Just after the Fourth of July in 1962, the US government detonated a hydrogen bomb above the earth's atmosphere, calling it "Starfish Prime." The Honolulu Advertiser's front page read: "N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling: Good View Likely." Nukes are fun!
Why would the US government think it was a good idea to detonate an H-bomb in outer space? Because we were trying to keep the commies on their toes, that's why. And also because something new was discovered in space, so of course we had to try to blow up. Science historian James Fleming told NPR:
Well, I think a good entry point to the story is May 1, 1958, when James Van Allen, the space scientist, stands in front of the National Academy in Washington, D.C., and announces that they've just discovered something new about the planet."
Oooh, new discoveries in space... exciting! Turns out Van Allen had just discovered radiation belts that surround the Earth, which were later named Van Allen Belts. But...
[The] day after the press conference, [Van Allen] agreed with the military to get involved with a project to set off atomic bombs in the magnetosphere to see if they could disrupt it."
The plan was to send rockets hundreds of miles up, higher than the Earth's atmosphere, and then detonate nuclear weapons to see: a) If a bomb's radiation would make it harder to see what was up there (like incoming Russian missiles!); b) If an explosion would do any damage to objects nearby; c) If the Van Allen belts would move a blast down the bands to an earthly target (Moscow! for example); and — most peculiar — d) if a man-made explosion might "alter" the natural shape of the belts.
Fleming, who is working on a biography of Van Allen, told NPR, "this is the first occasion I've ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up." We call that The American Way.
Video: "Brighter Than Any 4th of July!"
[Image via Getty]