U.S physics blunder almost ended space programs

Friday, 8 December 2000
By Richard Sale, UPI Terrorism Correspondent

 WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- In 1964, a U.S atomic bomb blast in the Van
Allen belts surrounding the earth almost permanently ended the U.S. space
program, according to retired Gen. Ken Hannegan of the Defense Nuclear
Agency. Hannegan spoke recently with United Press International.

 Hannegan acknowledged that during a 1964 test for a new U.S.
anti-satellite weapon system, the United States fired an atomic bomb of
about 50 KT (or two and a half times the strength of the Nakasaki bomb) in
the Van Allen belts  -- areas of radiation and charged particles which
surround the earth's upper atmosphere and which are held in place by the
earth's magnetic field.

 According to former Lockheed scientist Maxwell Hunter, who worked on the
program, "It was a military idea -- that you might be able to create a
weapon by artificially pumping up radiation in the belts by detonating
explosions in them and trapping the radiation."

 In the 1960s, prodded by concerns over a Soviet orbital bombing threat,
the U.S. Air Force had begun work on a nuclear-armed direct ascent
anti-satellite system targeted at Soviet low-altitude satellites. The
project was based on Kwajalein Island in the Pacific. Another companion
effort was based on Johnston Island, which is due east, and a little north
of the Marshall Islands. The Johnston Island testing used nuclear-armed Thor
intermediate range ballistic missiles, according to Hunter and other former
Lockheed officials who asked not to be named.

 Richard Freeman, a former vice president of Rockwell International and
E-Systems, who was involved in many military "black curtain" or secret U.S.
space programs, said that Johnston was picked because its location was
excellent for interception Soviet satellites on their first orbital passes.

 In a test that was part of a program called Project Century, the atomic
bomb was exploded at an altitude of between 300 to 400 miles, "not a high
shot," said Hunter. "We wanted to fill up the belts at the point where they
were closest to earth."

 But the effect was totally unplanned for.

 "It unexpectedly disabled U.S. and Soviet satellites," Hunter said,
adding, "You have to remember that we had very primitive satellites in those
days that lacked any protective shields."

 But another effect became extremely disconcerting. Hunter said that the
bomb blast loaded the belts longitudinally in a pie shape from pole to pole.
But where the Air Force had expected the radiation from the blast to remain
in the belts for only two days, "There was a trapped radiation phenomena" --
in other words, the extraordinarily high radiation levels refused to
disperse. In fact, Hunter said, the energy from the A-bomb blast stayed in
the belts "for over a year, maybe more." Hannegan said that the trapped
radiation knocked out all American and Soviet equipment that passed through
it. "The area was militarily neutral," said Hannegan.

 Hunter said a dispute then broke out within the military and scientific
community. "There were discussions about us having poisoned space for good,
about having destroyed all satellites. An equal number of scientists
disagreed, but everyone agreed that such a weapon would only end up blinding
ourselves," he said.

 One effect of the panic was the strengthening of U.S. satellites against
radiation that in the end would help shield them from ground-based laser
attacks. According to U.S. intelligence sources, who asked not to be named,
such attacks damaged super-sophisticated American spy satellites deployed to
monitor missile and spacecraft launches at the major Russian space center.

 These sources said that the Soviets fired ground-based lasers to cripple
sensitive optical equipment attempting to scan launches at Tyuratam to
obtain a variety of sensitive military information including payloads and
throw weights. The Soviet laser "hosings" of costly satellites, details of
which remain classified, occurred throughout the 1980s and into the early
1990s, and sent U.S. scientists scrambling to shield the space surveillance

 According to a former Senate Intelligence Committee chief of staff, Angelo
Codevilla, the Soviets regularly "pulsed" or targeted lasers on U.S.
satellites. A senior Air Force official said that the U.S. had decided to
keep evidence of the laser attacks hushed up for a variety of reasons.

 The official said that first, it makes our equipment "look bad" but more
important, the United States has used the collective evidence as a
bargaining chip in strategic arms limitation talks. "U.S. negotiators say,
look, we know this is happening and we are willing to make it public if you
don't give us this or that concession," said the official.

 In 1976, a KH-11 or Code 1010 satellite was "painted" by a Soviet laser
and sustained "permanent damage," according to a senior Air Force official.
This source said that such paintings continued into the late 1980s.

 According to U.S. intelligence sources, the attempt to use U.S. satellites
to view launches at Tyuratem, stemmed from concern over the Soviet launch of
"killer satellites" that would be used in the event of war. Although U.S.
air defense radar is capable of tracking the smallest objects orbiting
Earth, if a satellite is inactive or "dark" the Pentagon does not become
aware of its mission until it becomes activated, and by then it's too late.

 These Pentagon sources said it was common practice for the Soviets to
launch satellites three at a time with only two becoming immediately active.
Such dark satellites are highly unlikely to be identified as a threat, these
U.S. analysts said.

 Air Force officials told UPI that for years the Soviets had a
"battle-ready" ground-based laser at Saryshagan that they said they believed
had been involved in past blindings of U.S. spacecraft.

 When the Soviet Union dissolved, it was in the process of building a new
battle-ready laser at Nurek in Tadzhikstan and a second 500 miles away at
Khazakstan in the Caucasus Mountains. Four more ground laser battle stations
were planned, one begun on mountains near Dushanbe and another between Nruek
and Dushambe and two more at unidentified areas. A Pentagon source said the
collapse of the Soviet Union prevented their being completed.

 But the result of the "hosings" of U.S. equipment was positive. The United
States moved quickly to install laser warning receivers on its newest
generation of low-orbit spacecraft, U.S. intelligence sources said. The
receivers have allowed time for evasive action and have assisted ground
controllers seeking to prove the Soviets had inflicted the damage.

 One State Dept. analyst said that the whole Star Wars system of the Reagan
presidency was the result of Soviets "messing around with our satellites."

 And although official U.S. policy was not to interfere with Soviet
satellites, the U.S. scientists often targeted Soviet spacecraft trying to
observe the launch of U.S. missiles involved in a Defense Research Projects
Agency program at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. U.S. scientists
targeted the Soviet satellites with beams from ground-based facilities in
Maui and Oahu, Hawaii and San Juan Capistrano, Calif., according to former
Air Force officials.

 Although most "hosings" of Soviet craft were used for "range finding
purposes," Richard Freeman said that the Capistrano facility, which has
since moved to Cloud Croft, N.M. "possessed "a full anti-satellite

 Freeman added: "If we didn't' damage Soviet equipment, it wasn't because
we weren't trying." The U.S. has since moved to jam Russian satellite radio
communications to ground stations, he said.

 So why did the earlier Starfish blunder occur? "We didn't know enough yet
about plasma physics," said Hannegan. "We just didn't understand it yet."

 But former military space expert, Clarence Robinson said that the reason
the United States probably stopped such testing was because it discovered
"that there isn't anything you do to the enemy that you don't end up doing
to yourself."

CDI provides more background on Space War