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Key point: The space race is back on,
In 1962, U.S. president John F. Kennedy was in a bind. He was eager to negotiate a nuclear test ban with the Soviet Union. But the Soviets had recently shattered a three-year test moratorium and now Kennedy was under pressure to respond with a display of strength.
One eventual result was America’s Cold War nuclear satellite-killer — a missile that could lob an atomic warhead into Earth’s orbit and fry enemy spacecraft. So-called Program 437 was active between 1963 and 1975 and remained a secret for a full year.
Bowing to pressure from his more hawkish advisers, Kennedy approved the Project Starfish atmospheric nuclear tests.
The tests had an interesting and frightening side effect, as the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon wrote:
At least six satellites were victimized by Starfish Prime: the British Ariel I, the U.S. Traac, Transit 4B, Injun I, Telstar I and the Soviet Kosmos 5. The most famous victim of Starfish Prime’s electromagnetic pulse effects was Telstar, which enabled the transmission of images across the Atlantic, just as the British music invasion of the U.S. airwaves was building.
Before the Beatles scored their first number-one hit and transfixed viewers on the Ed Sullivan Show, another British band, The Tornados, topped the U.S. charts with Telstar, an instrumental inspired by the satellite. Telstar was dying from nuclear effects while it was #1 on the Hit Parade.
The Pentagon was thrilled at the accidental proof that a nuclear device exploding in the high atmosphere could knock out spacecraft. Now America had a way of shooting down Soviet satellites. U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel Clayton Chun described the resulting Program 437 in a paper for the Air University Press in 2000:
he Air Force was able to rapidly cobble together an operational system out of deactivated missile components, existing launch pads, and a space tracking system to create the capability to use nuclear antisatellite weapons in a direct ascent mode to destroy orbiting space vehicles. …