Photo Credit Life Magazine

By Tim Bean

Iron Man’s got NOTHING on this beast.

27 feet tall. 77 tons. Lead, steel, and glass armor almost two feet thick. A 500 horsepower supercharger engine. Able to withstand 3,000 times more radiation than a human. Mighty claws able to tear, rend, and shred steel with 85,000 pounds of force…yet nimble enough to balance an egg on a spoon.

It took the Air Force Special Weapons Center three years and $1.5 million (roughly $15 million in 2021) to build this real-life science fiction warrior—nicknamed the “Beetle”—for a specific purpose: to service the country’s first nuclear-powered bomber.

A carton cutaway of an atomic aircraft. Popular Mechanics. May, 1951.

In the late 1950s, nuclear-powered bombers were the unattainable dream for the American military. A safe(-ish) and effective bomber that could remain in the air for weeks at a time would be the ultimate nuclear deterrent, ready to destroy any Soviet nuclear retaliation in mere minutes. The Strategic Air Command dreamed of a World War III that would be over before you could say Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). No Soviet would dare fire a missile with one of those near Moscow.

The size and power of the Beetle reflected the problem of the program faced. It was a Catch-22.

A long-range nuclear bomber is big. Big bombers need big reactors. Big reactors needed heavy shielding to protect the human crew. More shielding meant a heavier, bigger bomber. Which meant a bigger reactor. On and on. 

The USAF and its contractors just couldn’t build a bomber light enough to be practical and safe enough to be manned, but they sure tried. Engineers and scientists contracted by the USAF created, improved, and the demonstrated hundreds (possibly thousands) of different designs and approaches to making the atomic aircraft. Many featured relatively small modular reactors, such as those seen on nuclear submarines. A reactor is a reactor, and even a small one can easily bombard humans with deadly alpha, beta, and gamma rays.

Notice the Beetle holding an egg on the bottom left

Since shielding remained the chief variable in a successful bomber, designers removed as much protection as they deemed safe…and usually a little more. By the late 1950s, the US military well knew how intense gamma ray bombardment affected biology subjects (see the New Yorker‘s “The Demon Core and the Strange Death of Louis Slotin“). When it came to nuclear-powered aircraft, any kind of maintenance would always be dangerous without remote assistance.

Thus came the Beetle.

Built in Detroit by a subsidiary of General Electric, the Beetle allowed humans to go where no man had gone before, because that man would be dead. It looked like something out of a science fiction magazine. A cylindrical body and two bulging, pinching arms powered by clusters of hydraulic hoses.

Cockpit from the exterior (left) and interior (right)

It didn’t have a head, but a perimeter of bright flood lights and a single square window: a foot of lead glass. A human face sat in that window, tucked safely away in an airtight, fully-hardened cockpit. It rolled along on the bottom half of an M42 Duster, propelled by its 500-hp air-cooled engine.

This costly mechanical beast had a single purpose: to service and repair the USAF’s atomic-powered aircraft.  Beetle’s specs might seem overkill, especially since it was created to service a vehicle that didn’t yet exist, but that’s not the case. It needed every bit of its power and shielding, especially if the pilot inside wanted to live.

The Beetle pilot, a flamboyant Hoosier who oddly enough liked being called Tex, knew the Beetle as well as any engineer. He’d gladly spend eight hours in its cramped cabin, alternating between chewing gum and tobacco, and performing tasks as mind-numbingly mundane as unscrewing a single bolt. Tex became something of a legend among these early technicians, both for his manual skill and his Zen-like calm.

“I can do that, because I turn my ears off. People are always watching, trying to help. ‘A little to the right,’ they tell me. Well, it may be their right and my left. So I’ve taught myself to pay no mind. I don’t even hear them.”

~Tex Scraper

The GE Beetle wasn’t without its problems. In a major magazine spread for Popular Science in 1962, reporter Martin Mann touted the robot as the all-purpose solution to a nation’s nuclear needs: “Fix an atomic rocket engine? Clean up spills of radioactivity? Rescue H-bomb victims? That’s what the Beetle is for.”

Mann pointed out that before the media demonstrations could commence, the USAF had to get the Beetle started first.

In fact, in a four-day period of demonstrations, the Beetle broke down well over a dozen times: a dead degassing circuit, hydraulic fluid squirting out from a loose plug, the manipulator arm diodes blowing again and again, its auxiliary generator dying, countless short circuits…On and on and on. And these are the mechanical problems the Air Force LET the media see. Engineers joked that the 400 miles of wiring in the Beetle meant the short circuits had short circuits.

The Beetle’s last known home, Area 25, aka “Jackass Flats”

Ultimately, the Beetle disappeared into the piles of classified castaways across the Nevada Test Site, where the military tested its first and last nuclear weapons. Its last official location was at Area 25 (affectionately called “Jackass Flats”), but there’s no record of its decommissioning, scraping, or otherwise. More likely than not, the US military junked the Beetle with no fanfare or ceremony, and cannibalized what they could, especially those costly manipulator arms.

The dream of an atomic aircraft was eventually abandoned. Even the best-built airplanes eventually crash, and to have a flying nuclear reactor crash into the ground and explode like a grenade, completely unshielded, into a populated area…The US military decided no benefit was worth that kind of risk.

The fate of the program came from President Kennedy, who was busy gathering support and funding for the newborn NASA, the Peace Corps, and several social programs (the Civil Rights Movement). When the Department of Defense informed the young president that the US had already sunk $1 billion ($8.5 billion today) into the hazardous pursuit of atomic propulsion with little to show, the young president shut it down. Although he believed in the potential of nuclear rocket technology (Project Rover), the safety issues and prohibitive costs made it impractical.

But the Beetle didn’t go away entirely.

More than anything, the Beetle demonstrated the tremendous advances robotic manipulators made in practical applications. This directly lead to the invention of RUM in 1960 (Remote Underwater Manipulator), which could crawl along the ocean bed 20,000 feet from the surface. The lessons learned in testing and improving Beetle and RUM lead to their prized relative in 1964: the Deep Sea Vehicle (DSV) Alvin.  Among Alvin’s stunning exploits…being the first manned sub to explore the Titanic in 1986. 

And DSV Alvin is still roaming the depths today. The Beetle would be proud. 

Want to Know More? 

Check out the original patent (#3,043,448) filed by D.F. Melton in 1958, detailing the design and purpose of this “Vehicle-Mounted Manipulator.”

Browse the Department of Defense’s 1963 report “Review of Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program.”

Enjoy the excellent article “World’s Biggest Robot” by Martin Mann in the May, 1962, issue of Popular Science.