1964 U.S. atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen belts


1964 U.S. atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen belts
Friday, 8 December 2000, 9:37 PM EST
U.S physics blunder almost ended space programs
By Richard Sale, Terrorism Correspondent

WASHINGTON (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 system.

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 capability.”

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.”

Copyright 2000 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

Posted to Flyby News – 21 December 2000

[Note the memorandum below in Comments from Stephen Schwartz, Publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the article by Richard Sale, which was posted in NucNews archive.]

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8 Responses to 1964 U.S. atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen belts

  1. flybynews says:

    From: Stephen Schwartz, Publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    URL Source: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/NucNews/conversations/messages/3159

    To: File

    From: Stephen Schwartz, Publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

    Re: Analysis and correction of December 8, 2000 UPI article

    “U.S. physics blunder almost ended space programs.”

    Date: January 24, 2001

    On December 8, 2000, United Press International published an article by Richard Sale under the headline, “U.S. physics blunder almost ended space programs” (available at: http://www.vny.com/cf/news/upidetail.cfm?QID=142886). The story came to the attention of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists via an electronic mail message on December 20, 2000.

    The story claimed, “In 1964, a U.S. atomic bomb blast in the Van Allen belts surrounding the earth almost permanently ended the U.S. space program.” The source for this information was identified as “retired Gen. Ken Hannegan of the Defense Nuclear Agency” who “spoke recently with United Press International.”

    The second paragraph of the story continued, “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 Nagasaki 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.”

    The detonation, said to be part of “Project Century,” took place at an altitude of 300 to 400 miles above the earth’s surface and “unexpectedly disabled U.S. and Soviet satellites,” according to “former Lockheed scientist Maxwell Hunter, who worked on the program.” General Hannegan is further paraphrased as saying that the “trapped radiation knocked out all American and Soviet equipment that passed through it” and then quoted as saying, “The area was militarily neutral.”

    There are, unfortunately, numerous discrepancies with this story.

    First, Ken Hannegan is in fact Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Hagemann, who headed the DNA from 1992 until his retirement in 1995. I tracked him down and asked him about the article.

    Gen. Hagemann said he was completely unfamiliar with the story and denied talking to Sale or anyone from UPI since his retirement in 1995. He added that he was not even in the military in 1964 and had no direct knowledge of the program or of the test in question. In a telephone conversation with me in late December, Sale confirmed that he interviewed Hagemann on November 16, 2000, during a reception at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis in Crystal City, Virginia. During this interview, Hagemann told Sale that he believed (as opposed to knew with certainty) the test in question occurred in 1964. As I outline below, there are a number of other reliable sources that confirm the dates and circumstances surrounding the events in question.

    I also contacted Dr. Maxwell Hunter. Hunter confirmed that he “probably did some talking” to Sale although he admitted that “my memory is not too good” and that he could not recall all of the details of what he discussed with Sale (which is not surprising as the interview apparently took place some years ago). Hunter said he first saw the article in an e-mail and was “startled” by it. While he said he was familiar with the high altitude tests, he agreed that the United States would not have conducted a nuclear weapons test in space in 1964.

    Following the entry into force of the Partial Test Ban Treaty on October 10, 1963, the United States (along with the Soviet Union and Great Britain) ceased all nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. Article I of the Treaty states (in part):

    “Each of the Parties to this Treaty undertakes to prohibit, to prevent, and not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion, at any place under its jurisdiction or control:

    (a) in the atmosphere; beyond its limits, including outer space; or under water, including territorial waters or high seas; or

    (b) in any other environment if such explosion causes radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control such explosion is conducted. . . .”

    An atmospheric nuclear explosion of any kind in 1964 would have been a gross violation of the treaty and would have subjected the United States to worldwide condemnation (especially if it led to widespread and long-lasting damage to satellites of other nations). That this did not occur is strong evidence that such a test never took place in 1964.

    Nevertheless, the United States did indeed conduct very high altitude nuclear weapons tests. The first of these was the Teak shot (part of Operation HARDTACK I), detonated on August 1, 1958, 252,000 feet above Johnston Island. The explosion of a 3.8 megaton W39 warhead was sponsored by the Department of Defense as part of a study of anti-ballistic missile weapons effects. The flash from the explosion was visible 700 miles away in Hawaii.

    Between August 27, 1958 and September 6, 1958, the United States conducted Operation ARGUS about 1,100 miles southwest of Capetown, South Africa. This was the only clandestine test series conducted during the entire 17-year period of post-war atmospheric nuclear testing. Specially modified Lockheed X-17a three-stage ballistic missiles were fired from the USS Norton Sound, each carrying a low yield (1.5 kiloton) W25 warhead. Detonation occurred at about 300 miles altitude. The test series was intended to provide information on the trapping of electrically charged particles in the earth’s magnetic field. Such information, it was hoped, would help war planners assess how very high altitude nuclear detonations could interfere with communications and radar equipment, as well as ballistic missile performance.

    Operation ARGUS validated the theory put forth in 1957 by Nicholas Christofilos of Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). According to NASA (www-spof.gsfc.nasa.gov/Education/whtrap1.html#Argus) and Department of Energy (www.osti.gov/historicalfilms/opentext/data/0800027.html) web sites, Christofilos proposed to create a radiation belt in the upper regions of the Earth’s atmosphere by small high-altitude detonations. The NASA site states, “The bombs indeed produced many high-energy electrons. Some of these were guided upwards along magnetic field lines, followed those lines across the equator and came down again near the Azores islands, where a remarkable artificial aurora was seen, in a region where no auroras had ever been observed before. Other electrons mirrored above the atmosphere and stayed trapped, creating artificial radiation belts which gradually decayed in the matter of weeks.”

    Although Operation ARGUS was conducted in total secrecy, word soon leaked out. The New York Times published an article about the test series on March 19, 1959. A collection of articles on Operation ARGUS appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research in August 1959 (vol. 64). In a 1997 report produced for its 50th anniversary, the Defense Special Weapons Agency (successor to the Defense Nuclear Agency) had this to say about Operation ARGUS: “Operation ARGUS, conducted in 1958 by the U.S. Navy with DASA [Defense Atomic Support Agency] and Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) support, verified the ‘Christofilos effect’ in which fission decay electrons become trapped, creating man-made radiation belts. The idea of using these belts as a shield against potential ballistic missile attack was not feasible, since the earth’s magnetic field was too weak to form sufficiently intense radiation belts. ARGUS did, however, indicate that semiconductor circuits were vulnerable to degradation by recurring passage through trapped electron belts. Some space satellites failed in the aftermath of the 1958 tests. DASA pursued techniques to reduce vulnerabilities of electronic components and to improve the endurance of satellite communications and other space systems.”

    Another U.S. high altitude weapons test also produced spectacular results. The Starfish Prime test took place on July 9, 1962 (local time). A Thor rocket was launched from Johnston Island carrying a 1.45 megaton W49 thermonuclear warhead. When the warhead detonated at a height of 248 miles, it unexpectedly lit up the night skies all over Hawaii-hundreds of miles away-for six minutes. The electromagnetic pulse from the blast (then a largely unexplored phenomenon) shorted out power lines and street lights and set off burglar alarms. Auroras, some lasting as long as 15 minutes, were seen across the central Pacific. Observers on Kwajalein Atoll, about 1,600 miles to the west, witnessed a seven-minute atmospheric light show. In the second to last paragraph of the December 8th article, Sale writes, “So why did the earlier Starfish blunder occur?” This is the only reference to Starfish (perhaps attributable to poor editing), but it appears to refer to the test described above.

    Starfish Prime was one of a series of tests known as the Fishbowl series conducted as part of Operation DOMINIC. The Fishbowl series was sponsored by the Department of Defense for the purpose of studying how ICBMs, radars, and communications equipment operate in a nuclear (or high radiation) environment.

    The United States did have an active anti-satellite program that envisioned using Thor rockets carrying nuclear warheads into space to disable or destroy Soviet satellites. The Air Force system, known as Program 437, ultimately had 16 launches from Johnston Island between February 14, 1964 and September 24, 1970 (only six of which were “combat test launches”).

    Five of these tests occurred in 1964, but none of them involved a live nuclear warhead. As Paul Stares wrote in The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945-1984 (Cornell University Press, 1985, p. 123), “With the prevailing Test Ban Treaty, this was never tested, and therefore estimates of the performance of the interception were provided by instrumentation in the nose cone of the missile and from the launch site.”

    A fascinating 1999 documentary by filmmaker Peter Kuran, “Nukes In Space: The Rainbow Bombs,” utilizes recently declassified government footage to tell the story of U.S. high-altitude nuclear detonations. More information about the film is available here: http://www.vce.com/nukes.html That film notes that Starfish Prime disabled several U.S., French, and British satellites. Mr. Byron Ristvet of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency appears on camera discussing the purpose and implications of these tests.

    To sum up, here are the facts:

    q To the best of my knowledge, based on the well-documented history of U.S. nuclear tests, there was no high-altitude nuclear test in 1964. It would appear that Gen. Hagemann, Dr. Hunter, and the “writer from Aviation Week” are all mistaken. It seems exceedingly unlikely that such a test-with such wide-reaching effects-could have been kept secret for more than three decades. Based upon the information in Sale’s article and the statements of Gen. Hagemann and Dr. Hunter, the test in question would appear to be the Starfish Prime test of July 9, 1962, although some of the effects mentioned by Sale’s sources occurred during Operation ARGUS in 1958. Furthermore, Starfish Prime used a 1.45 megaton thermonuclear weapon, not a 50 kiloton weapon, and the devices for ARGUS were only 1.5 kilotons.

    q Sale’s article implies that only now are we learning of the effects of these tests when, as has been pointed out above, the effects were reported within the scientific community and the general press at the time of the tests or shortly thereafter. There was in fact a great deal of public discussion of the effects of high-altitude explosions following the Starfish Prime test. In fact, the public outcry over the effects of these tests was such that the Kennedy administration canceled a test planned for the Fishbowl series that was to have been detonated at an altitude of 500 miles.

    q Neither Operation ARGUS nor Starfish Prime had any connection with anti-satellite weapons and, indeed, the United States never launched and detonated a live nuclear warhead in conjunction with the 1964 tests of its rudimentary Thor-based anti-satellite system.

    q I can find no references to a “Project Century” in the literature on this topic, though that is not proof that such a project did not exist.

    q The point at which the Van Allen belts come closest to the earth is over the South Atlantic Ocean and is known as the South Atlantic anomaly. This is why Operation ARGUS was conducted there in 1958. Dr. Hunter’s statement that, “We wanted to fill up the belts at the point where they were closest to earth” does not make sense if he is referring to a test launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific.

    q According to published sources, the effects from both Operation ARGUS and Starfish Prime were short-lived and dissipated in a matter of days to weeks. While controversial, these high-altitude tests never came close to “permanently end[ing] the U.S. space program” nor did they disable large numbers of satellites.

    q Sale’s comment that “Air Force officials told UPI that for years the Soviets had a “battle ready” ground-based laser at Saryshagan [sic]. . .” is
    misleading. The facility at Sary Shagan was often portrayed in Soviet Military Power in the 1980s as a significant and highly capable facility. Yet when Western observers (including three members of Congress and two physicists) visited the site in July 1989, they discovered a laser capable of only low power operations (about two kilowatts) that posed little if any threat to U.S. military assets.

    q The now voluminous record of the creation and development of the Strategic Defense Initiative does not support Sale’s quotation from an anonymous “State Dept. analyst” that “the whole Star Wars system of the Reagan presidency was the result of Soviets’ messing around with our satellites’.” I have never seen or read anything indicating that the program arose as a response to Soviet interference with U.S. satellites.

    The purpose of SDI, as with its predecessor missile defense programs starting in the 1950s, was to destroy enemy ballistic missiles. SDI had little if any connection to anti-satellite weaponry and, in fact, would have been extremely vulnerable to anti-satellite attacks.

    On December 30, 2000, UPI published a follow-up article by Sale entitled, “Space Blast Date Challenged” (available at: http://www.vny.com/cf/news/upidetail.cfm?QID=148342 That article quoted and paraphrased extensively from an earlier version of this memo. The article also noted that sources for the original story did not agree on when the test occurred.

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  6. Alan Braganza says:

    At least in this instance of bomb detonation, it was learned that plasma physics is not to be carelessly used with bombs detonated at slightest will; all such nuclear weapons will destroy all living cells including those of the detonators, the ones measurably, starting any of it.

    There is better thinking to enable life, that must be put into action, repeatedly.

    Better thinking somehow forces measures for better prevention and better interventions for having amicable nuclear power interrelationships globally.

    Hindsight being 20/20 also hopefully won’t be blinded as a consequence of anger, tensions and carelessness.

    There is so much to share among humans and to collectively accomplish on a healthy planet globally. Starting with allowing regard for animal life dignity, in nature and allowing alternatives to all animals in all human industries, may just be the most sensible decision to see through to fruition.

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