USAF Accidentally Launched Rocket into Mexico’s Mapimi Desert 45 Years Ago

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tags: Mexico, USAF

On July 11, 1970, the United States Air Force launched an ATHENA V-123-D rocket from Green River Launch Complex in Utah. While its intended target was the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, it impacted “180-200 miles south of the Mexican border,” according to a recently released memorandum sent from the desk of Henry Kissinger, then serving as National Security Advisor to President Nixon. The document cites “abnormal re-entry into the atmosphere” as the reason why the rocket landed in the Mapimi desert, a “sparsely populated” area in the Northeast corner of the state of Durango. While the three-paragraph memorandum may seem as though the mishap was nothing to be concerned about (noting the Mexican Government’s “willingness to grant clearance and assist in any search efforts”), the cleanup effort was long, costly, and included the construction of a road through the Mapimi desert to excavate hundreds of tons of soil from the impact site. The scale of the cleanup was due to the fact that the rocket was carrying two small vials of cobalt 57, an isotope used to enhance radioactive fallout with the intention of contaminating large areas of land (commonly referred to as a “salted bomb”).

According to a 1971 report from the Office of Air Force History, the ATHENA rocket tests at Green River were part of the Advanced Ballistic Reentry System (ABRES) program. The program “developed and tested promising reentry vehicles and penetration aid devices for use on present and future ballistic missile systems.” While the Atlas test flights under the same program “gathered valuable reentry vehicle performance data” that contributed to the development of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV), the Athena launch program was “suspended in July 1968 after three consecutive flight failures.” But the report notes that after its reactivation in November of the same year, the program yielded “thirteen successful Athena launches” that “carried a variety of payloads” and aided the development of “reentry vehicles [that] altered their ballistic paths upon command.“ But despite these advances, “ABRES program funding dropped from $147.7 million to $105 million” between 1966 and 1969, which forced the Air Force “to postpone development of the improved Athena H booster.” Since MIRV research and development was the program’s main concern at this time, “test range operations—deeply cut in fiscal year 1970…would have to be slashed even more than before.” Combined with the Athena program’s flight record prior to the 1970 test range budget cuts, the ATHENA rocket misfire that occurred at Green River on July 11th of the same year doesn’t seem like as much of an unexpected anomaly as Kissinger’s memorandum to President Nixon makes it sound.

In fact, there seems to be a good amount of evidence pointing to the fact that the ramifications of a misfired rocket impacting foreign soil were not only considered prior to the construction of Green River Launch Complex, but were taken seriously enough to halt launch plans at other facilities for fear of triggering an international incident. On August 11, 1963, a memorandum entitled “Report on Peacetime Launch From ICBM Operational Sites” was sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggesting that despite “the limited record of past performance of [the Air Force’s] liquid–fueled missiles…we do not have high confidence that such tests would be completely successful.” The report goes on to note that “public acceptance of overflight by test shots in the vicinity of our national ranges has been encouraging and the public is willing to accept some risk if such tests appear necessary in the national interest.”

Read entire article at The National Security Archive

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