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America Bet 500 Million Tiny Copper Space Wires Would Help Beat the Soviets

During the Cold War, filling space with tiny copper bits didn't seem like such a bad idea

Photo: Theen Moy

Cold War America was a crazy place. We were edging into space, we had the bomb, and, after World War II, we were infatuated with Big Engineering. Government-backed scientists dreamed up a lot of crazy schemes, and some of them, like the U.S. military’s plan to fill space with tiny little copper wires, were actually carried out—at least in part.

Writing for Wired, Joe Hanson lays out the plot of Project West Ford. By scattering millions of teeny copper wires in orbit around the planet, the military figured it could build a gigantic radio reflector in space, ensuring American long-range radio communications no matter what happened down on Earth.

In war, communication is everything. But undersea cables, says Hanson, are vulnerable to attack, and so-called “over-the-horizon radio”—sending radio signals to far-off lands by bouncing them off the ionosphere, a part of the upper atmosphere—is fickle. So, obviously, a gigantic orbiting space radio reflector was the way to go.

Today it’s hard to imagine a time where filling space with millions of tiny metal projectiles was considered a good idea. But West Ford was spawned before men had set foot in space, when generals were in charge of NASA’s rockets, and most satellites and spacecraft hadn’t flown beyond the drafting table. The agency operated under a “Big Sky Theory.” Surely space is so big that the risks of anything crashing into a stray bit of space junk were miniscule compared to the threat of communism.

So, in 1963, America carried out her plan:

On May 9, 1963, a second West Ford launch successfully dispersed its spindly cargo approximately 3,500 kilometers above the Earth, along an orbit that crossed the North and South Pole. Voice transmissions were successfully relayed between California and Massachusetts, and the technical aspects of the experiment were declared a success.

Like Project Plowsharethe Soviet’s plan to reverse the ocean and many of the other big ideas dreamed up during the Cold War, this one went forward without much thought for the consequences. Hundreds or thousands of those miniature space needles may still be careening around in space, cluttering up ever-more-important lane ways. All that, too, for not much benefit: the project was outdated pretty much as soon as it got going, as soon enough communications satellites were doing a better job at relaying information than space wires ever could.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The U.S. Once Wanted To Use Nuclear Bombs as a Construction Tool
Russia’s Cold War Plan to Reverse the Ocean and Melt the Arctic
Weather Control as a Cold War Weapon
Cold War–Era Science Shows Beer Will Survive a Nuclear Apocalypse

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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