Star wars

Cold War-era nuclear space racemakes for explosive reading


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It may have been a Cold War, but when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, proving it had an operational intercontinental ballistic missile, it set off a heated game of nuclear one-upmanship complete with outlandish, if ingenious, plans involving nuclear tests in space.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/02/2019 (1331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It may have been a Cold War, but when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, proving it had an operational intercontinental ballistic missile, it set off a heated game of nuclear one-upmanship complete with outlandish, if ingenious, plans involving nuclear tests in space.

The United States and Soviet Union were desperate to alleviate the threat of nuclear destruction by the other, even if, as in the case of the U.S., it meant top-secret research that involved launching nuclear warheads on unreliable rockets from the deck of a ship in stormy winter waters.

All this went on as negotiators from both nations met in Geneva, attempting to reach a test ban treaty.

Is it any wonder the details of that operation remained classified until recently? Not only was it scientifically challenging, it threatened nuclear catastrophe if one of the tests went awry.

Science writer Mark Wolverton, whose work includes A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer and The Depths of Space: the Story of the Pioneer Planetary Probes, has written a well-researched, fast-paced history of U.S. nuclear testing in space, mainly Operation Argus in 1958 and Operation Fishbowl in 1962.

The main players in these space tests were world-famous astronomer and physicist James Van Allen, who discovered highly charged particle belts circling the Earth, and self-taught nuclear engineer Nicholas Christofilos, who posited that artificial nuclear belts could be created as a shield from nuclear attacks.

Christofilos, dubbed the crazy Greek, sold his idea as a method of detonating Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as they passed through the belt.

The Sputnik scare was enough for U.S. military and political leaders to approve Christofilos’s Operation Argus, but the potential dangers were enough to keep the plan under wraps.

The Associated Press files The speed and range of the Soviet rocket carrying the Sputnik I satellite, seen here in a 1957 photo, spurred the American scientific and military communities into action.

While Van Allen was a conventional scientist with good credentials who ran a prestigious university research lab, Christofilos was a maverick who, as an inquisitive child, learned by making mechanical contraptions and who, while forced to work for the Nazis as a supervisor of vehicle mechanics during the occupation of Greece, took advantage of German textbooks and scientific journals he had access to.

Born in Boston but relocated to Greece at age seven when his parents returned home, Christofilos wanted to become an electrical engineer and return to Boston to attend MIT.

However his circumstances and individualistic temperament meant he couldn’t take the accepted pathways to establishing himself in scientific and academic circles.

He didn’t have old friends from grad school to discuss ideas with, or former teachers or mentors to call on for advice or job leads. He couldn’t dazzle the scientific establishment with prestigious degrees, but he could do it through audacious inventiveness, starting with the design and operation of particle accelerators.

While working at the University of California’s Livermore Radiation Laboratory, the unorthodox Christofilos realized the Sputnik satellite orbiting the Earth and sending beeping signals back was not the real problem facing the U.S. and the Western world in general.

US Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons In this 1958 photo, an X-17 rocket with a nuclear warhead is seen aboard the USS Norton Sound during Operation Argus testing.

The problem was the rocket that carried Sputnik into space, one with the ability to hurl a hydrogen warhead over the North Pole and down onto the U.S. There was no way to intercept missiles travelling at such high speeds.

He developed his theory of the radiation belt to detonate incoming warheads in space and presented it to scientific and military officials in a highly classified paper: On the Possibility of Establishing a Plasma Shield of Relativistic Electrons in the Exosphere of the Earth as a Defense against Ballistic Missiles. The title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but Christofilos made his intentions clear.

The wheels of scientific and military bureaucracy don’t move quickly, but Christofilos’s Operation Argus finally got the go-ahead. It and the later Operation Fishbowl, designed to test the effects of electromagnetic pulses created by nuclear detonations, were put through their paces, which included misfiring rockets and severe storms.

While the research projects were never implemented as military tactics, they show to what lengths the U.S. government was willing to go, what environmental catastrophes it was willing to risk, in the supercharged nuclear proliferation era.

Wolverton does a splendid job of relating the controversial story of an outlandish, grandiose experiment using the Earth’s atmosphere as a lab. It is scientifically detailed, but full of politics and personalities as well.

NASA / The New York Times files In this February 1958 photo taken in Washington, D.C., James Van Allen (centre), William H. Pickering (left) and Wernher von Braun hold up a model of Explorer 1, the first American craft to orbit Earth. Van Allen was one of the key players in American nuclear space tests.

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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