In 1961 the US government decided that the best way to to stop the rapid advance of communism was to shoot a bunch of really tiny antennas into space to make a metal ring of radio signal around the world. Because if the Soviets tried to cut off our long distance communications we could give them a huge red white and blue middle finger and just redirect all our signals to our giant metal ring in space. Via Wired:
“A potential solution was born in 1958 at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, a research station on Hanscom Air Force Base northwest of Boston. Project Needles, as it was originally known, was Walter E. Morrow’s idea. He suggested that if Earth possessed a permanent radio reflector in the form of an orbiting ring of copper threads, America’s long-range communications would be immune from solar disturbances and out of reach of nefarious Soviet plots.”
The first and most important issue to address here is “Project Needles.” It’s the Cold War, there’s pretty much the most espionage ever going on, and they named the project about a bunch of tiny needles “Project Needles.” If they had a project to build giant fucking missiles one can only assume they would have named it Project Giant Fucking Missiles in the interest of subtlety. Fortunately someone must have realized that the original guy who came up with the names was terrible at being a secret agent and they renamed it Project West Ford, which sounds more intimidating and is much less literal despite simply being lifted from the nearby town of Westford, Massachusetts.
Once the name business was settled, they got around to the logistics, which were equally shaky. It’s important to remember that in the 1960′s space exploration was still in its infancy. The risks posed to this plan by floating debris and asteroids were essentially ignored based on the premise that “space is big.” Astronomers of the time raised concerns that a giant metal cloud could make stargazing more difficult, but they were brushed off because communism is the worst more than stars look nice. The Soviets even ran a smear campaign against West Ford, which they probably found out about because they had better spies. The headline of Russian newspaper Pravda read “US Dirties Space.” Which, embarrassingly, was true.
The first needle-shooting vehicle was launched into space on October 21, 1961. It did not go well. The needles failed to deploy and the fate of the vessel was never completely determined. They tried again in 1963, and to the surprise of every scientist ever, it almost worked. The government was able to send communications between California and Massachusetts by bouncing signals off the metal cloud. As the needles dispersed and fell to earth fairly rapidly, this success was short lived. But it proved that, in principle, the idea worked despite the lack of information on outer space at the time and the reckless disregard of space junk accumulation. The project eventually proved too expensive and unpredictable, and was abandoned. Many of the needles fell back to Earth, but clusters of wire are most likely still in orbit from the West Ford experiment, a permanent reminder of the Cold War American dream of a ringed Earth.