[Feb. 26, 1960] Fair Warning (a mystery launch)

Something took off today from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, not far from Cocoa Beach.

There was no official announcement, and the mission was almost assuredly solely military in nature.  An Atlas ICBM, clearly modified for satellite launch (note the second-stage booster), took off around 10:30 AM, Florida time.  After a flawless take-off, observers saw the booster break up before the second stage could separate.  No one knows why.

Could the launch have just been a test of this new second stage?  Or was there a payload on board?  The latter is likely—why waste a perfectly good missile?  It must have been something heavy and sophisticated, bigger than the Discoverer spy satellites… er… biological return capsules, to require such a heavy booster.  Either that or it was intended for a higher orbit. 

The rumor I have been hearing is that the Air Force has been developing satellites for detecting a ballistic missile attack.  Right now, it is impossible to tell if the Soviets have launched nuclear missiles against the United States until just a few minutes before impact, when the rockets cross our chain of Alaskan and Canadian radars known as BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System).  These installations complement the DEW line of radar outposts designed to spot enemy bombers

Five minutes is not much time for the President to evaluate the magnitude of an attack, much less frame an appropriate response.  It would be better if we could see the Soviet missiles as they take off, giving our government perhaps twenty minutes to respond. 

Unfortunately, you can’t see a Soviet missile launch from the ground; the Earth gets in the way.  From space, however, a satellite could detect the hot flash as the Russian birds leave their bases, so the theory goes. 

Those fifteen minutes could make all the difference.  The longer the lead time, the less of an advantage the Soviets get from a surprise strike, and the less likely they are to launch one.  With the Doomsday Clock just two minutes from midnight, any defuser of tension is welcome.

Of course, the details of the launch were classified, and the mission was unsuccessful anyway, so we’re not likely to hear about the real purpose of the launch for many years to come.  But I thought you’d want the latest space news, speculative as it may be.

See you soon with this month’s IF!

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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