Audacious times generate audacious efforts, especially when national pride and security are perceived to be at stake. Such was the case in the 1950s and 1960s, with the Space Race that started with a Russian sphere whizzing around the planet and ended with Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the Moon. But at the same time, other efforts were underway to answer big questions of national import, such as determining how durable the United States’ strategic assets were, and whether they could withstand the known effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP), a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy that could potentially disable a plane in flight. Finding out just what an EMP could do to a plane would take big engineering and a large forest’s worth of trees.
Like most Cold War projects, the Air Force Weapons Lab Transmission-line Aircraft Simulator, or ATLAS-1, was enormous in every way. As much a work of deterrence theatre as it was a serious project to measure hardening of strategic assets, ATLAS-1 had to be big. By the time it was conceived in the late 1960s, much was known about the effects of EMP on civilian and military hardware. Having been somewhat accidentally discovered in 1962 during the Starfish Prime atmospheric nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, which produced an EMP strong enough to disrupt electrical systems in Hawaii, EMPs were instantly recognized as a threat to military hardware that had to be dealt with.