Big Ivan: The World’s Biggest Bomb Ever Detonated – Tsar Bomba

The Soviet-made Big Ivan, more commonly known as the Tsar Bomba, holds the record for the biggest bomb in history and here’s why.

Big Ivan showcased 50 megatons of the USSR’s might. The Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombings would have to be multiplied 1,570 times to get close to that. Its power was equal to all the firepower expended during the Second World War, multiplied ten times.

So imagine all that destructive power in one bomb . . . in just one explosion.

Big Ivan: The Story

July 1961: Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party and the USSR’s leader at that time, decided that he was finished with the unspoken nuclear testing freeze which his country, as well as the US and the UK, had been abiding by since 1958.

He wanted to show off USSR’s military might, and the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party in October 1961 was the ideal venue to do just that. With all the world’s eyes focused on his nation, Khrushchev wanted to set off the biggest man-made explosive of all time in a “spectacular test.”

But there was just one huge problem – the country did not possess a bomb big enough to suit the USSR’s leader’s tastes.

Until that point, the biggest hydrogen bomb the Soviet had ever detonated was the three megaton RDS-37, which also was the first hydrogen bomb they built. However, Khrushchev wanted something bigger than that, something that would surpass and make the US’s 15 megaton Castle Bravo test look weak. And, he wanted that kind of explosive ready in time for the Congress.

A four-man team was established for the project’s development comprising of Victor Adamski, Yuri Babaev, Yuri Smirnov, and Yuri Trutnev. The fruit of their labors – which they had to design and build in just a matter of 15 weeks – was the Big Ivan, the three-stage thermonuclear device that was 24 feet in length. It was officially designated as an AN602 hydrogen bomb.

Because of the time constraint, only such bomb was ever made and then, just barely.

Weighing 27 tons, the Big Ivan was as heavy as the Tu-95 that carried it. Additionally, it was so huge that the crew members had to cut the bomb-bay doors of the plane carrying it just to fit it in.

And on October 30, 1961, at exactly 11:32 AM, just as Khrushchev demanded. Big Ivan was dropped down from Andrei Durnovtsev’s plane at a height of 6.5 miles and steadily parachuted its way to the Mityushikha Bay test range in Novaya Zemlya. The world’s biggest bomb exploded at an altitude of 2.5 miles giving the plane merely 188 seconds to escape.

The Result

The fireball resulting from the explosion of Big Ivan.
The fireball resulting from the explosion of Big Ivan.

The fireball caused by the explosion of Big Ivan had a radius of nearly 8 kilometers, with its mushroom cloud reaching the height of 64 kilometers. The light coming from the reaction was seen from over one thousand kilometers away while the force of the bomb’s explosion registered a 5.0 on the Richter scale. Furthermore, the resulting shock wave from the bomb’s explosion could still be detected after it had circled the earth twice, it generated air pressures that topped 300 PSI and even cracked windows in Finland and Norway, countries which were 900 kilometers away from the testing site.

The Big Ivan mushroom cloud
The Big Ivan mushroom cloud

Meanwhile, the empty buildings in the abandoned town of Severny which was fifty-five kilometers away from the site where Big Ivan was dropped off were leveled to the ground. Later inspections revealed that ground zero had, reportedly, the texture of a skating rink.

As one eyewitness later recounted:

“The clouds beneath the aircraft and in the distance were lit up by the powerful flash. The sea of light spread under the hatch and even clouds began to glow and became transparent. At that moment, our aircraft emerged from between two cloud layers and down below in the gap, a huge bright orange ball was emerging. The ball was powerful and arrogant like Jupiter. Slowly and silently it crept upwards…. Having broken through the thick layer of clouds, it kept growing. It seemed to suck the whole earth into it. The spectacle was fantastic, unreal, supernatural.”

What’s more, all this was only half of what Big Ivan was really capable of doing.

For one, it possessed the design and was really built to deliver an astounding 100 megaton payload. Additionally, the Tsar Bomba was supposed to make use of fast-fissioning uranium tampers on its second and third stages. This would have caused a bigger reaction as well as a bigger subsequent energy release. But then, the USSR’s top brass ordered for the tampers to be swapped out and replaced with lead to prevent nuclear fallout from reaching and possibly affecting populated areas within the USSR.

The lead tampers cut Big Ivan’s yield by half and also eliminated 97% of the resulting fallout. Because of this, Big Ivan may have been the biggest and most destructive man-made explosive device, but it also holds one other distinction: being the “cleanest” among all other nuclear weapons being tested.

Fortunately, this record was only relevant for two years as after that time span, the Partial Test Ban Treaty – which put an end to above-ground nuclear weapons tests – was signed and implemented.

All Pictures from Wikipedia, “Fair Use.”