientific specialists. The overwhelming impression is one of decent men struggling to manage a cold war confrontation and walking a tight rope between nuclear armageddon and surrender to Soviet diplomatic/military manouevring.
The book recounts numerous nuclear accidents, the events at site 374-7 are told in great detail whereas other incidents are summarised. The sheer number of these accidents is really rather terrifying. The book highlights the beaurocratic inertia and in-fighting which hampered efforts to improve the safety of nuclear weapons yet also at the end recognises that no accidental or unintended detonation of a US nuclear war head ever took place despite numerous major incidents and a multitude of vulnerabilities.
Those looking for a hatchet job on the US military and policy will be very disappointed. Equally those looking for a celebration of nuclear deterrence will be equally disappointed. Those looking for a very balanced, non-sensationalist and well researched examination of nuclear weapons safety will find this to be a truly outstanding work. The book is very well written and never feels laboured or dry. Very highly recommended, 5*.
I think this book qualifies as the best thriller I have ever read - and it's all true!
The author takes the story of the 1980 accident in the Missile Launch Complex 374-7 in Arkansas. Around that story he weaves an enormous amount of information about the US Air Force Missile Command, its missiles and its command and control structures.
Launch Complex 374-7 was a Titan missile launch silo. The Titan was, by the time of the accident, the only liquid fuel rocket left on the inventory. The USAF leadership were reluctant to give them up, in spite of their known problems. Why? Because the Titans carried a nine megaton warhead - the heaviest the US possessed. It had a range of 6,000 miles.
On 18 September 1980 a technician, working partway up the rocket in its silo, dropped a wrench. The wrench bounced and hit the side of the rocket damaging the fuel tank and causing a leak. What happened as a result of that leak is the story that runs like a thread through the book.
But that story isn't the only thing in the book. At various points in the story, Eric Schlosser breaks off to write about the USAF Missile Command, its history and its structures. As the book proceeds it becomes clear that the accident wasn't a one off. Quite to the contrary, it fits seamlessly into a history of accidents and near disasters that bedevilled the USAF's nuclear armed forces.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1960s, like many other people I worried about the possibility of something accidentally triggering a nuclear war. When President Kennedy was shot I was at a boarding school in East Anglia, in the UK. All that night we could hear bombers from the nearby US air bases taking off, circling and landing. Reading this book makes me feel my fears were not overblown. Things were at least as bad as I feared, if not worse!
This book should be read not just by ordinary people, but by politicians and aspiring politicians. It's easy to brandish the war rhetoric when you don't know what's involved. Less so when you have some idea of the history of such things.
The book is over 600 pages long, and seems like a pretty comprehensive account of the problems with having nuclear weapons ready to go at a moment's notice. What it doesn't cover is accidents and near disasters that happened while manufacturing the things. Judging from the occasional stories I read in the press about the cleaning up of old nuclear weapons manufacturing sites, they don't seem to have been all that safe either. Perhaps there's material for another book there!
This subject has been covered before, most notably by Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND insider, in his excellent book The Doomsday Machine. Curiously, his book goes unmentioned in the massive reference section. It’s petty, but that irked me because the author must have been aware of it.
The pop histories of the Titan silo personae also reminded me of bad movies in terms of their characterisation. I’m not sure that the dramatisation of that disaster worked since it sat at odds with the rest of the book.
The author has managed to take what could be a very dry and technical subject and make it a gripping read.
Highly recommended read for anyone who has an interest in US military development, the dangers surrounding the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increased chance of an accidental detonation.