What the age of nuclear testing can teach us

We live in promising and sometimes frightening times, but the history pointed to in our cover story reminds me that we’ve been here before and survived.

The late 1940s through the early ’60s were a time of scary nuclear experimentation, as you can see in our cover story. The device set off at the Trinity Site in New Mexico in 1945 had not set the entire atmosphere ablaze, as nuclear physicist Edward Teller warned colleagues it might. So, with the Cold War raging, U.S. and Soviet scientists began exploding nuclear devices in all sorts of places: under the sea, in the atmosphere and in space, the subject of our cover story. It was science, but as with the Apollo program, I suspect that each side wanted to demonstrate technical prowess domestically, as well as convince developing nations that its way was superior and they should therefore join the winning team.

With his arrival in 1961, President John F. Kennedy tried to shift the competition to one about wisdom rather than weapons. He had opposed nuclear testing since 1956 amid the on-and-off discussions of the United Nations Disarmament Commission about the issue. But according to JFK’s presidential library, his “political and military advisors feared that the Soviet Union had continued secret underground testing and made gains in nuclear technology. They pressured Kennedy to resume testing.”

Space testing actually peaked in 1962 under his administration.

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ultimately, reason prevailed, and the Soviet Union and United States signed what is formally known as the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Kennedy signed it about a month before his assassination.

Now, here we are again. Russia, according to U.S intelligence, wants to orbit a nuclear bomb as an anti-satellite weapon. Will the U.S. decide it must do something to demonstrate its superior technical prowess? That does not seem implausible. The U.S. might have done the equivalent in 2008’s Operation Burnt Frost, when it downed one of its own defunct satellites with a missile. Most observers believe this was a response to China’s destruction of one of its own dead satellites with a conventional anti-satellite weapon, and was meant to show how an anti-satellite weapon could be tested responsibly.

Personally, I’m rooting for what happens next to be a competition of wisdom, as I believe JFK would have preferred.

About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

What the age of nuclear testing can teach us