Starfish Prime and Apollo: How Nuclear Testing Almost Killed the Moon Shot

Afterglow from the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test explosion of July 9, 1962. Credit:  US Government Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Afterglow from the Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test explosion of July 8, 1962. Credit: US Government Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Nine seconds after 11 o’clock on the night of July 8, 1962, a 2,200-pound W-49 nuclear weapon detonated 248 miles above a tiny island to the west of Hawaii. The blast, which yielded 1.4 megatons, instantly turned the night sky daylight-bright. As the flash dissipated, electrons from the explosion interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field to create an artificial aurora thousands of miles long. The residual light danced across the sky for seven minutes. The blast’s accompanying electromagnetic pulse knocked out street lamps 800 miles away.

The explosion that night wasn’t hostile; it was an American weapons test called Starfish Prime. The Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission were running a program designed to study the effects of nuclear warfare on the atmosphere. The effects the program found were far more profound than a light show. Starfish Prime created an artificial radiation belt that enveloped the Earth and intensified the Van Allen belts, fallout NASA quickly realized could threaten its Apollo program in the race to the Moon. For a brief period, it wasn’t clear whether manned space flight could continue at all.

The full story of Operation Dominic, the Starfish Prime event, and the impact Cold War nuclear testing had on the manned spaceflight program is fascinating, and it’s the subject of my latest article over at Ars Technica.

The Soviet Intersection with Apollo 11

Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle during rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia. This would be about the time Luna 15 was beginning its landing sequence.

Apollo 11′s Lunar Module Eagle during rendezvous with the Command Module Columbia. This would be about the time Luna 15 was beginning its landing sequence.

When Apollo 11 landed at the Sea of Tranquility 44 years ago today, eight years and two months after Kennedy challenged the nation to a manned lunar landing, it marked the end of the Space Race as defined by the race to the Moon. But there’s a little known facet of this historic event: whether or not NASA would be able to send Apollo 11 on it’s planned mission was called into question just three days before launch when the Soviet Union launched Luna 15 on a lunar sample return mission. The worry wasn’t that Luna 15 would overshadow Apollo or somehow physically prevent it from reaching its goal. Rather, NASA was concerned that communications between Luna 15 and Moscow would disrupt communications between Apollo 11 and Houston. It was Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman who saved the day, securing the flight plan of Luna 15 and assuring NASA the two missions wouldn’t cross paths. The whole story, including astronomers at the Jodrell Bank Observatory listening in on both missions, is detailed in my latest article at DVICE. (You can listen to the Jodrell recording here.)

Earlier this month, the Military Channel aired the Apollo 11/Air Force One episode of “America: Fact vs. Fiction” for which I was interviewed along with author Francis French about the lunar landing. Here’s the (overly sensationalized) clip that talks about the intersection between Apollo 11 and Luna 15.

Zond 8 and the Plaster-like Moon

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Credit: redorbit.com

The Moon, as photographed by Zon d 8 on October 24, 1970. Click for the full-size image. The detail, and plaster-like appearance, is incredible. Credit: redorbit.com

It happens occasionally that I come across a picture so striking that I stop what I’m doing to track down its backstory. This morning, it was this picture of the Moon taken by the Soviet Zond 8 spacecraft that sent me hunting through books for context. It incredible how much this picture of the Moon looks like the one in Georges Méliès’ 1902 silent movie “Le Voyage dans la Lune.” Unsurprisingly, the story behind Zond 8 is a fascinating if minor episode of the Space Race. [Read more...]

Sandwiches in Space

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

A suit technician packing Conrad a lunch for his trip to the Moon. November 14, 1969. Credit: NASA

Most of NASA’s Apollo program files are publicly available, in many cases digitized and accessible online. But there’s one picture from the Apollo 12 files that I’ve never been able to find much information about: a picture of a suit technician packing what is unmistakably a sandwich into Pete Conrad’s left leg pocket the morning he, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean launched to the Moon. Last November, I asked Dick Gordon about this scarcely documented space sandwich.  [Read more...]

Is Wernher von Braun Spaceflight’s Most Controversial Figure?

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

Von Braun stands infront of the Saturn 1 that launched the a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft. The mission, properly SA-6A-101, launched on May 28, 1964. Credit: NASA

That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?

I’ve been wrestling with how to treat Wernher von Braun for a while, figuring out how to celebrate his accomplishments in space without apologizing for his actions during the Second World War. So while this is far from a complete look at his life, I’ve taken a stab at dealing with this controversial figure in my lastest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English.

The View from Apollo 4

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 is one of the unsung heros of the Apollo program. Launched on November 9, 1967, it was the first flight of a Saturn V rocket, the first orbital test of a Command and Service Module, and an overall vital step on the way to the Moon. What we don’t often mention when we talk about Apollo 4 is that the Command Module had a camera on board that was programmed to take a series of picture beginning one hour before and ending one hour after the spacecraft reached it’s apogee, it’s furthest point from the Earth.  [Read more...]

Apollo 8 and Inspiration Mars: Context Matters

AS08-earthrise

The Earth as seen from the Moon by the crew of Apollo 8. Credit: NASA

We have an amazing ability to selectively read history, and it’s something that happens a lot with the Space Race. We see the inspirational effects of bold missions to the Moon and use them as a benchmark for future exploration. But too often these bold missions are taken out of context. Most recently the Inspiration Mars Foundation announced in a press conference its plan to send a married couple on a free-return trajectory around Mars in 2018, citing the mission as a sort of Apollo 8 for a new generation. It struck me that not one person spoke to the motivation behind Apollo 8; the refrain was that it’s the outcome that matters in this case, an influx of students interested in the sciences and a nation wide love-in about America’s “can-do” spirit.

But context does matter. If we’re going to point to history as our guide for the future it’s important to understand where these big decisions came from and equally important to understand the context in which, in the case of spaceflight, a certain mission was so inspirational. We need history in context to have a clear understanding of where we were, where we are, and how we can possibly move forward. I’ve put Apollo 8, history’s inspirational first manned mission to the Moon, in context in my latest article for Al Jazeera.

Gene Cernan and I Walk Into a Bar; or, Swearing Around the Moon

Gene Cernan's Apollo portrait. Notice the serious face and steely blue eyes. Credit: NASA

Gene Cernan’s Apollo portrait. Notice the serious face and steely blue eyes, both more obvious in the full sized image. Credit: NASA

In all his official NASA portraits, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan looks stern. All the Apollo-era astronauts were photographed unsmiling, almost as though it would give tax paying Americans the sense that their national heroes took their roles deadly seriously every waking moment. But Cernan somehow looks more serious than most, and he looks like a man with a natural commanding physical presence. Last November I found myself in a bar with Gene Cernan, and even nearing 79 he absolutely possesses a quietly commanding presence I imagined. It’s incredible. Here’s what happened when I met the last man to walk on the Moon.

[Read more...]

Vintage Space Favourites of 2012

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the crew of Apollo 10, 1969. Credit: NASA

The past twelve months have been very good ones. I’ve met and worked with some incredible people, ventured into the (often awkward) world of podcasts and webcasts, and have read and written more than I ever did in grad school. Of the hundreds of articles I’ve written, a few stand out as favourites. And so, in no particular order, here are my top picks of 2012. These aren’t the big news items or the articles that got the most traffic. These are the ones that were fun to research and write, and the ones that taught me something new. [Read more...]

Jack Schmitt’s Christmas Poem

Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17's 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt (upside down) during Apollo 17′s 1972 mission. Credit: NASA

NASA didn’t give its Apollo astronauts too much free time during missions. Crews had to go through multi-stage checklists before any manoeuvre and had experiments to run during the three day transits to and from the Moon. Everything, down to meal times and sleep periods, was scheduled. But as Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt found out, you can’t schedule poetic inspiration. Even when you’re on the Moon.  [Read more...]