To Combat the Soviets, the U.S. Almost Built Its Own "Skyfall" Nuclear Powered Missile

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: Thankfully, Washington decided the weapon would not be necessary in the Cold War standoff. 

After days of speculation by Western analysts that a deadly accident on August 8 that briefly spiked radiation levels in northwestern Russia was tied to tests of an exotic nuclear-powered “Skyfall” nuclear-powered cruise missile, Russian sources confirmed to the New York Times the explosion of a “small nuclear reactor.”

While there’s a tactical rationale behind Russia’s development of a fast, surface-skimming cruise missile with an unlimited range as a means of bypassing American missile defenses, it strikes many analysts as an inordinately expensive, extremely technically challenging, and—evidently!—downright unsafe.

That’s because the United States has tried it before sixty years earlier—and even with the fast-and-loose safety culture of the Cold War 1960s, the poison-spewing radioactive mega missile it began developing was considered too dangerous to even properly flight test.

This project was most famously described in a 1990 article by Gregg Herken for Air & Space Magazine, which remains well worth the read.

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