Almost 50 years ago, the United States carried out its highest-yield atmospheric nuclear test when a Thor missile was launched from Johnston Island carrying a W-49 warhead. The test, Starfish Prime, was detonated 400 kilometers above the Pacific. Its yield was 1.45 megatons, and its effects exceeded the worst fears of U.S. scientists.
At least six satellites were victimized by Starfish Prime: the British Ariel 1, the U.S. TRAAC, Transit 4B, Injun 1 and Telstar 1, and the Soviet Kosmos 5. The most famous victim of Starfish Prime’s electromagnetic pulse effects was Telstar, which enabled the transmission of images across the Atlantic just as the British music invasion of the U.S. airwaves was building. Before the Beatles scored their first No. 1 hit and transfixed viewers on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” another British band, the Tornados, topped the U.S. charts with Telstar, an instrumental inspired by the satellite. Telstar was dying from nuclear effects while its namesake song was No. 1 on the hit parade.
Why did the United States conduct Starfish Prime? In 1962, President John F. Kennedy was being whipsawed by conflicting pressures over atmospheric tests. His gut — and growing public sentiment angered by fallout — told him to negotiate a test ban. What’s more, Kennedy’s science advisers were cautioning him that continued testing could place the health of astronauts at risk. But Kennedy was also under intense pressure to resume atmospheric detonations after the Kremlin broke a 34-month-long moratorium and began a cascade of tests in September 1961. The United States followed suit, and missile defense advocates were particularly keen to learn more about the effects of high-yield atmospheric detonations. They got their wish with Starfish Prime.
James Clay Moltz’s 2008 book “The Politics of Space Security” recounts some of the repercussions of this high-yield atmospheric test: “The blast disrupted radio transmissions as far away as California and Australia for several hours. As Atomic Energy Commissioner Glenn Seaborg noted in his memoirs, ‘To our great surprise and dismay, it developed that STARFISH added significantly to the electrons in the Van Allen belts. This result contravened all our predictions.’”
U.S. atmospheric testing continued after Starfish Prime, but not for long. Many risks were clarified by this test: risks to the public’s well-being and to astronauts, who were far bigger rock stars than the Tornados; risks to satellites, communication links, and command and control; and the risk of relying on missile defenses in the event of nuclear exchanges. Starfish Prime was a contributing factor in persuading President Kennedy to listen to his gut and to complete a treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests.
The modern-day equivalent of Starfish Prime was the kinetic energy anti-satellite test carried out by China on Jan. 11, 2007. This test of the SC-19, carried out at twice the altitude of Starfish Prime, had appalling debris consequences, increasing the collision risk to approximately 700 satellites in low Earth orbit, according to the U.S. Space Command. The test produced over 2,000 pieces of debris large enough to be catalogued and tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and over 35,000 smaller debris fragments. Space objects and manned space operations will have to dodge this debris for decades.
Why did China create such a mess in space? We don’t know for sure because Beijing still operates on the presumption that transparency can reflect weakness while opaqueness can increase strength. We do not know, for example, whether China’s leaders were warned, as President Kennedy was, of the dangers to manned spaceflight that could result from testing.
My guess is that the reasons for China’s kinetic energy anti-satellite test may not be very different from those reflected in Starfish Prime: anxieties over national security, deference to excessive military testing requirements, and an inability to envision just how messy the test consequences would actually be.
Starfish Prime and other atmospheric nuclear testing helped prompt the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Can significant good also result from China’s irresponsible anti-satellite test? Some positives are already apparent. Recognition of the space debris problem has now extended beyond experts to national leaders. Another glaring problem, the absence of space traffic management mechanisms, is starting to be addressed. The U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center has stepped up to the plate by issuing potential collision warnings — including 400 notices to Russia and China over the past year. In other words, the United States is now reminding China on a regular basis of the potentially catastrophic consequences of conducting a high-altitude kinetic energy anti-satellite test.
Growing sensitivity to threats to the global commons of space and provisional steps to manage the debris problem are insufficient. China’s test, like Starfish Prime five decades ago, warrants more structured and far-reaching protective measures. The modern-day analog to the Test Ban Treaty is a Code of Conduct for responsible spacefaring nations that addresses debris and traffic management imperatives. If China blocks its creation, its leaders will have not learned nearly enough from their anti-satellite test.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center in Washington.