The Rainbow Bombs


NPR's Robert Krulwich had a fascinating story the other day that works even better online. Because there are slideshows and video footage of Starfish Prime, the hydrogen bomb the US detonated in space on July 9, 1962.

The launch occurred on Johnston Island in the South Pacific, and was part of an early test of ICBM technology--and an attempt to understand the weaponizing potential of the earth's Van Allen radiation belts. Just in case Moscow was up to anything funny.

Scott Hansen pointed to Peter Kuran's excellent-sounding documentaries about atomic testing, including Nukes in Space: The Rainbow Bombs.


Almost a thousand miles away, Hawaii had been primed for a potentially "dazzling" light show. NPR's lead-in called it "the single greatest manmade light show America has ever created."

And Starfish Prime delivered. Cecil Coale, who was involved with the launch and monitoring it from Johnston Island, described the flash that turned night to day and the ionizing rainbow that followed:
"It was like a flashbulb...then the sky turned green for a second.

then yellow and blue, "really vivid, unnatural bright color."

Then red. "it wasn't shimmering it was glowing red like a neon sign. Then it slowly disappeared, there wasn't any sound to this at all, it was entirely visual...i think about this every day of my life."

Listen to the Bomb Watchers [npr]
DOE library of historical nuclear test films of Operation Dominic, Operation Fishbowl, and Starfish Prime []

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: July 5, 2010.

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