And it was about to crash into the Earth.
If you remember the late 1970s, you’ll recall two major events: Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Popular American culture in 1978 and 1979 embraced the now-common tropes of shadowy government agencies, arrivals from space and and tiger teams responding to nuclear emergencies.
Lending credence to these pop culture tropes was a real-life Cold War incident involving crashing satellites, radioactive contamination and some of the worst weather on Earth. A near-disaster created a golden opportunity for nuclear incident response training, and still pays dividends today—while the source of the problem still lurks in our skies.
Both sides’ satellites played crucial roles during the Soviet Navy’s surge in strength in the 1970s. American satellites tracked Soviet naval deployments, while the Soviets returned the favor. Soviet high-powered low-orbit radar satellites, called RORSATS in the West, used small nuclear reactors to supply the radars’ big power needs. The low orbits precluded solar panels, due to drag: even a wisp of atmosphere at those altitudes could pull the satellite down.
(Recommended: Is It Time to Bring Back the Battleships?)
Soviet engineers designed the RORSATs to ascend to a higher orbit at their end of mission, and eject their reactor cores into a centuries-long “graveyard orbit.” But not every maneuver went smoothly.
In late 1977, a Soviet RORSAT, designated Kosmos 954, began behaving erratically shortly after launch. Ground controllers struggled to control the spacecraft and the reactor-ejection maneuver failed. In December, the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) began planning for an uncontrolled re-entry. In January, Kosmos 954 lost all attitude control and began its descent.
(Recommended: 5 Ultimate Battleships)
The USSR remained tight-lipped throughout the crisis, but eventually confirmed the loss of Kosmos 954 and its on-board nuclear reactor. The Soviet Union assured the world that the falling spacecraft would burn up during re-entry. The U.S. took no chances and stood up a whole-of-government response.