Into the Mushroom Cloud

Most pilots would head away from a thermonuclear explosion.

Air Force personnel decontaminate a B-29 sampler aircraft with Gunk degreaser. (Courtesy National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office)
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By 1957, the controversy had escalated from mild grumbling into open administrative warfare, with Air Force Colonel William Kieffer pushing to seriously downgrade, if not entirely eliminate, most of the routine decontamination procedures. The scientific director of the sampling effort, Harold Plank of Los Alamos, argued that Kieffer “simply could not understand the philosophy which regards every radiation exposure as injurious but accepts minimum exposures for critical jobs.” The safety and decontamination procedures continued—more or less—and the controversy was never resolved. Throughout the program, however, the  officially permitted radiation dosage limits for Air Force personnel tended to drift upward to as high as the brass thought they could get away with.

In the early 1960s, spurred by increasing scientific awareness and public outcry over the dangers of fallout, nuclear testing began moving underground. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 made it final. The 4926th Test Squadron (Sampling) was absorbed into the Air Force Military Air Transport Service.

Jimmy Robinson’s daughter, Rebecca Miller, a baby when her father died, spent years petitioning the government for more information about his last mission, with only limited success. “I guess [his body] is there, unless the plane and his body were recovered and it’s still classified,” she says. “I’ve had other atomic veterans tell me they thought he was sent back to Los Alamos to do a full body count of the radiation.” It wasn’t until 2002—50 years later—that Robinson would finally be given his due, with a full military ceremony and memorial stone at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery.

Mark Wolverton’s latest book is A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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