I grew up in the nuclear age and have been touched repeatedly by the devastation it has wreaked on people, both as weapon and source of energy. My father, an aircraft electrician, worked on the planes that were involved in the Nevada nuclear tests. I attended 7th grade in Albuquerque, where my father was stationed, and watched early morning local television to see if the “payload” flights had been “successful” that day. During the 1950s and 60s, some two hundred such tests were made in southern Nevada. However, my most direct brush with the power of atomic energy was in July of 1962. I witnessed the explosion of a 1.44 megaton nuclear bomb called Starfish Prime. I was in Hawaii where lights and televisions failed and power lines fused, according to one report. Satellites were disabled by radiation. This was a high altitude test conducted by the Defense Atomic Support Agency and the Atomic Energy Commission. The bomb was launched by a Thor rocket and the explosion took place 250 miles above Johnston Island in the Pacific. The “official” description of the phenomena visible in the sky up to 1400 miles away matches closely what I saw:
“…a brilliant white flash burned through the clouds rapidly changing to an expanding green ball of irradiance extending into the clear sky above the overcast. From its surface extruded great white fingers, resembling cirro-stratus clouds, which rose to 40 degrees above the horizon in sweeping arcs turning downward toward the poles and disappearing in seconds to be replaced by spectacular concentric cirrus like rings moving out from the blast at tremendous initial velocity…As the greenish light turned to purple and began to fade at the point of burst, a bright red glow began to develop on the horizon at a direction 50 degrees north of east and simultaneously 50 degrees south of east expanding inward and upward until the whole eastern sky was a dull burning red semicircle 100 degrees north to south and halfway to the zenith obliterating some of the lesser stars. This condition, interspersed with tremendous white
rainbows, persisted no less than seven minutes.”
That experience, when I was 19 years old and headed for the Sarawak, a Crown Colony on the Island of Borneo, heralded, for me, a new awareness of the horrors of war and the dangerous follies of men and governments. As a child who had been drilled in elementary school to hide under a flimsy wooden desk should the Russians come, it gave me no joy to watch the “light show” that seemed to thrill so many that long ago summer in the Pacific.