Operation ARGUS: Satellite Measurements. Washington D.C., 1960.

This article is the first in a two-part series on the subject of early experiments in satellites and weather prediction/control research in the United States following the Second World War. The articles are extended and referenced versions of a talk titled "Weaponising Weather", presented in Utrecht as part of the Space Keet programme in June 2017 and facilitated by Roel Roscam Abbing.

Part 1: Mastering Infinity

Diagram depicting background radiation in the Van Allen Belt measured in advance of Operation ARGUS experiment on 28th August 1958. The satellite codenamed here as 1958 Epsilon is also known as Explorer IV. (Kostoff et al, 1984: )

A so-called "shock of Sputnik"—the political fallout following the Soviet launch of the first artificial satellite—draws recurrent emphasis in many historical accounts of the Cold War. As John Lewis Gaddis puts it, "as a revelation of unexpected peril, the shock of Sputnik rivaled only Pearl Harbor and Korea" (2005: 182). While the satellite became emblematic of the contentious paranoia around a supposed "missile gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union, it is not entirely accurate to say that the launch was unexpected. In June 1957, the New York Times reported that Russia was preparing a satellite launch. The article quotes Professor Alexander Nesmeyanov, then-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, speaking in Pravda: "Soviet scientists 'have created the rockets and all the instruments and equipment necessary to solve the problem of the artificial earth satellite.'" (United Press, 1957: 1)

Official emblem of the International Geophysical Year, depicting a global coordinate grid and orbital satellite.

1957 saw the beginnings of the 18-month long I.G.Y—the International Geophysical Year—a global collaborative research project oriented around geophysical science. It was stated that both the United States and the Soviet Union planned to launch satellites during the I.G.Y., whereupon the data collected would be published and circulated amongst the scientific community. So, why the shock? In his book on satellite communications in the early Cold War, David Whalen describes the event as a "shock that was expected" (2002: 39). Certainly, democrats in Washington D.C. made political capital out of Sputnik, broadcasting their critiques of the Republican Eisenhower administration amidst the media frenzy. Eisenhower, himself a five-star General and commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, had previously come to take on a notably withdrawn attitude to the use of governmental funding for the military and the weapons industry—a view which famously featured as the focal point of his Military-Industrial Complex farewell address. But had Eisenhower, through his inclination to minimise government spending, created an opportunity for the Soviets to get in first with a claim to space? Lyndon Johnson, the man who would become president during the decade that saw many satellite launches and the first lunar landing, seemed to think so. Making a statement that brought fierce attention to a formational "space race" between the two superpowers, Johnson declared that Sputnik was not just a blow to the prestige of America's prime spot in global technological advancement, it was a direct threat to the national security of the United States:

"From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid." (1957)

The immediate implication of Sputnik was that Russia had made a sophisticated demonstration of their Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile capabilities—this was the more "clear and present danger" to American national security. In this case, the payload happened to be a small artificial satellite, but the implications were clear: Soon, the Soviet Union would be able to deliver a nuclear warhead by missile to an American target in "at most thirty minutes" (Gaddis, 2005: 182), defeating much of the United States airspace surveillance systems which at the time were generally honed to detect bomber planes. For the Soviet Union, Sputnik was thus a carefully positioned propaganda spectacle—at once a triumph of science during the I.G.Y. while also being a symbol of military capability and strength.

For Johnson, it seemed to be worth belabouring the point of what was symbolically as well as practically at stake with Sputnik: "Control of space" meant being afforded with a potential global influence far beyond that which might be gained through missiles and troops. His fantastical (and frankly alarmist) vision, drawing on images of a quasi-biblical apocalypse replete with flooding and drought, amounted to Soviet supremacy over the globe itself. Control of space facilitated a totalising power, a mastery of infinity, whereby even something as ephemeral and transient as the weather could be subject to manipulation and exploitation by the Soviets.

What was Johnson's preferred solution to this unfortunate lag in American technopolitics? In his statement, he helpfully offered a 14-point plan, including a ramping up of the "space race" by pumping money into military research and development, and additionally a call for the creation of a new agency that would explore possibilities of "advanced weapons". This notional agency was materialised in the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), formed in early 1958. ARPA is now well known for being the institutional locus for the invention and development of the internet and GPS, but their researchers were also involved in the development of more ethically dubious experimental weapons technologies that have since been prohibited in international conventions. For instance, during the Vietnam war, under Project EMOTE, ARPA also conducted research into weather engineering—attempts to "seed" clouds and trigger heavy rainfall to cause mudslides in important valley paths used by the North Vietnamese, and trying to destroy the humid microclimates of the country's vast jungles with Agent Orange and Napalm (Jacobsen, 2015).

In Johnson's speech, we find the reproduction of a typical and not unexpected political dichotomy that of course lies at the very heart of how numerous governmental administrations conveyed the national politics of the Cold War: the characterisation of the Soviets as a "selfish", freedom-hating, and conniving nation, acting in continual opposition to the wise, rational, morally superior Americans. With control of the weather, the Soviets simply could not be trusted. It's important to be clear here that Johnson was not calling for an outright ban on weather control, but rather saying that the Americans must invest now in order to gain that capability, and act as a morally responsible counterweight. Given subsequent efforts to effect changes in the weather over Vietnam in the late 1960s, not to mention the attempted weaponisation of the atmosphere in a series of nuclear tests a mere nine months after Johnson's statement, such ostensibly "noble causes" for investment into research and development of atmospheric and meteorological weapons seemed to rather abruptly fall by the wayside.

Despite Johnson's claims that the Americans had fallen behind due to a budgetary neglect of aerospace research, they were in fact not so far behind in the space race—and indeed in some ways they could even considered to have been ahead of the Soviet Union. Throughout 1958, but one year after the successes of Sputnik I and II, the U.S. had launched eight satellites, whereas the Soviet Union had only launched one. This pattern of American supremacy over space generally continued over the ensuing decade, whereby approximately half of all satellites launched up until 1967 were U.S. Air Force reconnaissance satellites (Whalen, 2002: 40). The American satellite programme was clearly not created out of thin air in just a few months: it had already been years in serious development, and practically theorised for even longer. Dwayne A. Day, writing in Eye in the Sky, states that Eisenhower desired an institutional split between the relatively advanced and highly classified ICBM research in the military and the civil-science endeavours planned for the I.G.Y. This was for various reasons, but two of the most important being able to emphasise "the peaceful character of the [I.G.Y.] effort" and secondly as a means to minimise what classified information could be shared with foreign scientists (1998: 135).

Monochromatic scan of diagram depicting the Van Allen Belts (Jones et al, 1982: 13).

This "peaceful character" is somewhat undermined by the discovery and subsequent experimental attempts to exploit the Van Allen Belt in August and September 1958. In short, the Van Allen belt is sustained by the magnetic field emanating from the Earth's poles—electrons emitted from solar flares come into contact with this magnetic field, whereby they become trapped, creating a "shell-like" radiation belt around the earth. The Explorer 1 and Explorer 3 satellites had only confirmed the existence of the natural phenomenon in early 1958, but the question of its weaponisation had already been raised: Might it be possible to engineer such a phenomenon for the purposes of national defence? In the mid-1950s, a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory named Nicholas Christofilos had speculated that a nuclear explosion in the exosphere would shower the then-hypothetical Van Allen Belt with nuclear debris. Christofilos' theory went that the explosion would create an "electromagnetic storm" that would catastrophically disrupt the electrical systems of any ICBM or satellite that passed through it, calculating that thousands of nuclear explosions would be required annually to maintain a protective shield around the United States (Jacobsen, 2015). His theory came to be known as the Christofilos Effect, and also by its classified name as the ARGUS effect, according to a Defence Atomic Support Agency report titled Operation ARGUS originally published in 1960 (Kostoff et al, 1984: 9). With ARPA's penchant for codenaming projects after Greek mythology, ARGUS of course draws on the hundred-eyed giant Argus Panoptes—perhaps an allusion to the panoptic sense of the global atmosphere afforded by the satellite systems used in the experiments.

The esoteric theories underpinning the Christofilos effect, and the impracticalities of sustaining it, had found no home in the pre-existing military institutions. Following the formation of ARPA, however, Christofilos' theory was picked up again. ARPA duly coordinated the series of TOP SECRET atmospheric nuclear experiments with the involvement of no less than 14 organisations and agencies, under the codenames HARDTACK and ARGUS (ibid.: 14). The newly-launched Explorer 4 satellite, orbiting above, was a key instrument in documenting and recording the effects of the tests. The aforementioned Operation ARGUS report documents the speculation around possible military applications for the ARGUS effect, ranging from noisy "blackouts" in world-wide radio and radar systems, the destruction of ICBM arming and fusing systems, and rendering "manned flight at certain altitudes impossible" (ibid.).

"First four revolutions of Explorer IV" (Kostoff et al, 1984: 18).

Ultimately, and despite the best efforts of the U.S. government, the fact that these classified tests took place during the politically-sensitive I.G.Y. had to be publicly addressed. A memo dated January 12th, 1959, and addressed to Eisenhower's Security Operations Coordinator, warns that ARGUS had been leaked to the New York Times (Farley, 1959). The memo sets out a number of "official" talking points, one of which downplays the connection between the Explorer satellites and the atmospheric nuclear tests. As part of the I.G.Y., the U.S. Government had formally emphasised that they would share any data collected by their satellite programme—for obvious reasons, they'd rather not have shared any information gained from nuclear testing, especially given a test ban treaty was being negotiated in Geneva contemporary to the ARGUS series. This however, appears to contradict another paper marked "SECRET" on the subject of ARGUS which appears to suggest that data collected by the Explorer IV satellite was distributed amongst the "far flung network of the I.G.Y." (anon, 1959: 1). It is unclear precisely who in this network was likely to receive data gathered from the satellites monitoring the ARGUS experiments.

Map depicting the locations of the ARGUS 3 explosion, the third in the test series, and the ships positioned to observe and record the blast (Jones et al, 1982: 71).

Christofilos' theory was proven correct, but with a qualifying factor: the "shield" dissipated too quickly for the effect to be of defensive utility. The Operation ARGUS report, from which most of the diagrams in this article are taken, states that Explorer IV sensed a "well defined radiation belt that persisted for many hours" (Kostoff et al, 1984: 4), and also highlights that radiation levels at certain altitudes exceeded the recording limits of Explorer IV's on-board instruments. Despite the short lifetime of the shield, the experiment was considered by some to be of enormous scientific importance. In a State Department report from 1959, the author writes:

"[The ARGUS experiments] are regarded by many participants as one of the major achievements of the International Geophysical Year. For the first time in history the environment of the earth was briefly modified on a global scale by artificial means" (anon, 1959: 1).

However, more recent accounts of ARGUS, for instance in Annie Jacobsen's The Pentagon's Brain, suggest that the project may have been less successful than claimed. According to Jacobsen, out of the three tests conducted in August-September 1958, all of them missed their target, exploding below the desired altitude. This being one of ARPA's first projects, and with a Nuclear Test Ban in its final stages in Geneva, perhaps this aspect of the programme was downplayed in reporting to high-level defence officials. The Partial Test Ban Treaty eventually did come into effect in 1963, prohibited nuclear weapons testing "in the atmosphere; beyond its limits, including outer space; or under water, including territorial waters or high seas" (UNODA, 2017). In order for this to happen, the balance of forces theory necessitated a trustworthy and purportedly "politically neutral" apparatus had to be constructed to detect nuclear weapons explosions—otherwise, how would it be known that all nuclear powers were adhering to the treaty and not privately advancing their nuclear weapons technologies? While the Partial Test-Ban Treaty put an end to experiments on the scale of ARGUS in the upper-atmosphere, it was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the United States attempted to engineer the environment for military purposes. With projects such as ARGUS, the United States themselves had tried to become the "masters of infinity" under the diplomatic shield of the International Geophysical Year, experimenting with the atmospheric limits of the Earth and aiming to influence natural systems processes on a global scale.

In the second forthcoming part of this paper, I will jump back in time to 1945 and look at the conditions of meteorological research at the end of the Second World War, leading up to John von Neumann's cautionary warning of meddling with complex global systems in his 1955 paper Can We Survive Technology?.


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