29. A Plan Worthy of Wile E. Coyote
PROJECT RETRO was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War‘s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, hitting something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a moving target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. E.g.; say it takes an ICBM 30 minutes to fly from Russia to Washington, DC. The Russian will aim it not at where Washington is at the time of launch, but at where Washington will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes.
However, if the target stops moving after an arrow or missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines – specifically “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” – to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, it tasked the RAND Corporation with evaluating the possibility of using giant stationary rocket engines to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice wasâ¦ problematic.