Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 2

Last time in this series, we talked about Operation Clusterfuck Crossroads. You may remember that the testing was halted after only two nuclear detonations, due to no one having a goddamn clue what they were doing. So, with the testing cut short, one vital question remained unanswered: wouldn’t it be cool to detonate a nuke half a mile underwater?

The answer to that question would have to wait nearly a decade, until memory of Operation Crossroads had faded. And then, finally, the dream of a deep-water nuclear test would be revived in Operation Wigwam. Why Wigwam? Because the atomic bomb was invented too late to contribute to the genocide of Native Americans, but we can still nuke them in spirit.

So in May of 1955, a Mark 90 nuclear device was taken five hundred miles off the coast of San Diego and suspended by cable from a barge. Video from the test can be found here.

5/6th scale model submarines—codenamed “Squaws,” because let’s really rub it in, guys—were deployed to gauge the effect of an underwater detonation on enemy subs. The detonation went largely unnoticed, though it was picked up on seismological instruments across the Pacific and a cargo ship leaving San Francisco radioed in to ask if there’d been an earthquake.

The test was better planned than Crossroads and the personnel better prepared, but they still didn’t exactly have their shit together. One of the observation ships lost power due to damage from the blast, remaining within the danger zone for longer than the test plan called for, and the crew apparently had to shelter in the center of the ship during the four hours it took to make repairs.

The Navy cheerfully reported no dead marine animals observed after the test. This claim was made in the same report in which they claimed 100% of radioactive materials were contained to the ocean, which makes me think they just weren’t looking very hard. In the months following the test, a radioactive fish was detected during spot checks at a cannery on the West Coast, but the Navy blamed it on contamination from a test the previous year—as if that made it better. There was no word, naturally, on how many radioactive fish entered the food supply because they hadn't been spot-checked.

Flush with the afterglow of blowing up the ocean with a nuclear device, the Department of Defense started to wonder what it would be like to blow up the upper atmosphere. And in the spring and summer of 1958, they did exactly that as part of Operation Hardtack.

The high altitude portion of Hardtack, codenamed Newsreel for obvious reasons, was a disaster even on its own terms. In its first high altitude test, codenamed Yucca, a bomb was suspended from a balloon fifteen miles above the surface. The bomb detonated as planned, but the desired data was not acquired because the scientific instruments suspended below it were not turned on at the time of detonation. Well shit man, what do you expect, perfection?

The next test, codenamed Teak, was sent up by rocket and intended to detonate over the Pacific, off the coast of Johnston Island at an altitude of 250,000 feet. Unfortunately, someone must have misplaced a decimal point or confused imperial for metric, because this is what actually happened:

Yeah, you guys might want to put some aloe on that. But hey, third time’s the charm, right? So testing continued according to schedule and the Orange test was conducted at an altitude intermediate to the first two tests. It went better than the first two, but it could only have gone worse if someone accidentally left the warhead under their desk.

In the end, however, I’m sure that plenty of valuable data was gathered from these experiments, as shown by whatever the fuck is going on in this documentary picture of an actual Operation Newsreel researcher:

No, seriously. What the fuck is going on here?

But you know what the upside of fucking up your high altitude nuclear tests is? You get to do them over and blow up even more nukes in the upper atmosphere! For that matter, why stop at the upper atmosphere when it’s finally within our ability to nuke outer space?

This was the genesis of 1962’s Operation Fishbowl.
It is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.
-U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958
Nah, screw that noise, let’s slip the surly bonds of Earth and fuck some shit up. This time there would be none of the screw-ups from Newsreel. This time, we’d dot our i's and cross our t’s, making sure every single facet of the testing was well understood and every contingency planned for.

Shit, nevermind. We just dropped a nuke into the ocean. My bad. Turns out we really weren’t rocket scientists, after all.

The first planned test, codenamed Bluegill, aborted when they just kinda lost track of the test rocket after launch. With no ability to tell which way the thing was going, the rocket was destroyed remotely, preventing a nuclear detonation but raining bits of its nuclear core over a wide area of the Pacific Ocean.

The second planned test, codenamed Starfish, was not quite as successful as Bluegill, which is saying a lot. Starfish’s rocket motor stopped working at about 30,000 feet and also had to be destroyed remotely. Again, raw uranium and plutonium debris from a thermonuclear device rained down into the Pacific Ocean. Some of this contamination fell on Johnston Island. And yes, that's the same Johnston Island above which a nuke was accidentally detonated during Operation Newsreel.

After that, Operation Fishbowl was given some time to dry out and get its shit together. Three weeks later, it was back with a third test called Starfish Prime. Defying all the odds, Starfish Prime actually worked, detonating a 1.4 megaton warhead at an altitude of 250 miles.

 Starfish explosion as seen from Honolulu

Starfish Prime exceeded all expectation, in the sense that it caused more property damage than any of the operational planners had dared to hope for. The ionizing radiation generated by the blast stripped electrons from atoms in the upper atmosphere and sent them screaming down through the Earth’s magnetic field at a significant fraction of the speed of light. This interaction in turn created an electromagnetic pulse over the central Pacific. The pulse damaged the electrical grid in Hawaii and cut the telephone link to and from Kauai.

Worse still, many of those electrons were deflected along Earth's magnetic field lines and created an artificial radiation belt that wrapped around the globe for five years before finally dissipating. The belt destroyed seven satellites, at a time when there weren’t a whole lot satellites in orbit. Among its victims was the just-launched Telstar 1, the world’s first commercial telecommunications satellite.

And if all this talk of electrons reminds you of an aurora, then you’re probably smart enough to conduct a high altitude nuclear trial, at least by the standards of the 1960’s. Possibly too smart, as some sources claim the artificial aurora resulting from Starfish Prime took the researchers by surprise.

 Starfish aurora seen from Maui.

The aurora stretched two thousand miles, spanning the equator and illuminating a third of the Pacific. The most intense aurora effects lasted only a few minutes, but some of them persisted for days, and were bright enough for the New Zealand Air Force to conduct anti-submarine exercises by.

With seven satellite kills in the pipeline and a man-made light show unlike any seen before, Operation Fishbowl was finally back on track. So naturally, they blew up their next rocket on the launch pad after an engine malfunction and sprayed yet more radioactive plutonium across Johnston Island.

That test was going to be Bluegill Prime, and the next one in line was Bluegill Double Prime. Why Bluegill Double Prime? Because you try coming up with enough new names to stay ahead of all our catastrophic launch failures.

Bluegill Double Prime blew up too. It started tumbling shortly after launch and had to be destroyed, showering debris from its nuclear core onto—everybody say it together now—Johnston Island.

Pro tip: do not ever vacation on Johnston Island.

Fourth time’s the charm, though, right? And finally, on Bluegill Triple Prime, the rocket launched and the bomb detonated without a hitch.

I’m sure they got lots of fantastic pictures of angry men staring at rabbits, so it was all worth it.

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