To the Universe and Beyond!

Tales from the Nuclear Age:


Copyright © 2010 by Charles M. Glassmire


Oct. 30, 2010

“To the Universe and Beyond!”*


*(Captain Buzz Lightyear in Toys.)

During the cold war of the 1970’s, game theorists asserted that a nation which felt it could destroy an enemy with a massive nuclear first strike would be heavily tempted to actually use that option. The success of such a plan would depend upon the ability of the enemy to respond to such an attack with a devastating second retaliatory counterstrike. If the enemy nation possessed a strong counter punch it would deter the other from initiating an attack. Such were the grim speculations of two nations poised on the brink.

The Soviet leadership viewed the “evil” capitalist nation of America as pursuing a relentless improvement of its strike force, which seemed to be working toward a first strike capability. Such an attack, they reasoned, could decapitate the

Captain Buzz Lightyear

USSR command structure, and would prevent them from responding with a counter strike. During this time the American  force was comprised of bombers and silo based missiles. Both sides knew the accuracy of these forces was so low that there was no guarantee the enemy could be accurately destroyed. (“Accuracy” is measured in CEP or Circular Error of Probability. This was the radial distance of a circle with 50% chance of weapon impact.) The CEP was large in the ‘60’s, meaning accuracy was poor, so a first strike was not probable.

This leads to an interesting story about creativity, the interchange of technologies, and how the Soviets were ultimately responsible for improving the US nuclear missile accuracy. The story begins in 1952, when the International Council of Scientific Unions declared that July 1957 would begin the International Geophysical Year (IGY). It advocated putting satellites in orbit to map the surface of the earth. This year was picked because the 11 year sunspot cycle would be at its maximum.

President Eisenhower solicited satellite proposals from the government and chose the Navel Research Lab’s project for a Vanguard Satellite program.  It was to represent the United States by hefting a 3.5 pound instrumented satellite into earth orbit. Work progressed at a modest pace. Unknown to the public, Dr. Werner Von Braun, expatriate German scientist, was also marshalling a competitive US satellite project named Explorer. Von Braun had impressive credentials. He was the scientist who had produced the V-2 Rocket for Adolph Hitler, which rained down devastation on the British during the London Blitz. At wars end he fled to America, to work at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, bringing many of his German rocket team along with him.

In deepest secrecy, the Soviet Union was also working on a satellite program.  One week after Eisenhower’s 1955 announcement, the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party moved to approve the idea of creating an earth orbiting satellite to be injected during the ’57-58 years. By early 1956 funds were approved and work was distributed among the Soviet Ministry of Defense and four other Ministries of the Soviet Union.  Work began in earnest, utilizing the Soviet R-7 rocket. The satellite was code named “Object D” (later replaced by the lighter weight “Object PS” when their rockets could not boost the initial D weight.)

Work continued. Soviet progress was marked by similar disasters as were plaguing the Vanguard Program. Rockets exploded on the launch pad. Rockets launched and then spun end over end during the boost phase. Rockets failed to gain orbital velocity and crashed miles from the launch pad. Stages failed to separate, dropping pieces over the landscape.

Nevertheless, on Friday October 4th 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite into a (relatively) stable orbit above the earth. Its name was Sputnik I. As an astonished American public looked to the heavens for a tiny star-like blip moving across the sky  (this was actually a piece of the booster rocket the Soviets had covered with shiny metal so it would be visible from the ground), the Space Race had officially begun.

Engineers at RCA Riverhead,  Long Island were the first to record the radio Beep Beep signals emitted on the 20 and 40 megahertz bands.  Temperature and Pressure were coded into the duration and spacing of the 1/3 second beeps, along with signal strength showing  electron density in the Ionosphere (although it’s unclear if anyone knew this at that moment.) On Friday night they rushed the recording into Manhattan. The NBC Radio headquarters broadcast the sounds to an America which had been comfortably sleeping, safe in the post-war knowledge that the United States was the world’s leader. Once again it was time for America to awaken.

I remember that moment on Friday evening well. I was a High School Senior, and I was riding in a car with my friend Jack going to a party, when the news flash came over the car radio. I was stunned. I could not believe what I was hearing. There was a foreign object flying over our heads, invading our space. I felt violated, frightened. I muttered out loud, “My God – this will change everything!” My friend was nonchalant and dismissed my comment. “No, no”, he said, “this won’t make any difference at all…it’s nothing”. I rode on into the darkness in stunned silence, but somehow I knew America had changed forever that night.

The media went hysterical; then the public followed. A wave of fear swept the country. Curiously, while the Soviets talked of going into outer space, the orbit they chose for Sputnik was a Polar Orbit. A Polar Orbit was the shortest distance between Soviet Union and continental US. This was the orbit which would be used if a nuclear missile attack was launched from USSR at the United States. The fear intensified.

Everyone was discussing the event over the weekend. On Monday, two physicists at John Hopkins Applied Physics laboratory in New Jersey, William Guier and George Weiffenback, were curious. They were creative people, and decided to try to hear the signals. One had a microwave receiver hooked into an amp in his office, and they began a frequency search listening on earphones and finally heard the signals. They sensed they were hearing history and recorded the sound . Soon the entire office staff was lined up down the hall, all wanting to have a turn. Then, listening more precisely, they noticed a Doppler effect in the signal frequency. (This is a change in pitch as a source passes by the listener – we notice a car horn tone rise higher, then drop lower as the car passes us fading into the distance.)  This meant the beeps could tell when the elliptical orbit was closest above them and farthest away. Knowing the frequency rate of change they could also calculate the orbital parameters, farthest away distance and closest to surface distance – called Apogee and Perigee. They ran the numbers, and soon had calculated Sputnik’s orbit. So for the first time someone on the Earth’s surface had computed an orbital location. But the fun was only beginning.

After weeks of expanded research, the Lab Assistant  Director, Frank McClure, called them into his office. He asked a fundamental question. Could they do the calculation in reverse? Could they locate a position on the Earth’s surface from an orbital location above the earth? More number crunching and the answer came back YES! It was possible! This idea, created by a couple of guys just fooling around, was the beginning of our modern satellite based locators, now called the  Geographic Positioning System (GPS).  Today they talk to our digital cameras and allow our teenagers to play location games on their iphones.

The weight of the new Sputnik was a hefty 185 pounds. America compared this to the intended Vanguard satellite weight of 3.5 pounds. It was humiliating! A few months later, in January of 1958, America launched the first Explorer I into successful orbit. Soon the government began to pour large amounts of funding into education for science, engineering and mathematics. We were “behind” and needed to “catch up”. It wasn’t too long until a system of spy satellites was examining the Earth surface, and broadcasting geo-location signals to the military.

The implication of this discovery also had profound impact on nuclear war defense on both sides. The introduction of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM’s) was a recent innovation in the US nuclear force Triad. The Polaris missile was introduced around this time, successfully launched from a sub under the water surface, and the US submarine force soon had five “Boomers” sailing the oceans with the nuclear navy, each armed with nuclear ballistic missiles.  But you really couldn’t hit a precise target on land, when you knew only approximately where your submarine was located in the ocean when you launched. So the Polaris SLBM Circular Error of Probability was awful. Even the Soviets knew it. In a strange way, this knowledge leant a certain stability to the Cold War situation.

But by the 1980’s the situation was changed radically. New smaller CEP weapons with greater accuracy appeared in the American arsenal. They had names like Pershing II, MX Peacekeeper, and Trident II. They carried Nukes from 50 Kilotons (2 ½ Hiroshima weapons) to 475 Kilotons. The CEP for some of these was down to 90 FEET. If the US Boomers crept in close to the European Coast before launch, the warning time for the Soviet Union would be cut from 30 minutes, which allowed a responsive counter strike, to 17 minutes, which was too little time to do anything but perish. Now the game was getting serious, and Soviet military planners became convinced there would be no time to mount a response to a US first strike attack.

We are only now discovering what they did in response to this situation. Taking a page from Dr. Strangelove, we now have some evidence that the Soviet military implemented a Doomsday system which they called Perimetr. In case the Soviet leadership was all destroyed in a first strike, Perimetr was to launch a counter strike against America. This was to be an automatic Soviet nuclear response to an assumed nuclear attack! There was to be no human intervention needed in this automatic response. Even more frightening, we have no indication that Perimetr was ever dismantled. Could it still be hidden there in Russia, waiting for a nuclear attack to launch?   …

(to be continued …)


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