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This Day in Science Fiction History: 9 July

Historical Entry—Monday, July 9, 1962

Photograph of Starfish Prime detonation showing a white wave like interior with a reddish glow around it over water.
Photograph of Starfish Prime detonation (1962 US Navy)

The Soviet Union and the United States had agreed to a moratorium on nuclear weapon testing in 1958. This changed on August 30, 1961, when the Soviets announced they intended to recommence testing. The United States hastily laid in plans to resume testing as well.


The tests were conducted under Operation Dominic. The operation was a planned 31 tests (or shots) in the Pacific Ocean. The high-altitude testing sub-group was designated Operation Fishbowl. The original plan called for three shots to be completed during the first half of 1962. They were named Bluegill, Starfish, and Urraca (Spanish for magpie). Later, three additional tests were added (Checkmate, Kingfish, and Tightrope). Bluegill was designated as the first test, but a failure in tracking the Thor missile after its launch on June 2 required the missile and the test weapon to be destroyed. Starfish, the second test, was launched on June 19 but was destroyed when the Thor missile rocket engine failed and the missile began to come apart.


Finally, on July 9, 1962, the first test was successful. Starfish Prime launched from Johnston Island on a trajectory away from the Hawaiian Islands which are about 800 miles east. The missile flew for 13 minutes and 41 seconds, reaching a maximum altitude of approximately 680 miles. It then continued on the ballistic trajectory, falling to 250 miles altitude before the test occurred. At the proper altitude, the test package was detonated. It was the largest nuclear test ever performed in outer space. The resulting blast could be seen through cloud cover on Oahu.

Video of the Starfish Prime explosion seen through the clouds
The Starfish Prime explosion seen through the clouds (US Navy, 1962)

The blast, estimated at between 1.4 and 1.45 megatons, created an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) far larger than had been planned for. Radio systems and the electrical grid on the Hawaiian islands were temporarily knocked out. The EMP and resulting lingering radiation caused damage to several satellites, including a few launched after the blast. One of the most notable was a joint British-American satellite named Ariel.


People had gathered to watch the event. The Honolulu Advertister even ran the headline “N-Blast Tonight My Be Dazzling; Good View Likely”. Several hotels in the area held rooftop parties. Across the Pacific, with witnesses as far south as New Zealand, was awash with an artificial aurora borealis from the electromagnetic particles.


However, the test was not as popular elsewhere in the world. About 300 people gathered in protest outside the United States Embassy in London, England chanting “No more test!”. Several got into altercations with police. In Izvestia, a Soviet newspaper, the film director Sergei Yutkevich (Othello, Lenin in Poland, Lenin in Paris) was quoted.


We know with whom we are dealing: yet we hoped, until the last moment, that the conscience, if not the wisdom, of the American atom-mongers would hear the angry voices of millions and millions of ordinary people of the earth, the voices of mothers and scientists of their own country.


Though the largest of the space-based nuclear tests, Starfish Prime was not the last. Testing would continue until November 1, 1962. On July 25, 1963, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Niktia Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty which banned atmospheric and exoatmospheric nuclear testing.

 

Starfish Prime nuclear test

Historical Event

1962

 

This Day in Science Fiction History examines notable events, real and fictional, concerning fantasy and science fiction in various media.

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