The Polaris program

In the summer of 1956, a U.S. Navy-sponsored study (Project Nobska) on anti-submarine warfare was held at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. During a July 18 symposium on nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons effects, Livermore’s Edward Teller set the Laboratory on a new course when he argued that trends in nuclear weapons development would soon lead to warheads with a weight, yield and size that could fit within conventional torpedo tubes. In particular, Teller stated that a 1-megaton warhead at a much-reduced weight was feasible within five years — a radical concept at the time. When asked whether his idea could be applied to the Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile Program, Teller responded with the question, “Why use a 1958 warhead in a 1965 weapon system?” Teller’s bold comments would profoundly affect the course of the Navy’s ballistic missile program and the future of the Livermore Laboratory.

The general reaction following Teller’s remarks was mixed amazement, as Teller had publicly committed the Lab to developing a warhead that was well beyond proven capability. Livermore’s Harold Brown, whose responsibility was for the high-yield-to-weight secondary, was somewhat less than optimistic but his main response, like much of the Lab, was “let’s get to work and make it happen.”

The Polaris program, officially created in December 1956, was followed immediately by a Phase 2 joint feasibility study between the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission. The study proceeded with enthusiastic Livermore participation and token Los Alamos representation. In August 1957, the study was confirmed, and Livermore was informed that they had been assigned to develop the Polaris warhead.

The Phase 3 assignment originally targeted an initial missile operational date of 1963, with full capability by 1965. However, on Oct. 4, 1957, history changed when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into space. With tensions ratcheted to near public panic levels, Livermore was asked if it could deliver a warhead several years earlier. Following successful tests supporting the Lab’s warhead design at the Nevada Test Site, the secretary of Defense officially requested that the program be accelerated to produce the first Polaris warhead for sixteen submarines by October 1960.

So began a crash, three-year effort to develop an underwater-launched solid-fuel missile system. Following years of challenging work, the first functional Polaris missile was successfully launched from the USS George Washington on July 20, 1960. A few months later, on Nov. 15, 1960, the George Washington set to sea with its full complement of sixteen armed Polaris missiles — bringing the Navy into the nuclear age, a full five years ahead of the original schedule.

The following year, on March 3, 1961, the U.S. Navy honored Edward Teller and Harold Brown for their work on the Polaris program with Distinguished Public Service Awards (the highest honor the Navy can bestow upon a civilian) in a ceremony held at the Livermore Laboratory. At the same event, the Laboratory was awarded the Navy Certificate of Merit for “outstanding service to the Department of the Navy.” At the time of the launching, Rear Adm. William Raborn, Jr., the director of the Navy’s Special Projects Office, called the event “the most significant happening in weaponry since the day when the airplane first flew.”

The following year, about six months after the end of the nuclear testing moratorium, the Polaris program’s achievements were fully demonstrated in remarkable fashion when the USS Ethan Allen conducted a complete operational test of the Polaris A-1 (A-1 denoting the first generation) missile system during Operation Frigate Bird. On May 6, 1962, the submerged Ethan Allen launched a stockpile Polaris missile toward Christmas Island, successfully detonating the Livermore warhead 1,000 miles out and 11,000 feet high.

From left: George Russell, Harold Brown and Edward Teller.