Thirty-eight years ago today, on January 24, 1978, a Soviet satellite partially burned up in Earth orbit and a few scattered pieces fell to the ground across north-central Canada. Although it was a big deal in Canada, not many people remember the incident involving “Kosmos 954,” as the Russians called it, but like the Goldsboro crash, which by coincidence happened exactly 17 years before, it represented a very narrow miss with what could have been one of the most awful catastrophes in recent history. You see, Kosmos 954 was lethally radioactive, and that its accidental crash occurred in one of the most thinly-populated regions of Canada is no more than a lucky break. Incidents like Kosmos 954 demonstrate the toxic legacy of the Cold War and how dangerous, not just politically but environmentally, the long U.S.-Soviet struggle for world influence really was.
The story of Kosmos 954 begins with the Cold War. During the 1960s and 1970s the USSR began increasing its spending on military assets, not just nuclear weapons but also conventional ones, especially naval vessels. The United States and its NATO allies responded in kind. In order to track each others’ ships, both military and civilian, the US and USSR started launching lots of surveillance satellites equipped with big radar systems. The Soviet program was known in the west as RORSAT. The thing was, radar operations in space are pretty energy intensive, which meant these satellites had to have a blockbuster power source. Ignoring their own terrifyingly spotty track record with nuclear power, somebody came up with the bright idea of powering these satellites with nuclear reactors. An added danger was that in order to operate effectively these satellites had to be placed in precisely the right orbit, which made for an even smaller margin of error. The first RORSAT was launched in 1967. The program had a few misses, such as launch and orbit failures in 1970 and 1973, but the Soviets kept going. Kosmos 954 blasted off on September 18, 1977. Something went wrong; by December controllers knew its orbit was unstable. The Soviets reluctantly warned the U.S. military that they’d lost control of the ship. It was bound to come down somewhere.
Operation Morning Light members, U.S. and Canadian teams, picked up the Russians’ contaminated space junk–mostly by hand–in the early months of 1978.
The Russians assured everyone that Kosmos 954 would either burn up in re-entry, or, if pieces did survive into the atmosphere, they’d come down in the ocean somewhere. American scientists and military planners weren’t so sure. As they watched the orbit of Kosmos 954 decay in January 1978 various agencies including the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST) began to prepare for a possible hail of highly radioactive space junk on a populated area. The problem was Kosmos’s cargo of dense uranium discs, packed together in the cylinder of the ship like hockey pucks. These “pucks” were so radioactive that they could kill anyone who came near them.
On January 24, 1978, Kosmos 954 re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and became a potentially lethal falling star. As American experts feared, various pieces did survive re-entry, and they were scattered along a 15,000 mile streak across northern Canada–a fortunate occurrence. Another lucky break was that none of the “pucks” made it through the atmosphere completely intact. Still, the effort to recover the bits of lethal space junk was considerable, with American and Canadian teams working in tandem in an effort called Operation Morning Light. It sounds like some of the search teams had quite an adventure, slogging through snowy Canadian forests in fur-lined parkas and moose-skin boots; they had orders not to wear radiation suits for fear of frightening local residents. The most dangerous parts of the satellite had fallen onto the frozen surface of Great Slave Lake. When the ice melted in the spring the bits fell out into the lake bed, making it unlikely someone would come in contact with them. Again, this was more luck than anything else.
In order to clean up the Kosmos 954 debris, the teams first had to find it–and not get lost themselves. In the days before GPS systems, this involved a lot of complicated logistics.
When it was all over no one had been seriously hurt or sickened by the debris from Kosmos 954, but there had to be a reckoning. The government of Canada sent the USSR a bill for over $6 million to pay for the cleanup. After the crusty Communists shouted “NYET!” in deafening unison, an international legal tussle began, ultimately resulting in the Soviets coughing up about half of the cleanup bill. More importantly, a legal precedent was set holding that countries who launch space vehicles are legally liable for the damages they might cause. (Seems only fair, right?) Incredibly the Soviets continued with their dangerous RORSAT program, and continued to have problems. Another similar satellite, Kosmos 1402, went rogue in 1983 but its debris landed in the ocean. You think they would have learned their lesson, but Soviet leaders were famous for trying the same failed strategy over and over again hoping for different results.
The Cold War is replete with examples of dangers and near-misses, involving political miscalculations, accidents with weapons and end-of-the-world brinksmanship that at times threatened every human life on Earth. The Kosmos 954 incident shows us another side of Cold War dangers: the threat to the environment. How an ideological conflict between capitalist democracy and Communism ultimately resulted in nuke waste raining from the skies over rural Canada is one of those absurdities of history that forms part of the central truths of our times. In our technological era full of almost unlimited power, the range of unintended consequences becomes much broader.