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Rockets over Alaska for more than three decades
By Ned Rozell


May 07, 2006

On a midwinter night almost 40 years ago, an American B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed into a bay near Thule, Greenland. From that event came an opportunity for a would-be rocket range in Alaska.
jpg rocket launches

A rocket launches from Poker Flat Research Range in Interior Alaska.
Photo courtesy Geophysical Institute

"The Danes were not happy with the U.S. military at that point because the Danes thought that the United States had promised not to deploy nuclear bombs in Greenland," Neil Davis wrote in his new book, Rockets over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat (Alaska-Yukon Press). "An immediate consequence of the bomber crash at Thule was that Denmark essentially threw the U.S. military out of Greenland."

A later consequence of the bomber crash was the creation of a facility to launch rockets in Interior Alaska. When the Danish government wouldn't let the military launch rockets from Greenland as part of a study of how nuclear blasts affected the upper atmosphere, a plan was waiting on deck.

Davis and his colleagues at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks had wanted to build a rocket range from which to study properties of the aurora. With sketches in hand and a lease available on land near Chatanika, 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks, Davis and his cohorts were ready when the federal government explored the possibility of a rocket range in Interior Alaska.

The Interior was a good choice for blasting rockets 60 or more miles into the sky. Few people live in the places where those rockets would arc to the ground, and most of that ground is federal land. Researchers who wished to retrieve their rocket payloads could also do it easier on the tundra of northern Alaska than from the ocean, the landing point of rockets fired from most other northern ranges.

With a verbal agreement for a good chunk of the $100,000 needed, "so began a crash program that would involve roughly half of the Geophysical Institute's staff before it was over in March 1969," Davis wrote.

They finished the only university-owned rocket range in time for the launches that had been scheduled to go from Thule. In the years since, more than 300 large rockets have blasted into the cold night air from Poker Flat Research Range, and NASA has 10 launches scheduled at Poker Flat for January and February of 2007. The Department of Defense sponsored many of the early launches to learn more about the ionosphere-the thin air from about 50 to 600 miles over our heads-and how nuclear warfare might affect it. Since 1996, NASA has sponsored almost all of the rockets launched from Poker Flat. On most of those missions, researchers have tried to find out more of the basic properties of the aurora and the nature of the place where it exists, the ionosphere.

jpg Poker Flat Research Range

A look from above at Poker Flat Research Range northeast of Fairbanks.
Photograph by Deborah Coccia-Manning

The range has remained useable because the area is much like it was in the 1960s, Davis wrote.

" . . .Other than a four-foot-diameter oil pipeline running across this vast land from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, not much has changed out there during the ensuing past three decades."

On another subject, Neil Davis in 1976 wrote the first "Alaska Science Forum" on Augustine volcano, which was erupting then as it is now. At the urging of UAF history professor Claus-M Naske, Neil started this newspaper column of science for non-scientists as a community service. The Geophysical Institute has funded it in the 30 years since. Since Neil's final article in 1982, seismologist Larry Gedney, meteorologist Sue Ann Bowling, writer Carla Helfferich, a few other people and I have written the column. This is number 1,801. From me, a thanks to Neil for starting the science column, and another thanks to the directors of the Geophysical Institute-Keith Mather, Juan Roederer, Syun-Ichi Akasofu and Roger Smith-for keeping it alive.


This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.

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