Fifty-five years ago this month, on November 4, 1962, the United States conducted its final atmospheric test of a thermonuclear weapon.
Carried by a Nike-Hercules missile that blasted into the outer atmosphere—high above a South Pacific atoll, 860 miles southwest of Hawaii—the effort, called Tightrope, was part of a larger series of high-altitude atomic-weapons tests conducted between June and November of that year. The series of tests was called Operation Fishbowl. That particular atoll, Johnston Island, had been chosen because of its distance from previous test sites, and from Hawaii—where, it was feared, residents might be blinded by the initial flashes of light as the nuclear chain reaction began.
At the time of Tightrope, the United States had detonated close to 300 nuclear weapons at various sites around the South Pacific Ocean and American Southwest. Most of them yielded reams of information to scientists and administrators working for what was then called the Atomic Energy Commission, now known as the Department of Energy, not to mention spectacular imagery: giant atomic tsunamis engulfing abandoned naval warships off Bikini Atoll, during Operation Crossroads, and smaller, dirt-and-debris-filled mushroom clouds rising off the desert flats of the Nevada Proving Grounds, some 65 miles from Las Vegas. Those images would be seared into the American consciousness as what art historian John O’Brian calls “the logo of logos in the 20th century”; an atomic iconography that would be used in everything from political campaigns (such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad) to cinematic denouements (such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove).
Views of Starfish Prime from aircraft and Maui Station, July 9, 1962.
The first attempts of the Operation Fishbowl tests took place in June 1962, but didn’t succeed, due to radar-tracking issues and rocket-engine malfunction. But on July 9, 1962, the United States found success with its Starfish Prime test, illustrated in the first series of images in this photo essay. The 1.4 megaton bomb—which was sent skyward via a Thor missile, and detonated at an altitude of about 250 miles, at around 10 p.m. local time—yielded an electromagnetic pulse so large, it damaged streetlights, telephone lines and other electronic devices some 900 miles away in Hawaii. (And, reportedly, even further away—in New Zealand.) It also left a radiation belt in its wake that was so substantial, it crippled multiple American and British satellites and caught the attention of administrators at NASA, who became concerned about its potential effects on the space vehicles and astronauts then participating in programs such as Apollo.
Greg Spriggs, 66, witnessed Starfish Prime when he was just 11 years old. Stationed with his family on Midway Island, 400 miles north of Johnston Island, Spriggs’s father—an air controlman for the United States Navy—took the family outside one evening and told his children to look up into the sky. “The sky lit up like it was noon: a bright white flash, then a whole series of colors. Pure reds and yellows and blues and indigos and violets,” says Spriggs, who would grow up to—among other things—design nuclear weapons. Spriggs currently works as a nuclear weapon physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he project-directs the Film Scanning and Reanalysis Project, an effort to digitize and review the millions of still and moving images of U.S. nuclear tests taken by both military and civilian contractor photographers. The brilliant artificial aurora borealis Spriggs witnessed as a child was due to millions of charged particles moving along the magnetic lines of the earth. (Peter Kuran, director of the 1999 documentary Nukes in Space, calls Starfish Prime and its brethren “rainbow bombs.”) But the air was eerily silent. “We didn’t hear anything,” Spriggs says. “It’s outer space, meaning there is no air up there, and, therefore, no shock wave that is produced.”
Checkmate, October 19, 1962.
The Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission were thorough in their visual documentation of the various tests carried out between the end of World War II and the Fishbowl tests in 1962. Dozens of photography and cinematography units were dispatched to various locations around the world, armed with almost every available type of still and film camera, in order to capture imagery that could be analyzed and used both for scientific and public-relations and storytelling purposes—the diagnostic and the documentary. For over two decades, the United States Air Force even operated a “secret,” 100,000-square-foot film studio in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon. At “Lookout Mountain,” teams of Hollywood craftspeople photographed, processed, edited, screened, and distributed images that ended up in everything from LIFE magazine photo spreads to newsreels and tourist postcards.
Fishbowl yielded an entirely different set of pictures and films from most of the operations that preceded it. The detonations carried out in the mid-to-late part of 1962 occurred at extremely high altitudes, hundreds of miles above the earth, in what’s called the thermosphere. (The International Space Station orbits within this layer; satellites are usually higher up, in the exosphere.) The purpose of Fishbowl was to evaluate potential strategies and methods for disrupting incoming ICBMs, or intercontinental ballistic missiles. The idea was to experiment with the effects—and the effectiveness—of nukes sent deep into, and beyond, the upper atmosphere, so that such weapons might be deployed in efforts to handicap or destroy nuclear warheads sent toward the United States.
Bluegill Triple Prime
Bluegill Triple Prime, October 25, 1962.
Other attempts followed Starfish Prime that summer and autumn, including the tests Bluegill Triple Prime, Checkmate, Kingfish, and the aforementioned Tightrope—the blast of which was said to resemble a yellow-orange disc, and which then morphed into what a Defense Nuclear Agency report described as “a purple doughut.” The timing of the tests was notable: mid-to-late October of that year also saw the eruption, and eventual resolution, of the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the United States and the USSR came as close as they ever had to nuclear war. (Spriggs remembers the Naval Air Station on Midway Island going into full alert for a potential evacuation to Hawaii.) Bluegill Triple Prime and Checkmate were both conducted during the crisis—as was a “Project K” test by the Soviet Union on October 22, in which a 300 kiloton warhead was detonated more than 175 miles above sea level. On August 5, 1963, nine months after Tightrope, President John F. Kennedy signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which banned atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons.
Kingfish, November 1, 1962.
The most fascinating, and perhaps troubling, thing about images of the Operation Fishbowl tests is the way in which their seemingly ethereal nature serves to obstruct or obscure their actual, real-world malevolence and power. In short, they’re not identifiably images of weapons of war at all, but rather representations of something that appears more embryonic—“like a cell under a microscope,” says Alan Brady Carr, a historian with the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The absence of reference points that might help viewers situate themselves and comprehend a nuclear weapon’s size, scale, and destructive power—things like palm trees, a naval flotilla, desert mountain ranges, or body-armored troops—are nowhere to be seen. There are just a few recognizable clues in the series of images of Starfish Prime, which depict the wing of an aircraft and the horizon, as seen from Maui Station.
Further complicating matters is the fact that such images can feel like relics confined to a particular era, rather than evidence of a country’s current capabilities. (A nuclear warhead detonated at a high altitude has the potential to generate a powerful electromagnetic pulse that could disable much of a country’s electrical grid, and recently declassified information about the tests suggests that Fishbowl tests very negatively impacted space weather.”) John O’Brian is overseeing an exhibition in Vancouver next March called BOMBHEAD, which will include a “superbly beautiful” photograph of a long-range missile fired by North Korea this past summer. “I think most people who are younger view nuclear imagery as a form of nostalgia, rather than engaging politically and socially with it,” he says. “They have little worry that something will happen.”
Plus, he points out, some 72 years after the bombing of Hiroshima, and over three decades after the last atmospheric nuclear tests conducted by France and China (countries that didn’t sign the test-ban treaty), nuclear testing occurs entirely underground—making the idea of nuclear Armageddon even more abstract to the public, at a time when the brinkmanship between nuclear powers such as North Korea and the United States is actually ramping up. “French testing in the South Pacific in the 1980s generated a lot of protest, but we don’t see images of China or North Korea testing aboveground,” he says. “This could be very significant in blunting the emotional response, and even the attention, given to things nuclear right now.”