Joshua PollackNukes With Style

Let’s suppose you’re the kind of person who would read a blog like this. (You are.) Let’s further suppose that you happen to be in the Washington, DC area with a few hours to kill.

Check out the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum. It’s fun for the entire nuclear family. Really, weapons of mass destruction that would seem controversial downtown fit in just fine out by Dulles Airport. And regardless of one’s feelings about nuclear delivery vehicles, a visitor can’t help noticing that a lot of them really look sweet.


For starters, consider the AGM-86A Air-Launched Cruise Missile. It wouldn’t seem halfway out of place on a sci-fi movie set.

Then there’s the Poseidon Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile.

Your eyes do not deceive you: it’s a woody! [Not quite, as explained in the comments.]

Poseidon C-3 Missile Fuselage

The all-natural fuselage material of the C-3 must serve some functional purpose, but as an aesthetic statement, it’s hard to top. That’s the retro nuke to have on display in your living room. And when you think about it, it’s not that much more incongruous than decades’ worth of classic station wagons like this one.

(Chinese Transporter-Erector-Launcher with whitewall tires, eat your heart out.)

Finally, the Enola Gay must have its due.

Enola Gay engine closeup

As an object for contemplation, it has few peers. Visually, a few impressions stand out: the sheer size of the machine, its elegant lines and gleaming finish, the quadruple death’s-heads of the sculpted engines.

For anyone aware of the plane’s significance, its presence chills an otherwise cheerful space. Is there a more awful symbol of destruction? Perhaps the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Obviously, we don’t place messages in the crevices of the Enola Gay. (The Museum staff would frown upon that.) But possibly it has a message for us.


  1. Silent Hunter (History)

    Don’t forget the Pershing II and RT-21M/SS-20 just inside the entrance.

  2. Ward (History)

    Sigh. Just a note on the Enola Gay. Hiroshima ranked 2nd in terms of the number of people killed (of the 68 cities we bombed that summer). First was Tokyo, bombed with firebombs on March 9. Hiroshima ranked 4th in terms of square miles destroyed. And because Hiroshima was the 6th largest city in Japan, it ranked only 17th in terms of percentage of the city destroyed (Toyama was 99.5 percent destroyed.) Yes, yes, I know: as a means the Bomb was unrivaled. But in terms of ends, Hiroshima is not the most death and destruction.

  3. Josh Pollack

    Yes, those are at the downtown location, placed there in commemoration of the INF Treaty. Early on, protesters would splash them with red paint once every couple of years.

  4. Joseph Iacobucci (History)

    I thought that the part that you are calling ‘wood’ was fiberglass. Looks like a filament wound casing.

    The wood components in the C3 are not the casing for the rocket motor.

  5. Ben Mayer (History)

    I have been there twice and loved it both times. The SR-71 was awesome (one of the guys that flew the bird was giving tours as of a few years ago). One time they had a Predator drone setup, and some high ranking military guy that was involved in the project doing a meet and greet. The most interesting experience I had there was watching a Asian women cleaning up around the Enola Gay.

  6. Anonymous

    As far as awful symbols of destruction of go, how about this one

    Ever heard of a ravine called Babi Yar?

  7. Tim (History)

    The strength-to-weight ratio of wood is pretty good, and it withstands vibration really well (which is why wood frame houses are so common in California). It’s also fairly straightforward to seal it against water damage. It’s probably not as surprising a choice as one might originally think.

  8. Yale Simkin (History)

    As Joseph Iacobucci pointed out, the Poseidon body was spun filament, not wood.

    It is the nose fairing that is made of Sitka spruce.

    The current generation of US SLBMs still use spruce nose shells.

    Yale Simkin

  9. Smith

    Any particular reason the nose fairing is made of spruce?

  10. Yale Simkin (History)

    Smith asked:
    “Any particular reason the nose fairing is made of spruce?”

    The information here is for the Trident, but it applies to the other SLBMs.

    Yale Simkin

  11. Yale Simkin (History)

    Project Pluto

    was the runner-up most strange atomic bomb delivery system devised in the fevered imagination of the Cold War.

    This was a gigantic 1/2 gigawatt atomic reactor powered supersonic ramjet with a speed in excess of Mach 3-4 and a range of some 200,000 km.

    An excellent article from Air & Space Magazine.

    The Discovery Channel created a documentary on this death ship which may be seen here:

    Project Pluto Part 1

    Project Pluto Part 2

    Project Pluto Part 3

    Project Pluto Part 4

    Project Pluto Part 5

    Yale Simkin

  12. Smith

    Thanks for that; very informative!

  13. Chris (History)

    Just a note: the downtown museum has several nuclear-capable missiles on display. It has a Jupiter-C (rigged up for the Explorer 1 launch, though), a Minuteman-III, a Pershing-II, a TLAM, and a SS-20.

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