Spaceship Tunguska

In August 1945, Little Boy and Fat Man changed our world forever. Curious names for two atomic bombs that unleashed untold devastation upon humanity. On 6 August, Little Boy almost wiped the city of Hiroshima from the map of Japan. Three days later, Fat Man exploded into history in the Nagasaki sky.

'It was hard to believe what we saw', said Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the B-29 plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, describing at a press conference what he saw seconds after the bomb had been released. 'Below us, rising rapidly, was a tremendous black cloud ... What had been Hiroshima was going up in a mountain of smoke. First I could see a mushroom of boiling dust - apparently with some debris in it - up to

20,000 feet. The boiling continued three or four minutes as I watched. Then a white cloud plumed upward from the center to some 40,000 feet. An angry dust cloud spread all around the city. There were fires on the fringes of the city, apparently burning as buildings crumbled and the gas mains broke.'

On the ground, Kiyosi Tenimoto, a pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, who was about 4 kilometres from the centre of the explosion, saw a blinding flash of light, like 'a sheet of sun', that cut across the sky. Moments later the flash of light had turned into a gigantic mushroom cloud, now known to everyone as the characteristic signature of an atomic explosion. John Hersey, one of the first Western journalists to record the bomb's immediate aftermath, reported in The New Yorker magazine of 31 August 1946 that the survivors described the explosion as 'a noiseless flash of light'. He noted that almost no one in Hiroshima recalled hearing any noise of the bomb, but all saw the vast, blinding glare and felt the wave of heat, which was followed closely by the roar of the explosion and its shock. Hersey's extraordinary article, 'Hiroshima' - published simultaneously as a Penguin book which remains in print - had a profound effect on a world which knew hardly anything about the horrors of the atomic bomb.

As for the bomb's incredible destructive power, the numbers speak for themselves. The air temperature at the point of explosion of the 15-kiloton bomb, 580 metres above the ground, exceeded 1 million degrees Celsius. The temperature on the ground at the centre of the blast rose to 6,000 degrees Celsius. The brilliant orange mushroom cloud climbed to 10 kilometres. As the cloud spread it started fires that damaged more than 70,000 houses and killed 140,000 people. But the death toll reached 200,000 due to radiation sickness. In short, two-thirds of an 18-square-kilometre city of 340,000 people was almost obliterated by one atomic bomb in a few minutes.

The world now knew of the immense destructive power of 'the fireball, the mushroom cloud and the intense heat' of an atomic bomb blast. It did not take some Soviet scientists and science fiction writers long to connect the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the images of Tunguska - the fireball, the heat, the thundering noise, the enormous cloud of dust and the devastated forest.

One of them was Alexander Kazantsev, an engineer who had graduated from Siberia's Tomsk Technological Institute in 1930. He was also a well-known science fiction writer who in 1946 published a story, 'The blast', in Vokrug Sveta, a popular Russian magazine of science and adventure, in which he presented the bizarre idea that the Tunguska explosion was caused by a 'cosmic visitor' - an extra-terrestrial spaceship, cylindrical in shape and propelled by nuclear fuel. Because of a malfunction the spaceship plunged out of control through Earth's atmosphere, and within a fraction of a second it and its occupants were vaporised in a blinding flash of light. The ETs had come to collect water from Lake Baikal, 800 kilometres from the Tunguska explosion site. This lake - the world's deepest (1,637 metres) and the seventh largest (34,000 square kilometres) - contains the largest volume of surface freshwater. Apparently, the ETs were from a parched planet and very, very thirsty.

Kazantsev's ET hypothesis was well received by other science and science fiction writers. Over the years, as Tunguska expeditions published their new findings, Kazantsev returned to his story again and again, and embellished it into a working theory to explain the Tunguska object. When Florenskiy's 1958 expedition announced the discovery of magnetite globules containing nickel, cobalt, copper, germanium and other elements in the samples collected from the region of the fall, Kazantsev was quick to explain the presence of these elements. In his 1958 article 'Visitor from the Cosmos' (which became the centrepiece of his 1963 book of the same name), he said that the nickel and cobalt came from the outer shell of the spaceship, while the copper and germanium were from semi-conductors and other electrical instruments on board. These and other elements were vaporised when, at the moment of the explosion, temperatures rose tens of millions of degrees. 'In part these elements fell to the ground as precipitation, with radioactive effects', he maintained.

The Soviet Astronomical Journal panned Kazantsev's book as 'a consistent and conscious deception of the reader, in pursuit of one definite goal: to show that he alone, A.N. Kazantsev, has discovered the true nature of the complex phenomena contrary to all the "conjunctures" of the representatives of official science'. But there were admirers as well. One of them was an aircraft designer, A. Yu. Manotskov, who 'proved' that the Tunguska object was under 'intelligent control'. On average, a meteorite or comet would enter Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 36,000 to 216,000 kilometres per hour, whereas the Tunguska object 'braked' its speed to 2,400 kilometres per hour, the speed of a jet aircraft. For a meteorite or comet to plunge down at this low speed, it would have needed a mass of 1,000 million tonnes and a diameter of 1 kilometre. Yet this behemoth had made no crater and left no fragments. Therefore, the Tunguska object was a small spaceship that was attempting to land. Kazantsev gleefully agreed: 'Such a tremendous meteorite would have certainly covered the whole sky.' Boris Laipunov, a well-known rocket and space travel expert, also supported Manotskov's reasoning.

Feliks Zigel of the Moscow Aviation Institute added more meat to Manotskov's assertion that the Tunguska object was under 'intelligent control'. Some eyewitness accounts, taken down long after the event, suggest that the Tunguska body had twice changed course in flight. This deliberate 'manoeuvre' to change course before descent was indeed proof that the Tunguska object was a spaceship flying from another planet, the good professor declared. He presented another 'proof: the object flew in an 'enormous loop', first northward then westward, before crashing; behaviour that appears to exclude a natural phenomenon. He said that the spaceship had followed precisely the re-entry angle of 6.2 degrees to the horizon, which was within the re-entry corridor (between 5.5 degrees and 7.5 degrees) adopted by astronauts entering Earth's atmosphere. If the angle is too steep, the spacecraft burns up; too shallow, and it bounces off the atmosphere like a stone skipping off water.

In an article in the magazine Znanyie-Sila in June 1959, Zigel, who is still remembered as 'the father of Soviet UFOlogy', heaped praise on Kazantsev's hypothesis: 'At the present time, like it or not, A.N. Kazantsev's hypothesis is the only realistic one insofar as it explains the absence of a meteorite crater and the explosion of a cosmic body in the air ... It is generally known at times - nay, often - new ideas that proved to be most valuable to science were first expressed not by scientists, but by writers of scientific fantasy.' In an interview with the Soviet news agency TASS, he added: 'The more we know of the Tunguska catastrophe, the more confirmation we find of the fact that the UFO which exploded over the forest in 1908 was an extraterrestrial probe.'

The newspaper Pravda of the time, however, considered UFOs 'flirtations with superstitions and religious impulses manipulated indirectly by the Pentagon'. The reference to the Pentagon probably came from the Roswell incident, one of the most famous UFO 'sightings' in American history.

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