A Brief History
On July 9, 1962, the United States Defense Atomic Support Agency and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) launched a rocket from a remote Pacific Ocean island called Johnston Island (Or Johnston Atoll), a rocket carrying a thermonuclear bomb (aka, Hydrogen Bomb) into space. The Thor rocket carried a W49 thermonuclear warhead, a 1.4 megaton yield device, that was detonated 250 miles above the Earth, about 900 miles West-Southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The blast took place about 11 pm local time in Hawaii.
This particular nuclear test in space was called Starfish Prime, an operation within the larger Fishbowl testing series which itself was an operation within the larger Operation Dominic that included 5 nuclear blasts in space in order to study the effects of nuclear explosions in space. A Soviet announcement in August of 1961, that they would end their moratorium on nuclear testing in space, a pause that had lasted 3 years and was matched by the United States. In fact, before temporarily halting nuclear testing in space, the US had conducted 6 tests of nuclear explosions in space during 1958. Please note that the first man-made object launched into space was Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957, meaning the USSR and US did not waste any time at all in adapting nuclear weapons into their respective space programs! The US nuclear space tests in 1958 were not well documented as the appropriate instrumentation had not yet been developed. By 1961, American scientists were much better equipped to properly study the effects of nuclear detonations in space.
An earlier Fishbowl test called Bluegill was aborted and blown up in flight, and the first Starfish test was also aborted in flight. While these aborted flights did not result in a nuclear blast, the weapons were destroyed in the air and radioactive chunks fell back to the Earth, mainly into the Pacific Ocean, but some residue falling on Johnston Island as well. While the Starfish Prime blast almost exactly matched the predicted yield, scientists had grossly underestimated the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by the blast. The strong EMP cause some of the instruments to go haywire and even blew out streetlights in Honolulu about 900 miles away! Other electrical damage occurred in Hawaii, including burglar alarms being set off, a telephone microwave station damaged, and other electrical equipment damaged.
Starfish Prime was monitored by much more than just the ground team on Johnston Island. Numerous US Navy ships were in the area to provide electronic observation of the event, and 27 other rockets had been launched with various instruments in support of the test. Of course, the curious Soviets made sure to have electronic surveillance ships at sea in order to also keep tabs on the US test.
Not only did the EMP effect travel hundreds of miles, the visible light from the blast in space provided illumination for New Zealand military maneuvers about 3600 miles away! The light from the explosion did not last long, however, with visible light only around for 400 seconds. The initial white flash was followed by an extended period of red colored light.
Of course, the Starfish Prime nuclear test and other associated nuclear tests in space were conducted primarily for military purposes, although a radioactive tracer element had been included in the Starfish Prime test that allowed scientists to study upper atmosphere wind currents afterwards. As soon as the Americans and Soviets had developed the ability to launch items into space, both sides immediately worked on using space rockets as nuclear delivery means. In fact, the US actually contemplated exploding a nuclear weapon on the Moon during the 1950’s in order to impress and intimidate the Soviets. A military base on the Moon planned for by 1968 was hatched by American military brass in 1958.
In 1963, sanity prevailed for a change, and the US, UK and USSR agreed to a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that ended the explosion of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, meaning above ground on the Earth and also in space. In 1967, the US, UK, and USSR came up with another treaty concerning space and nuclear weapons, formally known as the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” but better known as “The Outer Space Treaty.” While this treaty does not prohibit using space as a location for military satellites, bases, and weapons, it does preclude the use of space as a location to position nuclear weapons and “weapons of mass destruction” ready for launching at the Earth. So far, 132 countries have signed on to the treaty, 23 of which have not finalized ratification.
The motto of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States, is the peaceful sounding, “For the benefit of all.” In spite of this olive branch offering phrase, we know better! Space has always been viewed by the military and power brokers as a means to expand or consolidate military and political power and probably will always be seen just that way by the people in charge. The US, Russia, and China, as well as wannabe space powers all want to gain every advantage possible from space technology. Where will this effort lead? We do not know, do you?
Questions for Students (and others): Should the US be investing effort in developing a “Space Force” as proposed by President Trump? Would the establishment of a US Space Force prompt an arms race in space? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Kalic, Sean. US Presidents and the Militarization of Space, 1946-1967. Texas A&M University Press, 2012.
Mowthorpe, Matthew. The Militarization and Weaponization of Space. Lexington Books, 2003.
Wolverton, Mark. Burning the Sky: Operation Argus and the Untold Story of the Cold War Nuclear Tests in Outer Space. Harry N. Abrams, 2018.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the explosion of Starfish Prime seen through a thick layer of clouds from Honolulu from http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Dominic.html, in the public domain in the United States, because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.