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U.S. Navy Museum Cold War Gallery Lesson Plan
On the Brink of Nuclear War: Projectile Motion and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Developed by John Clark, Physics Teacher and Military Historian, Deltona High School, Deltona, FL
2012 Naval Historical Foundation STEM-H Teacher Fellowship
  Instructional Goal

Skip the sports analogies and offer an integrated, standards based lesson combining Cold War history and the physics of projectile motion to land a missile on target in defense of our nation. With the included activities your students will learn about projectile motion and the importance of precision and accuracy, and the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Students will learn that, with projectile motion, the movement along the x and y access are independent of each other with only the force of gravity acting on the projectile once launched, then work problems related to determining the range of a missile given certain parameters. They will also learn that good problem solving can prevent the launch of projectiles.

Background:  The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962

Often referred to as the "height of the Cold War" the Cuban missile crisis came about in October 1962 when the Soviet Union was discovered installing missile launch sites in the country of Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States. From that proximity a Soviet nuclear missile could quickly reach and destroy a city anywhere along the eastern seaboard causing extensive loss of life and property - a vulnerability to attack that the U.S. Government could not tolerate. As we saw with the events of 9/11, an attack on the United States would bring public cries for immediate retaliation and World War III could begin. It was a war both sides knew they could not really "win" as each had enough nuclear warheads to wipe out every major city in the others country. Life as Americans and Soviets currently lived would cease to exist, with each side dealing with loss of life in the millions and the complete destruction of the infrastructure of each country. Both sides also knew that the pride of each country might cause them to face total destruction rather than capitulate to the actions of the other side.

An American spy plane (called the U-2) on patrol over Cuba collected intelligence photos of the launch site construction. The information quickly made its way to the top military commanders and the President of the United States at the time, John F. Kennedy. U.S. leaders were faced with a choice: allow the installations to continue and live with the threat or confront the Soviet government and demand their removal. For 13 tense days negotiations and military readiness for war between the two countries ebbed and flowed. Both sides understood the ramifications of a nuclear attack but diplomatic negotiations had not produced a scenario where each side could save face.

The U.S. navy played a key role during this crisis. On the surface, the Navy carried out the President's order to quarantine missiles and associated supplies from reaching Cuba, essentially a blockade, preventing the components for completion of the missile sites from reaching the island nation. Under the sea, Navy submarines patrolled the oceans ready to launch nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union if a war broke out. Their unknown locations insured that attacks from the Soviet Union would not likely stop the submarine threat before a retaliatory strike could be carried out in defense of the United States.

While there was a recurring belief that we were right on the brink of nuclear destruction the crisis came to a peaceful outcome. When the Soviet ships faced the U.S. Naval blockade they turned back. As the press reported at the time, the Soviet Union and its leader, Nikita Khrushchev, "blinked". Shortly after that point, the missile based were taken apart and shipped back to the Soviet Union. U.S. Airborne photography confirmed the presents of the missiles and the missile launchers on ships sailing from Cuba. In return for removal of the missiles the United States agreed not to invade Cuba.

The release of classified documents released many years later revealed that the two nations were much closer to nuclear war than was even reported in the press. Direct communication had been carried out between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, a level of negotiations unheard of, in an effort to avert war. It was also revealed that the United States had agreed to remove missile bases located in Turkey which were a threat to the Soviet Union, but at a later time so that the events would not appear to be connected. It was a negotiating concession that allowed both sides to report "victory."

Teacher Help
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The Cuban Missile Crisis:  www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Cuban-Missile-Crisis.aspx and Cordon of Steel:  The U.S. Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis by Curtis Utz. No. 1 in the series The U.S. Navy in the Modern World.

Projectile motion explanation, formulas, and practice problems:  www.physics247.com/physics-homework-help/projectile-motion.php.

Click icon to download Activity in PDF format
Missiles Away (Physics)


Students will solve projectile motion problems by determining how far away a U.S. nuclear submarine could launch its missiles and still hit the target. Students will see how advances in technology allowed Navy submarines to patrol closer and closer to home as newer missiles extended the maximum effective range.


Student Handout for activity and calculators


Students will provided operational characteristics for six different submarine launched ballistic missiles and asked to calculate the maximum range of the missile by examining the missile's movement along the x and y axis.

This activity is for a basic physics class with simplified math. All launches take place at the optimum launch angle of 45 degrees. The acceleration phase of the solid rocket boosters is complete, and the "initial" velocity of the missile is provided to the student.

NOTE: Activity Two integrates Common Core English Language Art and Social Studies Standards into a discussion and literacy activity to introduce students to the ramification of historical events associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War.


Technology advances in missile design provided six different nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for use in Navy ballistic missile submarines during the Cold War. Each one was more powerful and went further than its predecessor. This increased ranged changed the areas where American submarines patrolled. Given their calculations of maximum range for each missile, students are to determine where on the Atlantic Ocean a submarine could be and still land a missile on target on Moscow. Students will need a compass to draw a semi-circle to estimate the maximum range of locations the submarine could launch from. (Hint: To compensate for the curve of the earth the circles will be draw around London. Subtract the distance of London to Moscow from your total missile range and use the remaining distance to plot your location from London).


What was a major disadvantage of the Polaris A1 missile?

What advantage did the submarine fleet gain when the Polaris A2 replaced the Polaris A1?

If three missiles have the same range what would be a strategic reason to upgrade?

Given three missiles had the same range, what changed in the mathematical relationship between acceleration and time? Why would the weapons designers want to do that?

What strategic advantage did the new Trident D5 provide for U.S. Navy submarines? (Hint: the distance from Moscow to Anchorage is 7,025 Km.)



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