'Brief Danger'

Brass Tacks

Shortly after the United States conducted its high-altitude superbomb test last July, Time magazine reported the following in an article titled "Fire in the Sky:"

Russia and Red China predictably accused the U.S. of committing a crime against mankind, but international reaction to the blast was generally calm. U.S. assurances that the explosion would not create hazardous fallout or do any kind of permanend damage seemed to have allayed most fears. Most of the scientists who had opposed the test on the ground that it might do longlasting damage to the earth's upper atmosphere and the Van Allen radiation belts were reserving Judgment. Scientists in New Zealand, the country most affected by the blast, treated it as an intereating scientific experiment--and a pleasure to observe.

Almost two months later, when it became apparent that the "U.S. assurances" had been ill-advised, Time ran a second article on the test,t this one called "Brief Danger."

Before the U.S. exploded a nuclear bomb high over the Pacific early this summer, famed Physicist James Van Allen predicted that the blast would create a globe-girdling belt of dangerous radiation. Last week data from orbiting injun I satellite proved him correct. The new belt is 200 to 500 miles high, just a little closer to earth than the permanent belt named after Discoverer Van Allen. But its intensity is waning and by the and of a year it will be almost undetectable.

The third Time report on the shot appeared on September 21. This time it was "Radiation by Mistake."

Last week the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense issued a sheepish joint report that proved both critics and defenders of the test were wildly wrong. The new artificial belt is unexpectedly large, strong, and long-lasting... NASA estimates can be interpreted to mean that some of the highest electrons in the new belt may last for 10,000 years.

These three excerpts indicate quite clearly that the unfortunate effects of the high altitude explosion were wholly unforseen, that the government therefore acted in good faith when it authorized the test, that Van Alllen and other American scientists advised the military defense units of the country to the best of their ability, and that the whole fiasco was a tragic mistake.

Such conclusions, however, are rudely disproved as soon as one studies the debates that fumed among scientists once the U.S. announced its intention to detonate a hugs nuclear device on the fringes of outer space. Even a short look at the serious protests registered by eminent scientific organizations is enough to make one question the purity of Time's versions. The briefest consideration of Van Allen's incredible vacillations on the effects of the bomb and the careful revisionism carried out by governmental agencies is enough to convince one that a deception had been perpetrated. If anyone suffers from the bomb's effects in short he will do so not because the U.S. government made a tragic, mistake but because it acted irresponsibly.

First: The government and its famous scientific adviser Van Allen now claim that no one could have predicted the bomb would alter the patterns of radiation around the earth to the extent it did. In fact, a number of prominent scientists, both American and foreign, advised the United States that such a test would cause gross distortion of the earth's magnetic and radiation fields and consequent difficulties for several fields of scientific inquiry. For example, Professor Lovell of the Jodrell Bank. Observatory warned very early that the blast would greatly hinder radio astronomy and might create new dangers for men in space.

Second: Van Allen and other scientists who have cooperated with the military originally said there would be no change in the radiation belts. Hence Kennedy's offhand remark at a press conference before the explosion: "I know there's been a disturbance about the Van Allen belt, but Van Allen says it's not going to affect the belt, and it's his." Immediately after the test, however, Van Allen claimed to have predicated all along that that there would be a dramatic though temporary perturbation in "his belt" along with the creation of an intense, short-lived artificial belt. Thus in Time's "Brief Danger" article, Van Allen was "proved correct" and the public was assured that all was just anticipated.

Third: The military purpose of the test did not justify taking the risk of endangering scientific studies of the upper atmosphere of the universe by radio telescopy. The state objective was a determination of the extent to which radio and radar transmissions would be disrupted by a high-altitude nuclear explosion. Yet in the Reporter magazines issue of Many 24 appeared the following interesting passage:

According to Walker Sullivan of the New York Times, the idea of he forthcoming explosion, we read, came from two physicists at the University of Minnesota back in 1958. They proposed that a hydrogen bomb be exploded inside the Van Allen radiation. "This would contort the earth's magnetic field and dump particles it had. The particles would plunge into the atmosphere, producing spectacular auroral displays." "It might be amusing," they wrote," to end the international Geophysical year by destroying some of the radiation field first discovered during the I.G.Y."

The outcome of the July detonation is that a belt of high radiation has been created around the earth within the natural Van Allen belts. This new zone of high energy particles will interfere with any investigation by radio of extraterrestrial phenomena because it is itself a source of radio transmission. It will furthermore necessitate changes in all programs of manned exploration of space since its intensity is such that it can cause severe damage to orbiting astronauts even after relatively short exposure.

It was to be expected that the government would listen only to those scientists who predicted what it wanted to hear. It has done this in the past and presumably will do so again. Yet in the light of the disastrous effects of the high-altitude explosion, and the attempts of governmental agencies to obscure the fact that the actual results of the test could have been foreseen, one cannot help feeling that test was organized and carried out in bad faith, with little regard for anything but the immediate military gains.