Tip of the Spear

In my post this morning about science and skepticism, I said that to be the best of my knowledge we’d never detonated a nuclear weapon on the tip of an ICBM. Well, as a couple readers pointed out to me, that’s not true.

It may not technically have been an ICBM, but close enough. It was a Thor Missile, an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) that went into service in 1958.

The last time it happened was in 1962 (all such tests occurred between 1958 and 1962). The USSR had announced it was ending a three year moratorium on nuclear tests. And in addition to going in for some Cold War tit for tat, the folks running the nuclear program in the US decided to try out a bunch of tests they might never get a chance to again. As TPM Reader JB put it, and as you’re about to see, they did some crazy $#%& with nukes before testing went underground.But back to the subject at hand. In 1962, the US conducted a staggering 105 nuclear tests, collectively titled Operation Dominic. Most were standard free-fall drops from B-52s. But there was a subset of high-altitude nuclear detonations collectively known as Operation Fishbowl.

There were eight shots, the highest of which, Starfish Prime, detonated 250 miles above the earth — by most standards, actually in space.

Starfish wasn’t just the highest of the series. It was also the fifth in the series and only the second to work. Indeed, one of the eeriest things about the series is how badly it went.

Four of the first five tests failed, in one case with a nuke-tipped missile having to be detonated on the launch pad, throwing plutonium and other radioactive containments all over the place and completely destroying the launch facility. Another had to be detonated when the rocket veered out of control — remember, veered out of control with an armed nuclear warhead on board.

The last two high-altitude nuclear detonations — one by the Soviet Union and one by the United States — took place on November 1st, 1962.