The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards.... Having broken through the thick layer of clouds it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.
It took badass Soviet theoretical physicist Andrei Sakharov four months to create the most obscenely-huge thermonuclear device ever constructed in human history – a terrifying implement of mass destruction that makes other mushroom-cloud-generating fission-powered monstrosities look like a couple of those stupid baking soda and vinegar volcanoes being thrown into the eternal fires of Mount Doom. A horrific implement of white-hot vaporizing obliteration that qualifies not as a weapon but as a Human Extinction Event.
He created the Tsar Bomba – the Emperor of Bombs. A weapon with the explosive power equal to taking every single conventional bomb dropped in World War Two combined, and then multiplying that explosion by TEN.
While you’re reeling from that, try to wrap your head around this too: He also received the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize, and, to tie this all in to current events, the first recipient of the European Parliament’s annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was recently-passed humanitarian / world-leader Nelson Mandela.
Born in Moscow, as a teenager Andrei Sakharov had to change schools to study theoretical physics in Turkmenistan because it was a little disruptive to his studies when the Nazis started sending Stuka dive-bombers to strafe Moscow State University in their endless quest to kill every human being in Russia during World War II. After graduating with his Ph.D., Sakharov was relocated to a secret Soviet city of engineers and scientists known as Atomgrad and offered a job creating a nuclear weapons program for Stalin’s Soviet Union. He quickly proved to be the closest thing the Soviets had to Albert Einstein.
Russia got nukes in 1958, and by 1961 the full-on Cold War nuclear arms race between Russia and America was like the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady of Destroying All Sentient Life in the Universe. New Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, already pissed off about JFK’s Bay of Pigs bullshit and currently developing his plan to build a Huge Fucking Wall right through the middle of Berlin, wanted to show the U.S. what Soviet Russia could do. He ordered Sakharov to head up the Third Idea program, commanding the physicist to create the biggest bomb ever made in recorded human history. A 100 Megaton three-stage fusion/fission thermonuclear device threethousandtimes more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and a device that would be capable of craterizing Paris and all of its suburbs in a single airburst detonation. It had to be small enough to fit into an airplane, yet still powerful enough to send a mushroom cloud into Lower Earth Orbit. And it had to be ready in 16 weeks.
Sure thing, boss, coming right up.
Always strapped, when I hit the club.
Nicknamed “Kuzka’s Mother”, from the Russian expression “To show them Kuzka’s Mother,” which loosely translates to “I FUCKING FUC KYOU UP MOTHER FUCKER,” the Tsar Bomba was designed to be a three-stage weapon, with a regular boring old fission-powered nuclear warhead the size of the Nagasaki bomb triggering a shit fuck ton of fusion and fission materials that would ignite and blast a hole straight down to the Earth’s core.
Sakharov got right to work. First, he moved his team out to Novaya Semlya, a freezing-cold snowbound island north of Siberia that the Soviets had made available to him by forcibly relocating the entire population of the island to the Russian mainland. Sakharov’s first design decision was to drop the nuclear payload from 100 Megatons to 50 Megatons, meaning it would “only” be the equivalent of 50 MILLION TONS of TNT wrapped up in one single detonation and was probably less likely to single-handedly bring about Worldwide Nuclear Winter. He also – and this is HUGE – decided to make most of the explosion fusion rather than fission, which, amazingly, would make this one of the “cleanest” nukes in history in terms of radioactive fallout and damage to the planet’s environment.
The next thing he did was to skip a lot of the boring calculations, because he didn’t really have time to screw around with minor details when developing the hugest weapon in human history and there weren’t really computers to do that shit for you in 1961. So instead he did a little scribbling on a napkin and decided to go with his “best estimates” as to what would create a fusion explosion without destroying the earth or getting him sent to a Soviet gulag for wasting millions of dollars of Soviet money on a super-nuke that didn’t explode. This is one of those decisions that typically create zombie apocalypses or giant radioactive Praying Mantis monsters when scientists make them in movies, but apparently Sakharov hadn’t seen any of those films and carried on as normal.
It took 112 days to complete the weapon. Measuring in at 8 meters long and 27 tons, the Tsar Bomba had to be carried by a special Tu-95 Strategic Bomber that had been customized by cutting away the fuselage so it could even mount the weapon. The mission was so dangerous that the pilot, Major Andrei E. Durnovtsev, was immediately promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given the Hero of the Soviet Union medal just for agreeing to attempt the mission.
At 11:32am Moscow Time on October 30, 1961, Durnovtsev’s aircraft released the Tsar Bomba over the frozen wasteland of Novaya Semlya. Falling from an altitude of 35,000 feet (the typical cruising altitude for most commercial airplanes), Tsar Bomba parachuted towards the earth on its epic mission.
When it reached 13,000 feet, it detonated.
The five-mile-wide fireball expanded to a diameter that touched the earth and also reached the altitude of the aircraft that deployed it. Windows broke 550 miles away. All structures within 60 miles were leveled. The heat was so intense that any exposed human flesh within 12 miles would have instantly been seared with third-degree burn and would require skin grafts to repair. Radio transmissions in the area were interrupted for over an hour. The 40-mile-high mushroom cloud was seven times the height of Mount Everest, extending all the way into fucking space. American military scientists read the detonation as a 5.0 earthquake.
And that was at half power.
At the full 100 Megatons Khrushchev originally ordered, Tsar Bomba would have burned the flesh off of anyone in all of West Germany. If it had been dropped on the ground in London using the previously-prescribed radioactive materials (remember that Sakharov found a way to limit radiation damage by 97%), people in Poland would have died from the fallout.
Here’s a picture of what the blast would have looked like if Sakharov’s 50 Megaton Tsar Bomba was dropped on Lower Manhattan.
The yellow circle is a glass-filled crater. The red is complete destruction of even reinforced steel structures. The Gray area represents a 99% human fatality rate from impact and heat damage. Any exposed human flesh in the Orange circle would suffer instantaneous third-degree burns, and anything combustible or flammable in that area – including all wood structures and vegetation from New Jersey to Connecticut – would immediately burst into flames.
None of this takes into account radiation, wind, or weather. It’s just a straight-up airburst detonation and heat. It also doesn’t account for the 5.0 earthquake, which, in this setting, might even produce radioactive tsunamis. What the fuck.
According to NUKEMAP (a program that is way more fun than it should be), this detonation would leave an estimated 8.9 million people dead and another 4.8 million injured.
Here's a double-down for my Euro Readers. Casualty estimate: 14.7m dead, 6.9m injured
Now, I’m not advocating worldwide thermonuclear war or anything (would you like to play a game?), but WHAT THE FUCK. This is hardcore, people walking around looking like fucking mutants, end of days apocalypse Fallout 3 shit here, all produced by basically one theoretical physicist in about the time it takes to complete one semester of Physics 101. For developing this weapon, and for his future work in theoretical physics, Andrei Sakharov received all of the highest civilian awards offered by the USSR: The Hero of Socialist Labour (three times), the Order of Lenin (four times), the Lenin Prize and the Stalin Prize.
But Andrei Sakharov wasn’t excited. He lost his shit. Something about cracking the earth and killing billions of people just didn’t sit well with this dude, and Sakharov actually spent the rest of his life criticizing nuclear testing, advocating test ban treaties, and actively trying to stop Russia and America from getting into a nuclear war and destroying all life on the planet. He ordered all future Russian tests to take place underground to minimize radioactive fallout. He helped push through the Partial Test Ban treaty in 1963. He urged Soviet ministers to approve the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty to stop the manufacture of ABMs and slow down the arms race between NATO and the Russians. In fact, we have Andrei Sakharov to thank for a LOT of the work that went towards getting the USSR and the USA to work out their difference and stop escalating their nuclear arsenals, and due to his work on nuclear disarmament he was nominated for the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize and won it in 1975.
Not too bad for a guy who created the World’s Biggest Bomb.
Eventually he pushed too hard, started protesting the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the corruption of the USSR’s Marxist ideals into a totalitarian dictatorship, and the Soviets called him out as a traitor. He was stripped of his awards and sentenced to house arrest, and when he resisted with a hunger strike the KGB sent him to a hospital for force-feeding. Imprisoned from 1980-86, he was was finally released during Perestroika when Mikhail Gorbachev personally ordered his release. He received the International Humanist Award in 1988, and died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 68. He’s remembered in statues and monuments across Russia, and one of the Enterprise’s shuttlecraft is named after him in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Every year, the European Parliament honors his work by issuing the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to people and organizations dedicated to human rights.
On that note, here are a bunch of awesome videos of nuclear explosions.