You may browse the Atlas by following the curated "paths" of information and interpretation provided by the editors. These paths roughly track the movement of radioactive materials from the earth, into weapons or energy sources, and then into unmanageable waste—along with the environmental, social, technical, and ethical ramifications of these processes. In addition to the stages of the production process, you may view in sequence the positivist, technocratic version of this story, or the often hidden or repressed shadow side to the industrial processing of nuclear materials.
Using the buttons on the left, you may also browse the Atlas's artworks and scholarly essays, access geolocated material on a map, and learn more about contributors to the project.
If you would like to contribute materials to the Atlas, please reach out to the editors: Sarah Kanouse (s.kanouse at northeastern.edu) and Shiloh Krupar (srk34 at georgetown.edu).
Cover Image by Shanna Merola, "An Invisible Yet Highly Energetic Form of Light," from Nuclear Winter. Atlas design by Byse.
Funded by grants from Georgetown University and Northeastern University. Initial release September 2021.
Ken LaRock, Missile Gallery at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, 2019, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
U.S. Nuclear Missile Systems
Kate Nicoletti and Nareg Kuyumjian
The nuclear weapon capabilities of the U.S. became infamously known when the Truman administration decided to drop the first nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945, ending the second World War. Bomber aircrafts carried the bombs, due to the monetary and cultural expenses of producing and using long-range missiles with nuclear bombs. The Atomic Energy Commission had limited nuclear power to civilian use, and Truman did not allow militaristic control of nuclear energy until the Korean War in 1951. Truman’s cuts to the Defense budget in 1947 created financial restraints, thus forcing the military to construct and employ mid-range missiles designed to defend aircraft against hostile missiles, plus air-launched missiles designed to extend the reach of bomber aircraft.
As Cold War tensions grew in the 1950s, the Department of Defense (DOD) began to invest in long-range missiles, known as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) designed to carry a nuclear warhead. A decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Air Force successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Atlas, in 1957. Upgraded models were deployed across the country with 132 Atlas sites operational from December 1962 through May 1964 during the program’s peak. They were phased out, however, in 1965, in favor of the Titan and Minuteman ICBMs. Titan missiles superceded the Atlas with an increased payload—its two-stage rocket technology enabled it to carry two nuclear warheads—faster launch time (the Titan II could launch in 1 minute), increased maximum covered distance, and ability to launch from underground silos. 54 Titan missiles were deployed in groups of 18 around three Air Force bases in the U.S. Also first launched in the 1950s, the Minuteman missile program developed advanced solid propellant fueling technology (Atlas and Titan missiles relied on liquid fueling). This geopolitically important upgrade cut down on time spent refueling after a launch command was given. The Air Force continually modernized the Minuteman until arriving at a third generation—the Minuteman III—capable of targeting 3 separate locations with a range of 7,000 miles and time-to-delivery of less than 30 minutes.
Gainor, Christopher. "The Atlas and the Air Force: Reassessing the Beginnings of America’s First Intercontinental Ballistic Missile." Technology and Culture 54, no. 2 (2013): 346-70. DOI:10.1353/tech.2013.0069.
Karako, Thomas. “Homeland Missile Defense: How the United States Got Here.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 73, no. 3 (2017): 159-166. DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2017.1315035.
"National Defense Authorization Act: Conference Report to Accompany S.2943.” Sec. 1694, 114th Congress (2016). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2017.