So I had an interesting discussion with Ms. Carlysle last Tuesday. Over the last year, she has been trying, with some success, to temper my knee jerk debunkery. She posited about military experimentation with nuclear powered, stealthy, airships as an explanation of some recent UFO sightings. Various governments and military establishments have been thinking about the idea since the 1950s.1,2,3
The idea is intriguing. Such airships could stay aloft for months, or even years, without refueling. Mostly, the limitations on duration would be food and consumables and the slow helium loss through the gasbags. Helium and food could be replenished by tending aircraft.
Wikipedia points to evidence that the Russians did experiment with nuclear aircraft but these were heavier than air craft using some kind of variation on nuclear thermal rockets. This research was abandoned because the radioactive exhaust from these rockets was an environmental nightmare. I’m guessing that various nuclear test ban treaties also forbid further research.
An airship would be different. It would only use the reactor to generate electricity to drive conventional propellers and turbines. The gasbags of airship could be made large enough to lift a heavily shielded reactor of sufficient size. Nuclear airships would be like nuclear submarines.
So why haven’t these things been built?
- It’s hard, but not impossible, to make giant balloons less visible to radar, infrared and eyes.
- Airships aren’t fast. This prevents some military applications.
- Public worry over nuclear reactors flying overhead.
- The difficulty of finding a task for these airships that can’t be met, more cheaply, in some other way.
Nuclear airships might be like that other science fiction dream, the personal jet-pack. Sure it’s doable but expensive, limited and not really that useful.