In addition to the natural radiation dangers which will confront the space traveler, we must also consider manmade perils which may exist during time of war. In particular, the use of nuclear weapons may pose a serious problem to manned military space operations. The singular emergence of man as the most vulnerable component of a space-weapon system becomes dramatically apparent when nuclear weapon effects in space are contrasted with the effects which occur within the Earth's atmosphere.

When a nuclear weapon is detonated close to the Earth's surface the density of the air is sufficient to attenuate nuclear radiation (neutrons and gamma rays) to such a degree that the effects of these radiations are generally less important than the effects of blast and thermal radiation. The relative magnitudes of blast, thermal and nuclear radiation effects are shown in figure 1 for a nominal fission weapon (20 kilotons) at sea level.1

The solid portions of the three curves correspond to significant levels of blast, thermal, and nuclear radiation intensities. Blast overpressures of the order of 4 to 10 pounds per square inch will destroy most structures. Thermal intensities of the order of 4 to 10 calories per square centimeter will produce severe burns to exposed persons. Nuclear radiation dosages in the range 500 to 5,000 roentgens are required to produce death or quick incapacitation in humans.

1 The Effect of Nuclear Weapons, U. S. Department of Defense, published by the Atomic Energy Commission, June 1957.



graph indicating the radius of the area affected by the different weapon detonations

Fig. 1 - Weapon effects at surface (20 KT)

If a nuclear weapon is exploded in a vacuum-i. e., in space-the complexion of weapon effects changes drastically:

First, in the absence of an atmosphere, blast disappears completely.

Second, thermal radiation, as usually defined, also disappears. There is no longer any air for the blast wave to heat and much higher frequency radiation is emitted from the weapon itself.


Third, in the absence of the atmosphere, nuclear radiation will suffer no physical attenuation and the only degradation in intensity will arise from reduction with distance. As a result the range of significant dosages will be many times greater than is the case at sea level.

Figure 2 shows the dosage-distance relationship for a 20-kiloton explosion when the burst takes place at sea level and when the burst takes place in space. We see that in the range 500 to 5,000 roentgens the space radii are of the order of 8 to 17 times as large as the sea-level radii. At lower dosages the difference between the two cases becomes even larger.

graph of the radiation dosage relative to distance from a nuclear explosion

Fig. 2 - Nuclear radiation intensities (20 KT)


A yield of 20 kilotons has been used here as an example to show the dominance of nuclear radiation effects in space; however, it may well be that multimegaton warheads, rather than 20-kiloton warheads, will be far more representative of space defense applications. With such weapons the lethal radii (from nuclear radiation) in space may be of the order of hundreds of miles. The meaning of such huge lethal radii in possible future space warfare cannot now be assessed. It does seem clear, however, that manned space combat vehicles, unless heavy shielding is feasible, will be considerably more vulnerable to nuclear defense weapons than their unmanned counterparts.


On August 1 and 12, 1958, nuclear warheads were detonated in missiles over Johnston Island in the Pacific.2 3 These detonations were accompanied by impressive visual displays seen over wide areas, leading observers to the opinion that the detonations took place at very high altitudes.4-7 These displays were even seen on Samoa, some 2,000 miles from Johnston Island.

The visual displays were accompanied by disruptive effects on radio communications. Specifically, most commercial communication systems operating on the high-frequency (about 5 to 25 megacycles) bands in the Pacific noted substantial disturbances. Most links within a few hundred miles of Johnston Island experienced "outages" for as long as several hours, at various times over a period of about a day. In general, the effects on high-frequency communication links appear to have been quite similar to the effects produced by giant solar flares.

2 Note to Editors and Correspondents, U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Defense, Joint Office of Test Information, August 1, 1958

3 Note to Editors and Correspondents, U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Defense, Joint Office of Test Information, August 12, 1958.

4 Atomic-Like Flash Seen Here-Nuclear Rocket Test Indicated, The Honolulu Advertiser, August 1, 1958.

5 Samoa Bulletin, August 1, 1958.

6 Samoa Bulletin August 15. 1958.

7 Cullington, A Man-Made or Artificial Aurora, Nature, vol. 182, No. 4646, November 15, 1958, p. 1365.