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U.S. Navy Museum Cold War Gallery Lesson Plan
How Linear are Submarine Missiles?
Developed by Tisha Jones, South Central High School, Winterville, North Carolina
2011 Naval Historical Foundation STEM teacher fellowship
  Instructional Goal

In this unit of study students will relate the dimensions and characteristics of submarine ballistic missiles to scatter plots, volume calculations, and linear regression analysis. Students begin the unit by discussing background information on U.S. Navy Fleet Ballistic Missiles and then completing a group activity to build a life size missile model to understand the immense size of these missiles carried in U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarines. Students then read and evaluate a missile data scatter-plot. Next, students calculate missile volumes from given missile dimensions. Finally, students use their data to compare missile volume to the distance a missile travels, determining the relationship between volume and distance.

Background on Submarine Missiles

U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarines also called "boomers" carried various types of Fleet Ballistic Missiles (FBM's) during the Cold War (see figure below). The missiles evolved from the single warhead Polaris A1 and A2 to the multiple warhead Polaris A3 through the independently targetable multiple warhead Poseidon A3 and Trident I C4 to the current Trident II D5 missile. The progression from a single warhead to multiple warheads to independently targetable warheads, described below and shown in the three accompanying videos, provided increased target coverage and required larger missiles.

Polaris A1, named for Polaris, the North Star, was a 2-stage ballistic missile, powered by solid fuel rocket motors. The first successful underwater launching of a Polaris A1 was conducted in 1960. A video of that launch is included in "All Hands TV: SSBN History", 2:13 - 2:45. The one minute video: Polaris Launch: "Our Crucial Deterrent" shows the only test launch with a nuclear detonation at the target point. The Polaris A1 was officially retired from active duty in 1965. It had a 1380 mile range.

The Polaris A2 was similar to the A1 except it was longer, allowing it to carry more fuel which made it heavier and increasing the range to 1730 miles. The A2 was first launched in 1961 and was officially retired in 1974. The first Polaris A2 launch is included in "All Hands TV: SSBN History", 2:46 - 3:22.

The Polaris A3 missile with multiple warheads represented a significantly greater technological advancement over A2 and A1. The first successful launch of the A3 was in 1963. The first Polaris A3 launch is included in "All Hands TV: SSBN History", 3:23 - 3:46. Its longer range of 2880 miles meant that no land target was beyond reach. The A3 missile was retired in 1982.

The Poseidon C3, named after the mythological Greek god of the sea, had its roots in Polaris technology. It increased in size again, with a 2-foot longer length and 20-inch greater diameter. Its multiple warheads, each of which could be targeted separately, improved the effectiveness of the FBM weapons system as a deterrent to the outbreak of a nuclear war. The C3s first successful launching was conducted in 1970. The first Poseidon launch is included in "All Hands TV: SSBN History", 3:47 - 4:32. A two-minute video: Poseidon Launch: "Our Crucial Deterrent" chronicles the Cold War period and Poseidon C3 missile launch. The C3 missile was finally retired in 1992, after the Cold War's end.

The Trident I C4 missile name stems from roman mythology. The Trident I C4 missile is a 3-stage, solid propellant missile. Its advanced propellant provides a 4600 mile range. The Trident 1 C4 missile was test launched in 1977 and was retired in 2005. The C4 missile's first launch is included in "All Hands TV: SSBN History", 4:33 - 5:12.

The Trident II D5 missile is also a 3-stage, solid propellant missile. The Trident II is more sophisticated and larger than its predecessor Trident I: 10 feet longer and 9 inches greater in diameter. The Trident II D5 was first launched in 1989 near the end of the Cold War. The first D5 launch is included in "All Hands TV: SSBN History", 5:13 - 6:08. D5 is the only fleet ballistic missile loaded aboard our 14 Trident-class ballistic missile submarines today.

The purpose of nuclear-warhead tipped fleet ballistic missiles is to deter a nuclear war, and respond if necessary.

Teacher Help
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Video Resources

play videoAll Hands TV: SSBN History:  This 2009 All Hands TV looks at the history of the fleet ballistic submarine (SSBN) nuclear deterrence mission. SSBNs have been providing the US with security for many, many years.

play videoPolaris Launch: "Our Crucial Deterrent" (1973):  The launch of a Polaris A1 submarine launched ballistic missile from the nuclear submarine USS ETHAN ALLEN, and the ensuing nuclear detonation of its warhead, are shown in this clip from the 1973 U.S. Navy film "Our Crucial Deterrent". Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, Photographic Section, UM-23.

play videoPoseidon Launch: "Our Crucial Deterrent" (1973):  The 1972 launch of a Poseidon submarine launched ballistic missile is shown in this clip from the 1973 U.S. Navy film "Our Crucial Deterrent". Source: Naval History and Heritage Command, Photographic Section, UM-23.

Click icon to download Activity in PDF format
Blow Up a Missile

  • Create scale model "cylinders" the size of a D5 missile, using given dimensions
  • Use of simple measuring devices (yard sticks, rulers, measuring tapes)

Although the class is working on the same project, it will be split into about 5 groups. Each group is given the tasks to make one part of the missile. Each group will consist of 5-6 students. As a class you will need the following materials:
  • 1 roll clear painter's plastic (12X400 is plenty)
  • Several pairs of scissors
  • 5 rolls clear packing tape
  • Yard Sticks or Measuring Tapes
  • Box Fans
  1. Discuss as a class the information needed to find the dimensions of the cylinder to build the missile. Discuss the shape as being a cylinder and the 2 dimensional shapes that make a cylinder (rectangle and 2 circles). Using the dimensions: diameter 84 inches and length 44 feet, discuss the amount of painters plastic needed to make each part of the cylinder.
  2. Instruct groups to cut out the pieces necessary to build specific rectangles and circles. Students will cut out each piece and tape it together so that there are no holes (an airtight bubble except the part to insert the box fans). As they are constructing the cylinder, instruct them to write in permanent marker the dimensions of each piece of plastic.
  3. Once students have built their cylinder/missile, find a large area to inflate the missile using the fans (example the gym). Stretch the missile across the floor, insert the box fans and tape the plastic to the box fan so that it is air-tight. Turn the fan on low speed at first then it may be increased as the bubble starts to inflate more. Hold the fan at first, so it does not tip over. As the "bubble" starts to inflate, take a pair of scissors and cut a slit about 3 feet long in another side of the "bubble". Avoid cutting directly across from the box fan. This will prevent the bubble from lifting off the floor. It also serves as a door to get inside if students wish to explore.


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