Strike From Space?
Orbital Bombs, UFOs and The Great Northeast Blackout of 1965
In the fall of 1965, conservative activists Phyllis Schlafly and Rear Admiral Chester Ward (Ret) published a remarkable, if now largely forgotten book called "Strike From Space," aimed at warning America about the growing menace of exotic Soviet space weaponry. "Strike From Space" was clearly the product of behind-the-scenes work by members of the Goldwater wing of the Republican party or perhaps even more conservative circles and bitterly attacked the military policies of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Schlafly and Ward reserved particular venom for Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara (they loved to use his middle name), whom they regarded as a representative of an elite social clique that was bent on deliberately undermining US security in the face of a growing Soviet nuclear threat.
Schlafly and Ward relied on a star-studded cast of military advisors when researching the book, probably including generals like Curtis LeMay and Thomas Power, both former chiefs of Strategic Air Command. According to Schlafly, another strong supporter and friend was Hoover Institution strategic theorist Dr Stefan Possony, who had long been an advocate of strengthened space defenses. Possony and his assistant Gen George Keegan (in the 1970s, Assistant Chief of Staff, Air Force Intelligence) had been members of the ultra-hawkish Air Force Intelligence Special Studies Group in the 1950s. (And Possony had been an attendee at the 1953 CIA UFO Scientific Advisory Panel meetings). Possonys and Keegans deep, almost paranoid distrust of Soviet motives and their approach to analysis of Soviet space developments is vividly described in books like Kaplans "The Wizards of Armageddon."
Of course, the early 1960s was an era of very impressive Soviet space advances. Every week seemed to bring news of a new space probe, a record-setting satellite payload, or a huge new missile. As Johnson and McNamaras cancellation of systems like Dyna Soar and the B-70 bomber enraged the conservatives, Schlafly, Ward and their advisors were determined to expose what they saw as a carefully-planned slide toward an inevitable Soviet first strike a nuclear Pearl Harbor that would use a new type of weapon not ICBMs, but orbital bombs that could strike from the heavens without warning, from any direction, in an unstoppable, massive decapitating blow. McNamara was deliberately ignoring this possibility, the ultraconservatives argued, and America needed to wake up.
Here is how
Schlafly and Ward portrayed the coming Soviet sneak attack:
Schlafly and Wards book was published in November 1965. And what is most remarkable about it is that as will be seen shortly its lurid sneak-attack scenario immediately seemed to come true.
Orbital Nuclear Bombs
The concept of Soviet orbital bombs had been broached early on in the space age as early as 1947, in fact, when an FBI agent reported a scientist-informants rumor of a secret search for "atom bombs in the stratosphere" by Fred Whipple's Harvard Meteor Project using the Baker Super Schmidt Meteor Camera built by the Perkin Elmer corporation for meteor photography. Of course, orbital bombs were virtually fantasy in 1947, but by the early 1960s the possibility that the Soviets would develop such systems was under serious consideration in the US. According to Soviet space history expert Asif Siddiqi, high-level deliberations about orbital weapons began in the USSR as early as 1959, and by 1962, three of the major Soviet rocket design bureaus were well into development of prototype systems.
These spacecraft are known technically as "Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems," or FOBS "fractional" referring to the fact that the missile places the nuclear payload in orbit, but after completing only a fraction of a revolution of the planet, the warhead fires a retrorocket that brings it down on the intended target. Likewise, the warhead may remain in orbit as a Multiple Orbital Bombardment System, or MOBS.
The strategic advantage of such a weapon stemmed from the fact that ordinary ICBM warheads rise hundreds of miles into space on their ballistic trajectories and can be detected by long-range warning radars long before they reach their targets. In the early 1960s, NORAD Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radars were aimed at the North Polar region, where Soviet land-based ICBM raids were expected to appear. A FOBS warhead, placed in a low-altitude orbit over the South Pole, or approaching the US from virtually any other azimuth, would not be detected by US radars until the last moments before impact. Defense would be nearly impossible. FOBS missiles were therefore considered to be first-strike, sneak-attack systems intended to blind and decapitate an adversary before followup raids by more conventional systems.
In the context of the massive Soviet missile buildup of the early 1960s its not hard to understand why senior US military officers were concerned with such developments, since they potentially undermined the whole basis of the US deterrent system. The typically more cautious CIA did comment on FOBS as well, according to Siddiqi:
There was a strong implication that such weapons would only be effective as propaganda weapons and be seen as militarily ineffective by the Soviets because of their poor accuracy compared with conventional ICBMs. In mid-1963, the CIA prepared a dedicated report on Soviet orbital bombs which did not deviate significantly from the findings of the earlier pronouncement:
Of the three competing Soviet FOBS concepts, the Yangel R-36 (State designation 8K69, NATO designation SS-9 Scarp) was selected for development in April 1962. Construction was started on new launch facilities for the missile in January 1965, and this must have been noted by US reconnaissance experts. By the spring of 1965 US officers were publicly referring to Soviet orbital missiles, as Schlafly noted in her book.
But FOBS weapons hit the front pages of US newspapers in early November 1965, when they suddenly appeared in a major display in Moscow. On Monday, November 8, the New York Times ran banner headlines on the previous days military parade marking the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution: "New Soviet Missiles Rumble Through Moscow Huge Orbital Missiles Among Those Paraded Before Communist Leaders." The missiles capped what was actually a comparatively restrained display that began with 26 battalions of troops marching through Red Square past reviewing stands where the Soviet leadership, including Party Secretary Brezhnev, Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky, and Fidel Castros brother Raul looked on.
"The display of military equipment took only eight minutes," the Times reported.
The announcement of the FOBS capability of the missile seems to have taken some US circles by surprise, and on November 9, the Times noted that
The State Department may have been "concerned," but it seems probable that military leaders were much more worried by the Soviet announcement.
Strike From Space?
Just a few hours after the Times article describing US concern about the new Soviet orbital bombs hit newsstands, at 5:16 on the evening of November 9th, a massive cascade of power surges shot through the electrical transmission grid of the Northeastern United States. Circuit after circuit overloaded and tripped offline, and within moments, power ceased flowing to almost everyone living and working within a region encompassing some 80,000 square miles of New York State and New England as well as the Canadian shore of Lake Erie nearly 30 million people. New York City and a dozen other major population centers dropped into frightening pitch darkness and rush-hour confusion. 
Meanwhile, in an underground command post called High Point, near Berryville, Virginia, Air Force Colonel J Leo Bourassa was gazing into the abyss. Bourassa was in charge of an Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP, an ancestor of FEMA) installation that was intended to be the Presidential Bunker in event of a nuclear attack. High Point, or Mt Weather, was linked to a national network of nuclear blast detection devices called System 210-A, or "Bomb Alarm." [see Western Union Technical Review of the Bomb Alarm Display System 210-A]
Designed to react only to the distinctive optical double flash of a nuclear explosion and transmit signals by telegraph landlines to displays in locations like High Point, Bomb Alarm was a primary indicator of nuclear events in the days before satellite NUDET sensors. The Bomb Alarm display board at High Point was blazing with yellow lights, indicating that communications links to the BMEWS site in Thule, Greenland, as well as twenty-one other System 210-A sites, had gone down. But worse much worse two of the sensors, the ones for Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina, were showing red. Red for nuclear detonations. Bourassa assumed the worst that a surgical nuclear attack was under way and placed Mt Weather on full alert. It was the one and only time that the facility went on alert during the Cold War. 
While I have seen no documentation specifically linking the Northeast Blackout Alert to the Kremlins FOBS display two days before, it seems likely that OEP officers in charge of "Continuity of Government" installations like High Point would have received daily briefings on new military developments such as the Tass declaration about orbital warheads. And the fact is that the indications Bourassa saw on his boards may have played out a scenario that may have been increasingly on the minds of military planners looking for signs of a Soviet sneak attack, because it probably looked much like the effects of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from high-altitude nuclear bursts.
High-altitude EMP effects had been confirmed by the rocket-launched 1958 Argus shots in the South Atlantic and Hardtack tests in the Pacific, and more recently by the Starfish series of exoatmospheric thermonuclear blasts that tested a prototype Air Force antisatellite missile system. Power had been knocked out in Hawaii by some of the tests, and by 1965 the new Minuteman ICBM force was being actively hardened against EMP damage. It would have been very easy for Bourassa to assume that the massive blackout in the Northeast, coupled with indications of surface bursts in other locations, was the opening round of a Soviet surprise attack. If Bourassa had just heard the Soviet boasts about their new FOBS missiles, his decision to declare the alert is even more understandable.
There seems to be no indication that other US military forces increased their alert status because of the power failures, but the story might have been different if Washington or other major command centers had been inside the blackout zone.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Blackout is the timing of the prescient Schlafly/Ward book and the Soviet revelation of its FOBS missiles. Schlafly had predicted that the Soviet first strike would occur without warning at evening rush hour on the East Coast and would use orbital weapons. It seems odd, given the level of technical jargon achieved by the book, that it contains no discussion of EMP effects, particularly since Schlafly was eager to emphasize other devastating effects of Soviet high-yield bombs (which she speculated would reach the "gigaton" range in the near future). I recently emailed Schlafly to ask whether she knew of EMP at the time, and if so, why it was not mentioned in the book. In a brief message she stated that she and Ward did know about the phenomenon, but gave no explanation for its omission.
A "great event" like the Northeast Blackout of 1965 reverberates on many social planes. Bourassas Bomb Alarm alert was one kind of reaction. Another revolved around UFOs.
UFO reports cascaded in from the blacked-out region, and some of them were spectacular, particularly the ones centering on a critical electrical substation in Clay, New York, near Syracuse, where large glowing orbs were sighted by several witnesses. (It seems hard to avoid the thought that the widespread, paralyzing blackout resonated with memories of the similar events depicted in the 1951 UFO film "The Day The Earth Stood Still.") UFOs became as inextricably tied to the 1965 event as the legend that a mini baby-boom took place nine months later. 
On July 29, 1968, Dr. James E. McDonald, one the most intelligent, knowledgeable and capable scientists to ever tackle the UFO phenomenon, testified before the House Committee on Science & Astronautics (which happened to include a young Illinois Representative named Donald Rumsfeld at the time) in the wake of the unpopular University of Colorado UFO study (or Condon Report). The report had noted the spate of UFO reports during the Blackout and had devoted several pages to discussion of power outages related to UFO incidents. McDonald was interested in the concept of electromagnetic effects associated with UFOs and was asked to comment on this by Representative William F. Ryan, a Democrat from New York City:
A Fall of Moondust?
So EMP from Soviet Orbital Bombs or EMP from UFOs? It would seem that the jittery American psyche in 1965 was under a great deal of pressure from implacable, ill-defined forces from outer space. And if these concepts were two sides of some kind of cosmic coin, fate was about to provide another chance to call the toss.
On December 9, a month to the day after the Blackout, a strange object appeared to streak from the sky and impact near the small town of Kecksburg, Pennsylvania. According to researcher Robert Todd, OEP officer Col Bourassa was once again on the case, having received reports from widely separated witnesses concerning the meteor-like phenomenon. And an urgent military recovery effort is alleged to have occurred.
Notes and Sources
 Asif Siddiqi FOBS webpage: http://home.earthlink.net/~cliched/spacecraft/fobs.html
 The convoluted nature of this story is emphasized by the fact that the missiles displayed in the 7 Nov 65 parade were not the SS-9 Scarp FOBS, nor were they the SS-6 that had launched Vostok and Voskhod as Tass claimed. According to Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Pavel Podvig, ed, the displayed vehicles were actually the Korolev GR-1 "Global Rocket" (SS-X-10 Scrag) and mockups of the earlier R-26 missile which had been cancelled in 1962. Schlafly and Ward used a painting of the GR-1 on the cover of later editions of Strike From Space.
 Report to the President by the Federal Power Commission on the Power Failure in the Northeastern United States and the Province of Ontario on November 9-10, 1965.
 "[I]t was not learned until several days after the power failure that the two reds (nuclear detonation reports) were false indications caused by a peculiarity in the circuitry of the particular Bomb Alarm Console." Fritz, C. E., "Some Problems of Warning and Communication Revealed by the Northeast U.S. Power Failure of 9-10 November 1965," Institute for Defense Analysis Report R-142, April 1968, cited in Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents and Nuclear Weapons. (1993: Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press)
 See for
example the oral history interview at the Blackout History Project website: