WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 -- 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."