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Interview of Richard Garwin by Dan
Ford on 2004 September 11,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-8-5
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In this interview Richard Garwin discusses topics such as: STARFISH, Bill Hess, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), thermonuclear explosions, President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), satellites, Soviet Union, Apollo space program, President John F. Kennedy, Carl Kaysen.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.
STARFISH. I've never heard any of that before. Is that what you were talking about last night — is that well known?
Yeah, well known. Let me just see. I'll look up STARFISH in this big file. So, it is looking for STARFISH, and Conrad Longmire in 1985 wrote a paper: "EMP From the STARFISH Event on Honolulu." He gave it at the Physical Society, but that may be the only… Yeah, there's only one incidence of STARFISH in my big file, and that was — when did I say — it was 1962. July 7th, 1962. So it would probably be in another file I have for previous correspondence, before I began this big file. I will decide what to do about that, but that's an all-caps file. It's a much simpler one, and the stuff that we have there is not available online, but I'll look it up another time. So, if you go to the web and you look up STARFISH, you might even find my name, but I don't know.
I found a few references to it, but what I found was — I actually didn't look up you. I was just looking up STARFISH, and I found one reference that gave a lists of tests and referred to it as failure. Then I found one that explained a bit about the —
Okay, if you look me up — STARFISH and Garwin — then I gave a talk: my national security advice to the US government over the last 50 years and nuclear explosions and the trapping of electrons in the Van Allen Belt — STARFISH and so on. Here's another one: Nature contents. Superconductivity affirmed, Laura Garwin. Release of mature starfish oocytes. Isn't that funny? So, one should qualify it, because there are many solutions. You could look up nuclear, so STARFISH, Garwin, nuclear. And of course that's still not Nature contents and whatnot.
And rule out Laura.
Yeah, that's right. Anyhow. I am sure the story has been told someplace.
And the story of you and Kennedy?
That has not — probably told in my talk, but it wouldn't be told by anybody else.
Can we just start at the beginning?
Yes, in the beginning, there was the cosmos, and the Earth was formed, and the Earth has a magnetic field (that's eliding a lot of stuff). And there are people down here who deal with radio waves and want to send people to the moon, and there came a president who declared the Apollo Program.
But the idea that the Apollo mission people —
— were imperiled, and that cosmonauts might be fried, et cetera. I've never heard any of that.
— Yeah, probably was not discussed much because it's sort of politically sensitive. STARFISH has NASA — so this is Bill Hess. Okay, if you look up STARFISH, Hess, NASA — Brief History: Artificial Belts and Early Studies. Then it says, "Some STARFISH electrons persisted for five years (Hess, 1968), underscoring the long lifetime of particles in the inner belt. NASA was caught by surprise." So a key is STARFISH, Hess, NASA. So you'll find a lot of it, but now I will tell you what I know.
I was a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee from I think January 1962  until January 1965. It was, I guess, a three-year term. Maybe it was a four-year term [yes]. And again from '69 through '72. But this was my first term. I had worked closely with Jerome Wiesner since 1953 on air defense and missile defense. When he became Science Adviser to President Kennedy, I was a consultant to the committee on strategic matters and intelligence matters and stuff like that — as well as various other things. Then I became a member of the committee itself.
Of course, I knew about many of these things. I knew about the Van Allen Belts because they were really good physics — discovered with the first satellites by Jim Van Allen of the University of Iowa — in which electrons are retained spiraling around the lines of force, but that just keeps them from drifting sideways. What allows them to be trapped is that the magnetic field of the Earth comes from sources, currents, within the Earth, and so it is stronger near the Earth's surface than it is farther out in space. Electrons therefore find themselves in near-Earth space spiraling around lines of force and moving freely along the lines, but as the magnetic field strengthens as the electrons move to lower altitude — that is, get closer to the current source in the Earth — their velocity along the lines is slowed and reversed.
The electrons spiral tightly around the lines at a frequency which is easy to say: It's 2.8 megahertz per gauss, and the Earth's magnetic field is of the order of one gauss at the Earth's surface and maybe a tenth of a gauss someways out. So the velocity of the electrons, the frequency of the electrons, is in the broadcast radio-wave frequency — 2.8 megahertz down to 200-and-some kilohertz. And they stay there a very long time, because there's nothing that was thought to scatter them.
When satellites were first introduced — October 4, 1957 with the Soviet's Sputnik — Nick Cristofilis, a very smart physicist at the Berkeley and, I think, Livermore Laboratories, had the idea of either interfering with satellites, or learning about satellites interfering with us, or being able to raise the radio noise levels so that radars would not work very well for missile defense. He got the government to conduct, I believe, three or four very low-yield — about one kiloton — nuclear explosions beyond the atmosphere. These nuclear explosives were launched individually from sounding rockets from the deck of an aircraft carrier [Actually the USS Norton Sound—built as a seaplane tender] in the South Atlantic. The explosion gave rise to nuclear fission, of course, and the fission products became — within a few seconds, injected high-energy electrons — that is, several million electron volts — into the Van Allen Belts. So we were able to determine how long the electrons were there, which was a very long time, and determine whether this was a threat or a weapon that we could use. I wasn't involved in that.
In the normal course of events, much later the Atomic Energy Commission conducted nuclear effects tests — that is, not to test whether a nuclear weapon would work, but to see what its effects were underground, in the atmosphere, in the water. So on July 7th, I think, 1962, there was the event codenamed STARFISH which was a thermonuclear explosion of 1.4 megatons at 400-kilometer altitude over the test site in the Pacific. This had been —
400 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The atmosphere goes to no more than 100 kilometers, so this was well above the atmosphere. It was a lot of instrumentation to look at radar blackout as the X-rays and gamma rays struck the atmosphere all over within line of site — and to look at electromagnetic pulse, which was a very big effect, and not understood at that time at all. In order to determine whether this was safe environmentally, it was reviewed at various levels, including the President's Science Advisory Committee — a review chaired by W.K.H. Panofsky, nickname Pief.
I wasn't involved in that review [nor was Pief]. It probably had some special classification — not weapon classification. I had all those tickets but some need-to-know, because of its political sensitivity, I suppose. So when the event took place, it was a surprise. Even people with clearances don't know everything that's going on. There's just too much to know — even things to which they have access. So it was a big surprise. Satellites were suffering. The Bell Labs satellite Telstar, I believe, had just been put up, I think, on July 2nd, just days before the STARFISH event. There was a very good person from Bell Labs with whom I dealt. I forget his name. Maybe it was Brown, but I'll think of it — or look it up.
The original endorsers of the STARFISH event, Panofsky and others, were unavailable. Panofsky was off on one of his annual treks to Baja, California. I was available in New York, so I was asked by Jerry Wiesner to come down and see what was happening with this mess — in particular, what would be the radiation exposure of satellites — whether satellites would die — and particularly whether the Soviet cosmonauts, who were in orbit at that time, would be injured or killed by the radiation.
I needed to get up to speed on what was happening, both on the nuclear weapon aspects of it and the trapped electron aspects of it, that I had never studied in detail before. And I needed to contact the various players in this. Those were the ones who were providing data, such as Bell Labs and NASA. When you do a Google search with STARFISH, Hess, and NASA, you find a very good paper, and it talks about artificial belts and early studies. There were three small bombs in the ARGUS experiment. That was the codename of the Cristofilis 1958 experiment, and it was a great success. It was published the next year.
Can you email that link to me directly from that?
The link? Yeah, sure. I can do that. To return to my involvement: I needed to contact the players in this, and Bill Hess from NASA was a key person. Of course governments are very sensitive to what is being published in the press, and all kinds of things were published in the press because people would talk to the press before they really understood what was going on. I had no censorship powers, but I tried to persuade people that it would be better for everybody if they distinguished between what they knew and what they only conjectured.
In any case, we did analyze what was going on with the help of information from the various satellites: Explorer satellites, Bell Labs's Telstar Satellite, and the like. The ARGUS electrons had mostly decayed after a few weeks, but the STARFISH electrons were injected much higher in the atmosphere, despite the fact that the explosion was at 400 kilometers. The plasma bubble caused by the explosion was squeezed by the magnetic field to higher altitude, and many of the fission product decays, and the electrons were born there, so they lived a longer time.
At least three satellites died because of radiation damage to their solar panels. When the cosmonauts came down in the normal course of time, their film badges — their dosimeters — were read on the reviewing stand, as I recall — the first time this had been done — reassuring us that they had not gotten an abnormal dose of radiation.
Had the Soviets been informed of STARFISH? I mean, they obviously detected it…
I don't know that the Soviets had been informed in advance. That would be interesting. I just don't know.
Or even while this whole issue was being debated by the US government?
Oh, I'm sure that somebody talked to them. I did not, but that's the sort of thing that you would do. But it was not anything I was concerned with. Carl Kaysen would probably know. Carl Kaysen at MIT was Deputy National Security Adviser to McGeorge Bundy and is a very wise person who still has all his marbles and would be an interesting person for you to talk to.
In any case, since President Kennedy had declared the Apollo program with the goal to putting a man on the moon within the decade of the 1960s and bringing him back safely, STARFISH was a big problem. The electrons in the radiation belts would give such a dose for the Apollo spacecraft going through the belts that people could not traverse it safely. Kennedy was worried that this AEC experiment had killed the Apollo program. So we looked at that, and Jerry Wiesner took me to see President Kennedy, who was quite interested. We talked for half an hour. For a long time I recalled it was just Wiesner, and the President, and myself, but recently Carl Kaysen reminded me that he was there, as was Glenn Seaborg.
Was this in the Oval Office?
Yes — Seaborg was AEC commissioner at that time, chairman of the AEC at that time. All we could tell Kennedy at that time was that it looked as if the electrons would last for a long time, but we didn't know how long, and that there were ways to sweep the belts, for instance, but we hadn't done much work on that. Fortunately, as time went on, we could actually see the electrons decaying from the belts — that is, getting scattered so that they would come farther down in the atmosphere where they were absorbed harmlessly. And you could tell this by looking at the radio noise, which had been much elevated by these trapped electrons, thereby earning the government the antipathy of radio astronomers the world over.
Fortunately there were unrecognized effects that limit the life of the electrons in the belts. Doesn't change the steady state, when you have electrons going into the belts all the time from neutron decay, from cosmic-ray protons, and so they go in steadily they come out steadily, and the number that is there is the number that is there. But if you have an impulsive addition of electrons, then they decay more or less exponentially — different time constants for different electrons and for different positions. Although a few lasted for five years, most of them were gone in a few months, and they were not a hazard to the Apollo program.
I had this very intense and sudden immersion — full-time for two weeks, as I recall — in what was possibly a serious, national emergency and met a lot of people in fields with which I was not familiar: Carl McIlwain, a plasma physicist from the University of California at San Diego — UCSD — this person Brown — who is referred to also in the NASA document — from Bell Labs, Bill Hess, and a good many other people.
You said last night that you taught President Kennedy a new phrase.
Oh yes. Kennedy asked how long the electrons would last, or what would be the dose to the astronauts, and we hadn't figured it exactly. It would take computer calculations, but you could estimate. So I told him, "Well, to within an order of magnitude, it was this or that." The president had never heard the phrase 'order of magnitude' — the term 'order of magnitude' — and he asked what it was. I said it was a factor 10, maybe plus or minus a factor 3. So he turned to Glenn Seaborg, and he said, "Now Glenn, when you tell me something, I should believe it only to an order of magnitude?" Carl Kaysen loves to tell that story.
You also said that there was a New York Times strike going on.
Yes, there was a New York Times strike. Mostly I'm very unhappy when I can't get my New York Times, but this time I wasn't so unhappy because that was one less outlet for publishing things that would be embarrassing to the government.
But the potential jeopardy to the Apollo program, et cetera, was that —
I don't recall that. No, I don't recall whether the question of Apollo… I suppose, because people were restrained in their discussions. When you're trying to get the answers, there's a free press, and that's okay — but it's a big problem for the people who are trying to do the work.
I don't know if it was Teller or who it was that, around the time of the Trinity test or something like that, was raising the question of —
Of igniting the atmosphere, yeah.
igniting the atmosphere… answered in the negatiive. This seems to be some type of parallel event.
Very different, because if you have nuclear reactions in the atmosphere and the entire atmosphere goes off like an enormous, enormous, enormous hydrogen bomb, that'd be bad for everybody on Earth, whereas not going to the moon for 20 years, not so bad.
But in terms of all of the environment issues that people talk about — humans affecting the planet — the idea of setting up a new —
Yeah, gratuitously doing that and barring access of people to space and strongly limiting the peaceful use of space by satellites, it would've been something to have been regretted, so it's a good thing it came out all right. The government had another problem: They were very active scientifically in exploring this new environment and in turning it to mostly military uses.
So there was another experiment called Needles, or whatever. The idea was that, in order to foil the use of radars that would otherwise be able to detect incoming missile warheads, one could deploy belts of chaff — that is, very thin, metallic needles, actually aluminized quartz or glass needles which are very stiff. They don't have to be very fat in order to be stiff enough, and they don't have to be all aluminum. They can be [aluminum coated] glass. The question is, can you — and they very efficiently reflect radar waves, so if I have a much less than hair-thin needle, which is five-centimeters long, two-inches long, then it reflects 10-centimeter — that is, S-band radar waves — just as well as if it were a 10-centimeter disc or sphere. So it's a very good way of efficiently getting a lot of scattering in space, or, for that matter, in the atmosphere. This was used in World War II — it was called chaff — by the United States and “Window” by the British, and of course it was secret when it was first introduced. These were largely aluminum foil strips.
For use in confusing air-defense radars, airplanes would have rockets that would put out puffs of chaff, and the chaff of course would float down through the atmosphere. So it would only serve its purpose for a while, but in orbit, it could stay a very long time.
The question was, how useful would this be? Can one unclump — how do you spread the chaff so it doesn't stick together? As I recall, it was cast into naphthalene or some other material which sublimes, so you wouldn't have surface tension which, as a liquid, would hold the particles together. It would be spinning, perhaps, and then how long do they stay — because they are subject to radiation pressure, solar pressure, which is substantial on such tiny things.
So there was a well-defined experiment to be done, and the first thing that happened, of course, was that this secret experiment was detected by radio astronomers because the needles reflected radio waves from the Earth's surface. Now radio astronomers — who were looking with their sensitive telescopes through the atmosphere, which is transparent, and through space out to stars and the distant universe — suddenly saw a lot of background. They saw all the radars on Earth, and TV transmissions, and so on reflected from these needles within the line of sight of their telescopes. I was not primarily involved in that, but it was a big public relations problem and could have been a very serious scientific problem as well. But again, these things didn't last very long, and in fact, I don't believe that the needles were very properly deployed. I think only a small fraction of them — but I don't remember. It would have to be checked.
The PSAC safety report about STARFISH. Is that something that would exist in the Kennedy library?
Yeah, I think it must. The person you talk to about these things is David Beckler, who was the Executive Secretary of PSAC throughout its existence — from 1956 until 1973.
Where is he now?
He is in Alexandria, Virginia, and in Florida. I don't think we've given you his coordinates, but we will.
You've certainly given me his name.
Okay, I'll give you his coordinates. Also Carl Kaysen's. Okay?
Great. No, I think the STARFISH thing is a very interesting story.
Yes, there are so many interesting stories.
I have to get excited by something and latch onto it.
Good. All right, the next challenge is to get into NYC. [End of recorded material]