Revisiting the “Tsar Bomba” nuclear test

The mushroom cloud from the Soviet detonation of "Tsar Bomba" on October 30, 1961, was so large that the photographers had a hard time capturing its full dimensions.

Enlarge / The mushroom cloud from the Soviet detonation of “Tsar Bomba” on October 30, 1961, was so large that the photographers had a hard time capturing its full dimensions. (credit: New York Times)

The detonation of the first nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 is seared into our collective memory, and the world has been haunted by the prospect of a devastating nuclear apocalypse ever since. Less well-known but equally significant from a nuclear arms race standpoint was the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of hydrogen “superbomb” in the wee hours of October 30, 1961.

Dubbed “Tsar Bomba” (loosely translated, “Emperor of Bombs”), it was the size of a small school bus—it wouldn’t even fit inside a bomber and had to be slung below the belly of the plane. The 60,000-pound (27 metric tons) test bomb’s explosive yield was 50 million tons (50 megatons) of TNT, although the design had a maximum explosive yield of 100 million tons (100 megatons).

The US had conducted the first successful test of a hydrogen bomb (codename: Ivy Mike) in 1954 and had been pondering the development of even more powerful hydrogen superbombs. But the Soviets’ successful test lent greater urgency to the matter. Ultimately, President John F. Kennedy opted for diplomacy, signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on October 7, 1963.

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