I-Team: JFK Toured Test Site to Check on Classified Project - 8 News NOW

I-Team: JFK Toured Test Site to Check on Classified Project

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I-Team reporter George Knapp and photojournalist Matt Adams at the facility where the nuclear rocket was tested. I-Team reporter George Knapp and photojournalist Matt Adams at the facility where the nuclear rocket was tested.
JFK visiting the Nevada Test Site.   Photo Courtesy: Las Vegas News Bureau JFK visiting the Nevada Test Site. Photo Courtesy: Las Vegas News Bureau

LAS VEGAS -- The announcement that NASA's rover has found evidence of water on Mars comes 50 years after President John. F. Kennedy was in Las Vegas, in part, to talk about the space program, including a classified project underway at the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site.

The president's visit -- 50 years ago Saturday -- was the last of many stops he made in Las Vegas and came just two months before the events in Dallas, Texas.

The timing of that visit was significant in several ways. The president was in Nevada -- in part-- to repair political bridges after his brother had authorized wiretaps of Las Vegas casinos earlier in the year. Plus, the U.S. Senate had just ratified a nuclear test ban treaty, which had huge implications for jobs at the Nevada Test Site.

SLIDESHOW: JFK's Tour of the Nevada Test Site

But Kennedy spoke cryptically about another project underway in the Nevada desert, one that could have taken us to the stars.

From his first address to Congress, John Kennedy boldly declared that he wanted the U.S., not only go to the moon, but to Mars and beyond. The space program was on his mind when he landed in Las Vegas Sept. 28, 1963, for his final visit.

With Senators Howard Cannon and Alan Bible in his party, Kennedy spoke not only about the threat of nuclear weapons -- the kind being tested above ground in the Nevada desert -- but also mentioned quote "science being developed in this state which will allow us to go beyond the moon..."

Kennedy had seen that science with his own eyes less than a year before, during a whirlwind trip the Nevada Test Site.

"Most of us didn't know far in advance that he was coming," said Richard Mingus, a former Nevada Test Site security officer.

Mingus was 31 at the time, a security sergeant working at Mercury on the test site. He was assigned to help escort the presidential party on a trip to Area 25, also known as Jackass Flats.

"I was told to meet Air Force One at Indian Springs."

According to the itinerary from the day, the president took an hour-long helicopter flight from Indian Springs over the test site to see for himself what atomic bombs had wrought, and then on to Area 25, which had been set aside for a different kind of atomic research.

"The whole purpose was to find peaceful uses for nuclear power so this part was set aside, no nuclear weapons," said Darwin Morgan, Department of Energy spokesman.

The focal point of the JFK visit was the still-glimmering facility known as ETS1 which, in its day, witnessed spectacular bursts of nuclear fire. The program to build the world's first nuclear rocket engine had begun in the 50s but Kennedy became its champion and his visit was a chance to check on its progress.

The NERVA program had already achieved remarkable success. The first nuclear rocket engine, called Kiwi, would be moved by rail car from the assembly building, over to the testing facility. Gigantic egg-shaped doors would roll in behind it; a tank of hydrogen fed the reaction, and then boom.

Mingus used to watch the tests from a rooftop nearby. Today he works at the Atomic Museum, where the NERVA engines are on display.

"This is the real deal. It has actually been used, the most powerful rocket engine ever built or tested," he said.

"When you push that button, you had a nuclear reaction going on that was heating up that hydrogen and giving you thrust. That's just amazing to think of the engineering," Darwin said.

Photos from the Kennedy trip show him inspecting the facilities and the engines themselves, like a touring rock star. He didn't see an actual test but met the enthralled test site employees working on the program. A half-century later, memories of his visit remain vivid.

"It's the bed George Washington slept in. You are walking the same grounds that President Kennedy walked," Darwin said.

"I guess it would be a high point in my life," Mingus said.

When he returned to Las Vegas less than a year later, Kennedy was still jazzed about the ultimate potential of the NERVA project because tests proved it worked which meant travel to Mars or beyond was feasible. Two months after his Las Vegas trip, JFK went to Dallas.

Those who worked at the former test site still think of what could have been.

"It could have happened. You could have nuclear powered rockets taking people to Mars by now, that would be the reality of this."

"I really believe if this program had continued, we would be there, we would be at Mars or beyond. This program would give us power we never had before," Mingus added.

The NERVA program did not end when the president was killed. It continued on and by 1969, the year Americans landed on the moon, NASA had already drawn up plans to send 12 astronauts to Mars via a nuclear rocket. However, in 1972 the budget for the program was eliminated and whatever promise the nuclear engine had died with it.

There are public tours at the Nevada National Security Site. Here is link with more information.

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