Sometime in the summer of 1958, Hanson Baldwin, a longtime military correspondent for The New York Times, uncovered the Pentagon’s latest, biggest secret. Dubbed Operation Argus, it was the brainchild of the eccentric Greek-American physicist Nicholas Christofilos, a response to the fears of a possible Soviet missile attack that gripped the United States in the wake of Sputnik the previous autumn. Argus would detonate atomic weapons in outer space, creating an artificial radiation belt in Earth’s magnetic field that would supposedly fry incoming Soviet warheads in flight. Already, in utmost secrecy, an enormous naval task force was assembling in the remotest spot on the planet, the frigid South Atlantic, to launch nuclear missiles from the rolling deck of a ship in a crazily ambitious Cold War gamble.
A key player in Argus was America’s latest satellite, Explorer 4. It launched in July 1958 ostensibly as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), in which 67 nations came together to explore and study the planet that they all shared, in a spirit of complete scientific openness and collegiality. But as its builder, the physicist James Van Allen, knew quite well, Explorer 4’s true purpose would be to study the effects of Argus. He was no stranger to the peculiar world of official secrecy; for years, much of his research, including the recent discovery of the Earth-girdling radiation belts that now bear his name, had been conducted and supported using military resources.
Van Allen didn’t realize that Baldwin’s information had apparently leaked from his own lab at the State University of Iowa. Possibly a graduate student, possibly a technician—the identity of Argus’s own whistle-blower has never been definitively ascertained, even after six decades.