When the U.S. Sent Several Hundred Million Needles Into Space (Project West Ford)

northernlightsIn the midst of the Cold War, forward-thinking military planners realized just how much they had come to rely on international communications. Fearing interference from the Soviet Union, in 1958, the U.S. Air Force commissioned scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory to create a space-based international system for communications by sending up several hundred million needles into space.  How would this work?  Read on!


In the 1960s, international communications were limited to transmissions through undersea cables or radio signals bounced off of the ionosphere. Were the Soviet Union to cut those cables international communications with overseas forces and foreign allies would have to rely on the mood of the ionosphere.

A region high in the atmosphere, the layer is ionized by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. The charged particles in the ionosphere can reflect, refract or absorb radio waves, either allowing for radio transmission or interfering with it. Not perfect, the region’s height and amount of ionization can vary from day to day and even where one is on the Earth. Therefore, on a given day, such as when the Sun has released a solar flare, radio transmissions that rely on the ionosphere may be impossible. This was unacceptable in the view of some military brass; thus, Project West Ford was born.

Project West Ford

The project, named presumably after Westford, Massachusetts, a nearby town, involved placing 480 million teeny, tiny (less than an inch long and microscopically skinny) copper antennae or dipoles (called needles) in a medium Earth orbit. The first attempt, in October 1961, failed when the needles refused to disperse as planned.

On a second attempt in May 1963, another 350 million needles were placed on the back of an Air Force satellite and sent into orbit. Once dispersed, the needles ultimately spread to form a sparsely concentrated belt 25 miles deep and five miles across. There were approximately 50 dipoles per cubic mile. Early results of the experiment were promising, and there were reports that the air force was considering launching two more belts to be placed permanently in orbit.


Soviets, allies and even Americans opposed the further deployment and continuance of this program.  Why? Astronomers, in particular, were afraid that the belt would interfere with their observations. As a compromise measure, the initial project incorporated a sort of planned obsolescence; that is, none of the needles would remain in orbit longer than five years.

Several groups of scientists, including the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) demanded access and consultation. Ultimately an agreement was reached which granted the scientists the ability to participate in the planning and evaluation of outer space projects.

The outrage of scientists and the reason for it was perhaps best expressed by Sir Bernard Lovell of the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory who said: “The damage lies not with this experiment alone, but with the attitude of mind which makes it possible without international agreement and safeguards.”  After all, the space above the Earth is not the United States’ alone to do with as it pleases without consulting other nations of this amazing planet of ours.


Shortly after the second group of needles was dispersed, the military deployed its first communications satellite system in 1966, making the needle system obsolete.  With this deployment, the furor died down and people, for the most part, forgot about West Ford.

So what ever happened to all the needles?  It appears that as of 2012, some of the West Ford needles remain in orbit, although how many is difficult to discern. Since it was estimated that a large number of needles had fallen in the Arctic, scientists briefly considered a recovery mission, but soon discarded it in the face of massive expense.

Ultimately, the consultation provisions of the original West Ford agreement with the IAU were included in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an agreement entered into by ninety-nine countries, that was designed to protect against the militarization and degradation of outer space. It provides that no country can claim ownership of space nor any celestial bodies; all countries will avoid contaminating both and are liable for any damage they cause; no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will be deployed or placed in orbit or on any celestial body; and no military bases may be placed on any bodies, including the Moon.

On the bright side, the treaty also includes a Good Samaritan law that provides that astronauts are “envoys of mankind in outer space and [all] shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing.”

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also enjoy:

Bonus Facts:

  • Arthur C. Clarke, known best for his science fiction writing like 2001: A Space Odyssey, first proposed using geostationary communications satellites in an editorial written for Wireless World in 1945. Today, that orbital range, which now has over 300 satellites, is named the Clarke Orbit after him.
  • The first communications satellite was launched on December 18, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. Named Signal Communication by Orbital Relay Equipment (SCORE), it was successful but of limited utility. While it received, recorded and forwarded messages that were sent from any of four stations in the U.S.  it was intended to be short-lived and its batteries gave out after just 12 days.
  • The first operational communications satellite, Boeing’s Early Bird, began commercial service on June 28, 1965, providing telephone, television, facsimile and telegraph transmissions between North America and Europe.
  • The U.S. military began its foray into satellite communications with the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System (IDSCS) that began with the launch of eight satellites on June 16, 1966. Between 1966 and 1995, a total of 50 satellites were put into orbit as part of this system.
  • From 1958 to 1962, the United States tested 11 nuclear bombs either in the atmosphere or just above it. On July 9, 1962, a 1.45 megaton hydrogen bomb was detonated in low earth orbit. The operation, code named Starfish Prime, was intended to disrupt the eponymous radiation fields recently discovered by James Van Allen. Mindboggling, Professor Van Allen participated in the experiment. When the bomb exploded, rather than destroying or disrupting the existing belts, it created an extension of them that stretched from Hawaii (near where they conducted the experiment) to New Zealand. It is believed it took the artificial radiation belt between one and two years to decay.
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