A Green Fireball Chronology
Note: This material is drawn primarily from personal memoranda and correspondence of Dr Lincoln LaPaz, a New Mexico-based meteor expert and mathematician. The documents are preserved in LaPaz's personal papers as well as the files of the Air Force, DOE and FBI. LaPaz had been involved with tracking the Japanese Fu-Go bomber-balloons during WWII in addition to other wartime work with military applications of ballistics (the Proximity Fuze program, for example). In early 1948 he was approached by Project SIGN to act as scientific consultant to the UFO program, but declined due to his teaching duties, suggesting instead his Proximity Fuze project colleague Dr J Allen Hynek of Ohio State University. LaPaz's notes make it clear that he came to believe early on that the strange luminous phenomena being reported in New Mexico from late 1948 were Soviet missile experiments of some type - or at the very least, highly classified domestic secret weapons tests. But surprisingly, his papers reveal that as early as 1947 he was already intent on this theory, even racing to recover the famous Norton County, Kansas meteorite because he suspected that it might be a manmade object coming from the USSR.
California Institute of Technology astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky, (who also works for Theodore von Kármán's Aerojet company as director of research), proposes installation of shaped-charge explosives in rockets for hypersonic research. Zwicky points out that these weapons can accelerate particles to speeds of 8 km/sec or more -- orbital speeds or above -- and when launched to extreme altitudes on a large rocket, they may be usable as a tool to simulate meteor dynamics in the upper atmosphere.
Zwicky secures cooperation of Army Ordnance officers and obtains payload space in a V-2 rocket for use in his dramatic experiment. The proof-of-principle launch will be conducted at night to allow visual and photographic observation of the artificial meteors produced by ejection of small Army rifle grenades at high altitude. When the shaped charges are fired, they will produce jets of iron or copper particles that should be briefly visible as meteor-like trails. Dr James Van Allen of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory supervises installation of the test equipment in the V-2 warhead. Actual construction of the grenade launcher assembly is handled by the New Mexico School of Mines in Albuquerque.
16 December 1946
In calibration of the imminent experiment, rifle grenades are launched to low altitude at night from the Organ Mountains near the White Sands missile range launch site and are photographed by telescopes and cameras. Arrow, above, indicates supersonic slug of incandescent iron emerging from rifle grenade and producing a simulated meteor.
17 December 1946
Zwicky has recruited many professional and amateur astronomers and meteor observers to help track the flight of the missile; they are positioned at sites all over New Mexico and into Arizona. Over 30 cameras are installed within a 20-mile radius of the launch site, including an 8-inch Schmidt telescope shipped from Mt Palomar, California. Other cameras are carried aloft in aircraft to assist in triangulation of the rocket's path. In addition, astronomers Vesto M Slipher, of the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona; Edwin F Carpenter, at Kitt Peak, Arizona; and Lincoln LaPaz (a noted authority on meteors) at Albuquerque, are primed to track the test. The 18-inch Schmidt telescope hundreds of miles away at Mt Palomar is trained on the sky over White Sands as well, but poor weather obstructs its view.
V-2 number 17 is launched at 10:12 PM MST on a vertical trajectory, aimed for maximum altitude. Its engine burns for 70 seconds, longer than any other V-2 in the entire US flight test program, and a peak velocity of over 5,400 feet per second (nearly 3,700 mph) is achieved. The rocket streaks to an altitude of some 116 miles before exploding. Ground observers as far away as Arizona are able to easily track the rocket's exhaust, and even after the engine runs out of fuel, its glowing nozzle components are clearly visible as it soars into space. Unfortunately, the artificial meteors are never seen; the conclusion is that the grenades may not have fired.
Zwicky is determined to pursue the experiments and has ambitious plans to launch similar shaped-charge artificial meteors from multistage rockets, balloons, artillery pieces, and aircraft. He is obstructed, however, by Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple, an influential member of rocket science committees, who reverses his earlier support for the project and now steadfastly refuses to allow further such experimentation on the grounds that the technology is immature and unreliable. Whipple unaccountably accuses Zwicky of misuse of public property and threatens to sue him. Zwicky will only be permitted to conduct another similar experiment in October 1957, but he remains angry about Whipple's obstructionism for decades.
On December 11-12, 1950, Whipple heads a White Sands upper-atmosphere research project called "T-Day" in which launches of four Army Signal Corps Aerobee sounding rockets equipped with grenade charges are conducted in parallel with Signal Corps high-altitude balloon flights and a night launch of the large Navy Viking VI rocket, all timed to coincide with the maximum of the Geminid meteor shower. Zwicky is excluded from the event.
The early phase of the Green Fireball phenomenon, December 1948-February 1949
5 December 1948
At 9:05 PM MST, the crew of a USAF C-47 transport flying from Lowry AFB, Colorado, to Williams AFB, Chandler, AZ, sees a green flarelike light just west of Las Vegas, NM. At 9:30 they report by radio to Kirtland AFB, Albuquerque, that they had seen another green flare rise from the ground to 500 ft altitude on the eastern slope of the Sandia Mountains at 9:27.
Pioneer Air flight 63, another C-47, radios Kirtland AFB tower that its crew had seen a green light west of Las Vegas, NM at 9:35 while flying due west at 9,000 ft. They thought it was a "shooting star" at first, "but it was too close to the ground." The pilot, Ernest Van Lloyd, suggests that the light could have been a Very pistol flare. After landing, he telephones Kirtland tower to discuss the incident. He says that when he first saw the phenomenon it was coming straight at him and he was so startled that he attempted to jerk the plane out of the way. The light then trailed off to the ground. It was pale green with a pale green trail.
"When the initial report of December 5 was made at Sandia Base, a conference was held between Air Force, Army and Department of Justice personnel for the purpose of evaluating this information. It is understood that a report of this has gone to respective headquarters."
Very shortly after these reports, University of New Mexico News Bureau head Dr Ward Fenley drafted a press release and "transmitted" it (in LaPaz's words) to NM newspapers in an effort to alert the public to report similar incidents. However, the press release was halted before publication due to "pressure from other agencies also investigating this occurrence." Secrecy about the light phenomenon was rapidly put in place, probably on the initial suspicion that the lights represented unknown ground-based activity. The early incidents appeared very much like flares.
(LaPaz-Rees, 13 Dec)
Kirtland AFB Office of Special Investigations agent S/A Melvin E Neef interviews Van Lloyd and copilot James Smith at the Pioneer Air operations office on the base. The pilots recount the incident but describe it differently from their first report: as a white flash, then a whitish-orange object. They can give no estimate of the object's size or range.
11:53 PM: Security officer Joseph Tolouse sees a greenish flare lasting 2-3 seconds over Sandia Base. He reports it to Neef on the 11th.
The Kirtland OSI agents Stahl and Neef interview Capt K K Miller, New Mexico State Police, at his headquarters in Santa Fe. He says no unusual flare reports have come in to his office, but promises to refer any future witnesses of flare activity to Kirtland. The agents also visit K D Flock, Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor, in Santa Fe. Flock had received no aerial phenomena reports in 1948, but says that in the summer of 1947 a woman named Madeline G. Merchant had contacted him at least five times over a six week period about sightings of flying saucers and luminous phenomena. Flock says he will alert his rangers to watch for unusual lights or objects, and permits the KAFB OSI agents to use his fire towers as observation posts if desired.
The OSI agents interview Chief of Police Matt O'Brien in Las Vegas, who also says that he has received no flare reports. NM State Police patrolman Noland Utz has the same news, and agrees to cooperate with the Air Force special agents.
The agents interview the wife of the owner of the flying service at Watson Airport in Las Vegas, as well as J D Miller, a local CAA official, and four of his employees. None know anything. The airport personnel say that no night flying was originating from the field.
At 5:45 Stahl and Neef take off from Kirtland AFB in a Beech T-7 (C-45) and fly to Las Vegas. The weather is "CAVU" -- completely clear with unlimited visibility. The Moon is to their right. At 6:33, while ten miles east of the Las Vegas radio range station, heading due east, they both see a brilliant green light about 2,000 ft above them, coming toward them at high speed from 30 deg to their left, on a path from 60 deg ENE to 240 WSW. It is similar to a USAF green flare, but more intense and larger. Its trajectory is flat and parallel to the ground. It lasts about two seconds, then burns out and drops off with orange fragments. They stay in the area for another 90 minutes but see nothing more.
Neef, Stahl and Lt Col Doyle Rees, OSI district commander, interview Col. William Hayes, US Army, at Kirtland. Hayes says that some time in the "latter part of 1947," he had seen a phenomenon near Vaughn, NM, on Highway 60 near a railroad: a bright white light the size of a basketball descending slowly from 500 ft. At around 200 ft above the ground, it exploded silently. He stopped the car and got out. It was only 40 to 60 yards away. Red spark-like fragments descended. On 3 or 4 Nov 48 and 23 Nov 48 he had seen similar phenomena near the same location. All three cases occurred around 10 PM.
At 4:35 Stahl takes off from KAFB, flies to the area where they saw the green flare the previous night and makes a careful search. He sees nothing on the ground, and stays in the area for "several hours" after sunset on a fruitless watch. Meanwhile Neef goes to University of New Mexico to interview Dr Lincoln LaPaz.
LaPaz shows Neef his resume. He tells Neef that the phenomena being investigated could not be meteors and says that recent mysterious meteors near Memphis, Tennessee and Los Alamos and a meteorite fall in Russia are unexplained and an attempt should be made to identify them.
LaPaz confers with associates and learns that similar green lights had been seen near other installations, including the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state.
(Carroll-Tyler, 21 Dec)
Maj William Godsoe, 4th Army liaison Intelligence Officer, Sandia Base, tells Neef that there are no Army maneuvers or rocket or flare experiments going on in the region.
Col Gunn, Kirtland AFB commander, is interviewed by Neef concerning experiments or maneuvers but knows of none.
LaPaz drives to Las Vegas with Lt Allan B Clark, Intelligence officer of the Sandia Base Civil Air Patrol (CAP) unit, and Maj Charles L Phillips, AF-CAP Liaison Officer, Sandia, to look for traces of the 5 Dec object. He brings a transit and stopwatch just in case. Evidently LaPaz had enlisted the aid of members of the quasi-official Civil Air Patrol as fireball spotters.
Neef's visit on 9 Dec had provoked LaPaz to watch the sky. He "began systematic observations of the Geminid meteor shower, the only one of the recognized annual meteor showers active at this time." He is certain, in spite of the very unusual descriptions of the flightpaths of the luminous phenomena, that the observations had something to do with the Geminids. His observations from the 9th to the 12th confirm his feeling that the Geminids are not one of the showers producing extremely bright fireballs. He had observed 414 meteors since December 1915 during Geminid periods, and not one had been green.
LaPaz, Clark and Phillips leave Las Vegas to return to Santa Fe after unsuccessfully looking for debris. Just before Bernal, on Highway 84 near Starvation Peak, they pass through a road cut and come out on a west-facing slope. It is 9:01 PM. LaPaz is "keyed up" and by his own admission is expecting to see something, despite his claim that he assumes that the sightings are related to the Geminids. It is a week almost to the minute after the original green flare sighting by the pilots. He is looking to his right when out of the corner of his eye he sees a 5', bright green fireball traveling east-to-west only three to four degrees above the horizon. He shouts "Look! Look! Look! Look!" Its path is almost exactly horizontal. At the last moment it wobbles, breaks up into three or four smaller fragments and burns out. Clark screeches to a stop, makes a fast U-turn and parks where LaPaz had started to shout. As soon as they stop LaPaz uses the transit to make a measurement of the object's path, then scratches an arrow in the pavement to confirm the location of the sighting. They listen for a sonic boom but hear nothing. At 9:50 they return to the car and drive to Santa Fe, where they attempt to contact the guards at the State Prison, hoping that they had seen the light and could assist in triangulating its path.
They then drive to Los Alamos where LaPaz makes a report to Sidney Newberger, chief of security at the nuclear installation. LaPaz is relieved to find that some of the Los Alamos perimeter guards had seen the phenomenon. Newberger tells LaPaz about Madeline G. Merchant's letters about luminous pheomena sightings in the Los Alamos area going back over a year. LaPaz scoffs at her theories but considers the reports themselves to be confirmatory. (Newberger, 13 Dec)
LaPaz watches the sky all night and sees some Geminids, but none are green and most are on near-vertical trajectories, in contrast to the "Starvation Peak object," which did not emanate from the Geminid radiant.
LaPaz carefully plots his own sighting, triangulates with the observers at Los Alamos, and establishes that the 12 Dec Green Fireball had traveled along an almost perfectly horizontal path at an altitude of only about 50,000 ft above sea level or less, along a length of 25 miles, and at a speed of about 10 miles per second (36,000 mph). Apparently it had passed almost directly over Los Alamos.
LaPaz's world has been turned upside down. Deeply impressed by the sighting, he is purged of any remaining thoughts that these phenomena have a natural explanation, and admits in his notes that he is "now convinced the various 'green flare' incidents reported to the O.S.I. are not meteoric in nature." He will continue to refer to his sighting as the "Starvation Peak incident" for some time to come. Although he never mentions the Zwicky experiment in his extensive Green Fireball notes, he must have ruminated on the obvious similarity to the Cal Tech astrophysicist's earlier plans.
LaPaz, Phillips and Clark return to Los Alamos to confer with intelligence and security officers for the installation. LaPaz has letters from other scientists backing up his theory that the objects are artificial. Possibly suspecting that the phenomena are the result of some Los Alamos classified project, he requests Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) help in studying them.
(Tyler-Carroll, 21 Dec)
At some point during this period he tries to duplicate the green color of the objects in his lab. "Copper salts [heated to incandescence] in the blowpipe [gas burner] flame" are an almost perfect match. The color is similar to yellowish-green light at 521.8 nanometers, a known copper spectroscopic emission line. It appears that he suspected a relationship to Zwicky's shaped-charge grenade technology.
(LaPaz-Rees, 21 Dec)
LaPaz suspects that the Green Fireballs are appearing on a weekly schedule and desires confirmation. On the 19th he returnes to Los Alamos with Jack Boling of Kirtland OSI and Jerry Maxwell, FBI Special Agent in Charge, Los Alamos, and sets up cameras and transits at security checkpoints called "Nighthawk" and "Nightingale" west of Los Alamos in attempt to get accurate tracking and photo data. He is assisted by Los Alamos Atomic Energy Security Service (AESS) personnel .
(LaPaz memos, 21 Dec, 27 Dec)
A third point of observation is set up by a Mr Hubbard, an AEC radio engineer, who is a Naval Reserve electronic warfare company officer. Hubbard operates an SK-1M air search radar at the base radio station. He uses shortwave radios to communicate with other observation stations.
(McCormac-Tyler, 27 Dec)
The radar-visual watch is maintained from 7 PM to 9 PM but no unusual targets are detected.
11:35 PM - A Los Alamos patrol reports a greenish-white light moving toward them in an arc from a great distance. It grows to 1/4 full Moon size, in a 20 deg glide, then its path flattens out until parallel with the ground. It does not fall, but continues in level flight until disappearing. Two other observers make simultaneous observations: George Skipper of the Security Division and Lt Clifford Strang of AESS. Strang had seen a German V-1 cruise missile during the "Blitz" in England and thinks that the object looked like a V-1's exhaust. Skipper thinks it was a vehicle's exhaust too.
(Tyler-Carroll, 21 Dec)
US Defense Secretary James Forrestal reports existence of the military "Earth satellite vehicle program." News media carried the story.
Same day - LaPaz travels to Los Alamos to interview the witnesses of the 20 Dec incident. He plots the sightings (which he notes were not made under the best conditions), and calculates that the Green Fireball had appeared at an altitude of around 50,000 ft and descended at a 45 degree angle to only about 12,000 ft, leveled off, then flew horizontally for about 7.5 miles at a speed of about 3.75 - 7.5 miles per second (13,000 to 27,000 mph - speeds at or above those achieved by ICBM warheads, and more than twenty times faster than a V-1).
It had passed just 6 miles north of Los Alamos, at altitudes far below those where meteors typically appear. In spite of its tremendous speed, no sound had been heard.
"I have no hesitancy in testifying," LaPaz writes, "that an object possessing the path and the other peculiarities observed by Messrs. Wilson, Truett, Strang and Skipper was not a falling meteorite." Checks with White Sands showed that no rockets had been launched during the sighting periods.
(LaPaz memo, 29 Dec)
13 Jan 49
Col Eustis Poland, G-2 Intelligence, US Army, issues extraordinary memo to the Director of Army Intelligence concerning the wild hypotheses that were spreading concerning the southwestern light phenomena.
The sources of the theories are fairly clear: the "self-desintegrating super-stratospheric device" is LaPaz's copper-alloy reentry vehicle -- a technological cousin of Zwicky's artificial meteors, while the bizarre "radiological warfare experiments" theory evidently comes from the letters received from the eccentric Madeline Merchant. The Army Intelligence and OSI officers may have been unable to bring themselves to accept these outlandish ideas about foreign experimentation and may have favored the relatively more probable domestic secret weapon hypothesis.
Article by recent Soviet defector and rocket expert Tokady-Tokayef is published in London "Daily Express." It describes the Stalin-ordered Soviet attempt in 1947 to kidnap Eugen Sanger, designer of the intercontinental-range rocket bomber (the so-called "Antipodal bomber" or "Amerika bomber"), from Sanger's residence in France.
(Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space, p.445)
FBI Memo: Ladd to J Edgar Hoover
Subject: Flying Discs
The memo documents speculation on Soviet nuclear-powered disc by USAF Col C. D. Gasser of the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft (NEPA) project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Gasser reported rumors coming from Wright-Patterson AFB that nuclear-powered disc-shaped planes might be making incursions into US airspace and returning to the USSR over the North Pole.
Another Green Fireball appears, this time near Socorro.
10 AM, Dr William Crozier attempts air sampling at NM School of Mines in Socorro, using his special impactment dust collector. Crozier was a WWII Proximity Fuze project colleague of LaPaz and is currently conducting a Navy-funded research project related to reentry vehicle research. Crozier has developed a sampling device called an "impactment dust collector" which draws air through filter paper discs. He has previously used the device in an attempt to obtain microscopic particles of meteor debris which had drifted down from the upper atmosphere. The military funds the research as part of its early attempt to understand the dynamics of hypersonic objects in the upper atmosphere. LaPaz has contacted Crozier in hopes that the Green Fireballs had volatilized and produced particles that might be collected by Crozier's special sampler. Upon examining the filter from the Jan 25 run, Crozier finds that the filters contain large amounts of unusual microscopic copper spherules. Copper is one of the rarest elements in natural meteors.
Second air sampling attempt at Crozier's lab. More copper particles are obtained. LaPaz is convinced that this is evidence of the artificiality of the fireballs but Crozier is more cautious.
4:45 PM MST, NM (12:45 AM 31 Jan, local time) - Gaedheim, Germany - a luminous, pale-bluish object, described by several witnesses as looking and sounding like a missile, descends from the northeast and impacts with a loud explosion near the Main river. A US military investigation begins on February 9, including chemical analysis of the debris. It is the fourth such incident in the town since October 1946.
(USAF "Gaedheim, Germany" case file, 18 February 1949)
5:45 PM MST - New Mexico - Green Fireball -- the brightest yet.
Within less than a minute a call comes in to LaPaz from a witness. Within two hours he interviews personally over 100 eyewitnesses. Many are military personnel who were waiting outdoors for a movie to begin. Others are guards and agents primed to watch for luminous objects. Other witnesses include oil workers, aircrew, control tower personnel. Once again, no sound was heard.
It is a "green fireball" in LaPaz's words, although Texas observers, at the end of its path, "reported its color as blue, orange, red and even purple instead of green."
(LaPaz-Rees, 21 Feb)
LaPaz plots the sightings and concludes that the fireball was visible on a path beginning at an altitude of 12 miles above a point southeast of Portales, NM, and ending at eight to ten miles above 32 deg 48/ 102 deg 22 after traversing a nearly horizontal path approximately 143 miles long at a velocity of up to 14 miles per second (about 50,000 mph). The path was closer to the earth through its entire extent than any other meteorite that he knew of, except the green fireballs of 12 and 20 Dec.
LaPaz wants samples. He thinks the debris will "consist chiefly of copper or copper alloy rather than ferromagnetic substances found in ordinary meteorites." This is based on his growing concept that the fireballs are experimental reentry test bodies designed to burn up during their transit over the target -- essentially enormous target marker flares deliberately designed by some enemy power to be confused with Geminid meteors (In fact, copper "heat-sink" ICBM reentry vehicles are actually a technology under serious study in the 1950s and are used in the first operational US ICBM years later - but are designed not to burn up during reentry). LaPaz writes that he makes no immediate attempt to make new sampling runs with Crozier's impactment collector because he is preparing to return to teaching.
(LaPaz-Rees, 17 Aug 49)
Kirtland Air Force Office of Special Investigations commander Col Doyle Rees OKs "all out search" on the ground for material from the fireball.
FBI Memo: Special Agent in Charge, San Antonio, to J Edgar Hoover
OSI S/A Godsoe gives LaPaz a staff car and the scientist begins a field survey to pin down the possible landing zone of debris from the object. The weather is "unusually severe." The OSI team visits Moriarty, Etanoi, Vaughn, Ramon, Mesa, Roswell, Caprock, Tatum and "other towns in New Mexico" as well as Lamesa, Brownsfield, Plains, Lubbock, Muleshoe and other towns in Texas ... in some cases more than once. At Roswell, the OSI group at Walker AFB under Lt Paul Ryan donates S/A Bill Rickett to the survey party "and [he] gave much aid in later work."
At Lamesa, TX, the ground party is augmented by an air search party consisting of Maj Phillips, Capt Neef and S/A Boling of Kirtland OSI and a Corp Cochran.
Phillips, Neef, Boling and Cochran fly a T-11 aircraft over area surrounding the "earth-point" in Texas, west of Cedar Lake, between Seminole and Lamesa, while at the same time a ground party under Lt Ryan makes a "careful field search along a route extending from Lamesa through Amherst, TX to Clovis, NM."
(LaPaz-Rees, 21 Feb
In spite of the intense effort, the search is unsuccessful.
LaPaz is returning to full-time teaching as head of the Mathematics department at UNM so he must discontinue his active green fireball field work with OSI.
Army JPL Bumper-Wac two-stage rocket (Wac Corporal mounted on a V-2 first stage) reaches highest altitude ever attained by manmade object to date - 244 miles - and record speed of 5,150 miles per hour over White Sands, yielding information about ion densities in the F-region of the ionosphere. Some sources indicate that this altitude record officially stood until 1957.
[to be continued; update pending] Later Joel Carpenter wrote an updated chronology which is posted on the Project 1947 website".