Visitors could walk through a replica of the Air Force’s intermediate range ballistic missile — once the sergeant with the keys got to work.
ON SEPT. 24, 1959, City Hall’s busy Board of Public Works easily approved a temporary display of Thor, the Air Force’s intermediate range ballistic missile named for a Nordic deity with a not-always righteous reputation and a rather ignitable temper. This faithful-to-scale public-relations copy of the missile was lifted above University Plaza.
About two stories of stairs led a line of curious visitors up one side of the shiny Thor to an open door and onto a platform that 8 feet later reached another open door leading to the stairway designated “down.” It was a command some of the visitors were no doubt pleased to obey, And yet, while walking that plank, the explorers were, of course, safe, and kept free of the missile’s liquid fuel, stabilizing gyros and “pay package” of merely one nuclear bomb.
By the fall of 1959, the real Thor had been running through nearly three years of flight tests that included several crashes. Meanwhile, the Navy and the Army were working with their own Cold War responses to Russia’s surprising success earlier with three weeks of world-circling by Sputnik, a shining metal sphere with antennas.
I recall the “Sputnik Surprise” of October 1957 very well, and I suspect many readers also will remember that the satellite that began the Space Age was about the diameter of three basketballs.
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More than for its citizens, the Seattle appearance of Thor was engineered for the 1,000 or so delegates to the 14th Annual Convention of the National Defense Transportation Association, a group of munitions dealers and military brass that represented well what former President — and general — Dwight D. Eisenhower named “the military industrial complex.”
Unfortunately, the primary showtime for Thor before the three-day convention was foiled by a forgetful Air Force sergeant who had the keys to the missile’s two doors, but was off-duty. Besides the disappointed military brass, among those invited to walk the plank through the full width of the missile that special day was Donald Douglas, of Douglas Aircraft, the builder of Thor.