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The tools that came with the NOVA for software development were primitive in the extreme, as they were for most minicomputers in the 1970's. To begin with there was no monitor screen, only a data terminal with thermal print paper, which allowed you to type in your program line by line. Editing was incredibly tedious because it was not possible to see a cursor blinking against the line or word that you wanted to change. You had to identify the line number, make the change blind and then print it out to verify it.
After that the program had to be assembled and linked, a two-pass operation involving the loading of a special assembler program from a magnetic tape, changing that tape for the one containing the text of the program which had been typed in, and finally (after yet another tape rewind and change) all the individual modules of the program were linked together into the final version. In the course of the assembly operation it would flag the inevitable errors that one made, either in the syntax (missing commas or spaces), which meant starting all over again. It took about half a day (if all went well) to produce an updated version of a program, complete with the all-important printout, showing the numbers of the locations in memory where the various instructions and key pieces of data lived.
In the course of developing the large and complicated software package, which enabled the NOVA to run all its peripheral gadgets and keep track of everything, I had been through this frustrating and tedious performance a good many times and had developed a way around it. The so called "machine language" cut and paste approach. If for example one needed to change a bunch of instructions in the program sequence, then it was possible to go to the memory locations where they were and key in the one's and zeros corresponding to the desired instructions ( the codes for all the instructions were listed in the manual), through the sixteen switches on the front panel of the NOVA.
This of course was a daunting prospect but could be made a lot easier if the numbers could be typed in. I had written a utility program to do just that which I had used extensively for patching changes to the software during the development phase. As a result I knew most of the instruction codes by heart and it was not too difficult to make a lot of progress quite quickly without ever having to resort to the dreaded edit- assemble-link business. The price was to have reams of notes detailing the changes that had been made to the original version, so that a new version could be produced at some point incorporating the changes and giving a printout that actually agreed with what was in the machine.
I realised that it would probably be possible to turn the operating program more or less inside out, so that it would read the tapes that it had produced during the flights, generating exactly the same strip-chart record and graphics display of the spectra, that it normally did while it was receiving the data from the sensors in real-time. All that had to be done was to put the gamma ray spectra from the data tapes into the same place in memory that they normally went when they were coming directly from the detectors, and do the same thing for the navigational data. The data processing part of the program would not know the difference and would not need any major modification. I retired to my rather spartan little room in the officers quarters and worked on the modifications that would be needed, un-interrupted, for about three days. I had never done such extensive modifications using the machine language method before, but it was that or nothing. There followed another two days of typing them all in and testing it all out, using the spare system (thank heaven we had it).
At the end of it we had a program tailored to detecting "hits" which could sort through a tape at fairly high speed; detect any man-made radiation using Thane Hendrick's ratio technique; stop the tape; back it up a few records before the event and accumulate the normal or "background" spectra; then do the same for a few seconds worth of data after the event. It then subtracted the background from the "hit" spectra and printed them out automatically. The spare system was then pressed into service as our data processing system back at the base. The resulting spectra, processed in that way, revealed very clearly which man-made radioactive isotopes were present in the debris lying below the aircraft when it was detected, and helped to identify certain parts of the satellite.
For example there were a number of beryllium rods (used as neutron shields and reflectors in the nuclear reactor), which invariably had Cobalt-60 contamination. The characteristic spectrum of Cobalt-60 was easily spotted in the hit records, and the information that the hits were probably due to beryllium rods, would then be passed on to the helicopters which were going out to recover the pieces at the specified location. That "Hit Detector" program turned out to be the most extensive one I ever wrote in machine language, before or since, but it certainly rang the bell and solved the data processing problem.
During the course of all of this I took my meals at the Officers Mess, close of course to the Officers quarters where I was holed up. I remember one hideously embarassing incident which stemmed from the fact that the familiar blue-gray uniform (worn by airforce personnel in both Britain and Canada since the year dot), had changed since the last time since I was in an Officers Mess, which had been some thirteen years earlier at the RCAF base at Marville in north eastern France. Since the unification of the Canadian Armed Forces the uniform worn by all the services was now a rather unattractive drab green and women officers it seemed could wear uniforms with rather fetching white "mini-hats" if they chose.
One morning I was sitting at a table in the Mess, with my mind almost totally focussed on the programming task, and had just drained my coffee cup when a young woman wearing a non- descript uniform and a small white hat came by carrying a tray of empty dishes back to the counter. I took it for granteed that she was one of the staff and so I asked her if she would bring me some more coffee. I could not have been more wrong. Almost before the words were out of my mouth I realised that the two rings on each sleeve of her uniform were not there just to give a little extra pizzaz to her outfit. I was mortified in the extreme and apologised profusely and for far too long. My confusion must have been moderately comical because she had the grace to laugh it off and even offered to get me some coffee (which of course made things even worse for me), but some of the other Officers were definitely not amused.
Identification and recovery of the debris involved military helicpoters equipped with radiation detection systems which were less sensitive than the ones used in the Hercules. They would relocate hits which had been identified by the Hercules flying the search grids and mark the positions, so that the recovery helicpoters (with suitable lead-lined boxes and people carrying hand-held radiation monitors) could go right to the spot. The problem of how to mark the sites in such a way that they would be visible from the air, was solved with typical military pragmatism. An order was placed for several thousand condoms and a production line was set up with people filling them with coloured dye. When these were dropped from the helicpoters over the site, they burst open on contact with the frozen snow making a highly visible splash of colour which could be seen by the recovery teams.
Eventually more information filtered through
from the soviets about the COSMOS satellites
At one point a large segment of it known as the "antlers" was discovered quite inadvertently by two young explorers who were part of a team of six adventurers making a voyage in the Thelon river game sanctuary, some 400 miles to the east of the eastern tip of Great Slave Lake. They were travelling by dog-sled with two teams of dogs, following the route that had been taken by the English Naturalist John Hornby in the 1920's. The Thelon River area is one of the coldest in the western hemisphere and surviving a winter there is a major challenge.
some adventurers were in the
area with dog-sled teams
This incident highlighted the problems that the media created with their relentless pressure for "human interest" stories. The radio messages from the two explorers were relayed via an operator in Yellowknife and were picked up by the media. Some reporters decided to try and get into Wardens Grove by chartering planes from Yellowknife to get first hand pictures for their stories, despite the fact that a directive had been issued prohibiting any civilian flights into or over the area. At that point no one knew whether or not the main segment of the reactor core was somehwere in there, or what the radiation levels were (if any). It was therefore imperative to head off any attempt by the press to go rushing in where experts feared to tread, thereby putting themselves at risk and further complicating an already difficult situation.
Fortunately the charter operator notified Namao about the proposed press expedition into Wardens Grove and Garland ordered paratroops to be dropped in to secure the whole area. Strictly speaking he needed the blessing of the Solicitor General in Ottawa to do this because the guarding of a non- military site came under the jurisdiction of the RCMP. However the man who was the Solicitor General in the Trudeau government at the time was Frances Fox, a married man who had just resigned following another well publicised human interest story; his admission of having had an affair with one of his aides. Some sort of official approval was nevertheless obtained in time for the operation to proceed without any delays.
Setting up a Base Camp in the frozen Sub-Arctic barren lands
When it became clear that most of the debris was likely to be found immediately to the North East of the eastern end of Great Slave Lake, it was decided to set up a field camp there. The idea being that parties could operate from the camp to recover debris, rather than having to spend more than three hours flying time to get there and back from Yellowknife, which was the nearest centre having the necessary facilities from which to operate the military "Twin Huey" helicopters. The camp was named by the inmates as "Camp Garland", and the lake on whose shores it was established was called "COSMOS lake". Setting it up was a major challenge, but one which the Canadian Military were equpipped to undertake. The first order of business was to get a bulldozer in to clear the snow off the lake to make a landing strip for smaller aircraft to land with supplies and equipment. At first sight one might be forgiven for thinking that this was a chicken-and-egg problem. After all the only aircraft big enough to bring in a bulldozer in the first instance was a Hercules, which would need a sizeable landing strip cleared of snow to deliver it.
Parachutes pulled the pallet out of the rear door
of the giant Hercules at near ground level
Getting the big machine back up to altitude
was a difficult trick to do
The huge Hercules had to land on the frozen lake
using the narrow strip cleared by the bulldozer
A Canadian Forces "CARIBOU" landing on Cosmos Lake
The two outboard engines were
kept running - just in case...
In early April there were only a few of us left to wrap up the search, which had been continuing on a daily basis ever since the end of January, although with a much lower priority after all the initial furore had subsided. The original orders from cabinet level in Ottawa were to "continue the search with all available resources until there is no further risk to public health and safety". Easy for the politicians to say when they hadn't a clue what constituted a "risk". Garland and I both felt that we had done about all that we could reasonably hope to do under the circumstances.
Were there any more bits of hot stuff out there? probably, but we could spend the rest of our lives looking for them and still not be certain of having found all of them in an area as vast and desolate as the one covered by the footprint of the satellite reentry. Garland suggested that we draft a memo to Mount Olympus advising the powers that be that it was time to call it off. He and I, the representative from the Atomic Energy Control Board and one of the last remaining Americans, did that, laying out the rationale for ending the search with appropriate recommendations for a more detailed search in the summer, when it would be a more practical proposition. Somewhat to our surprise it was accepted, which meant that we could stand down and return to our normal lives.
The aftermath of Operation Morning Light
The non-radioactive fallout from the affair, political journalistic and bureaucratic, continued for many months. There were all sorts of articles published about it from all sorts of perspectives, someone showed me a feature article in "Paris Match" and I was astonished to see my picture in it. There were also articles in "Time" and "Readers Digest". I wrote a detailed scientific paper on the nitty gritty of how best to detect man- made radiation from the air, with formulae for calculating the probabilities of detecting radioactive sources of various intensities at various heights above the ground.
I was also invited to write a general article for a weekly periodical widely read by the mining and mineral exploration community, which I did. Some months later a rather lurid and melodramatic account of the whole episode was published as a hard-cover book entitled: "Operation Morning Light, Terror in our Skies, The True Story of Cosmos 954", written by Canadian author Leo Heaps. He interviewed all the people he could get a hold of, including me and then went away and produced his pot-boiler. It made a good read, but accuracy and balance were not front and centre in what came out. Some time later in a rather bizarre twist, a Canadian Company, McPhar Geophysics, got a contract worth nearly two million dollars to sell airborne gamma ray spectrometry equipment based on my design, to the Soviet Union for monitoring their own nuclear facilities. That gave me considerable satisfaction, because it meant that all the blood, sweat, toil and tears which I had put into that project was finally reaping handsome dividends for Canada, which is what is supposed to happen with government research and development programs of the sort that we were doing.
One of the more comic opera aspects of the demobilisation was that one of our NOVA minicomputers somehow went missing in the great trek back from Edmonton. I did not discover this until we had been back for a little while and began to pick up where we had left off. We searched high and low for the missing computer in various military hangars, aircraft and warehouses to no avail. Finally I rang up Thane Hendricks in Las Vegas and asked him if by any chance he had an extra NOVA kicking around. They had so many that one more would hardly be noticed.
Sure enough, it was there and he was profuse in his apologies. They must have scooped it up along with all the others and stuffed into the maw of their giant C-141 cargo aircraft for the return journey without realising it. They sent it back post haste and we were soon notified that it was being held in customs in Ottawa. When we went to clear it, they insisted that it was being imported and we had to pay duty on the damn thing which really annoyed me. It wasn't the first time that I had run up against the stupidity of one Federal government agency deliberately tying another one up in red tape to the detriment of all concerned. It further reinforced my long-held belief that there really is too much big government in this day and age, with too much lumbering, inefficient and incompetent mediocracy in too many agencies.
The powers that be, both military and civilian, wanted joint reports on the whole affair, which was no surprise and I wound up being part of a Canadian delegation to visit Las Vegas to have meetings with the American team to thrash out some of the details, along with Garland and some of his people and representatives from the Atomic Energy Control Board. We were given the royal tour of the Nevada Test Site by helicopter, where the atmospheric atomic bomb tests of the 1950's were conducted, but where by then (spring 1979) only underground tests were done. We saw some of the results of "Project Ploughshare", the attempts to demonstrate that it was possible to use carefully planned undergound explosions to do the huge excavations necessary for canals and other megaprojects. The whole visit provided a fascinating (but mostly classified) vignette of their operations.
The "G" in "Light" was subtley
altered to a hammer and sickle.
A properly documented history of Operation Morning Light was finally put together five years later in 1983 by Dick Morrison, one of the air force officers who was himself a helicopter pilot and one who had participated in the operation. He had been subsequently attached to the Directorate of Militay History in Ottawa, where he was given the resources to produce a hard-cover book entitled "Voyage into the Unknown". Although not a tale of gripping drama in the style of the Heaps book, it represented a valuable and coherent record of what happened where and when, and the problems that came close to derailing the operation on several occasions.
One of the points he made concerned the recommendations which I had included in the brief which Col. Garland had sent to Ottawa. One of these was for the creation of a "paper team" of experts by the Federal Government, assembled from various disciplines with the necessary resources assigned to it, which could be activated at short notice to deal with any similar emergency involving the accidental release of radioactive material. That recommendation was not acted upon at the time, possibly because (as Morrison suggests) it would have involved cutting across separate Federal and Provincial jurisdictional areas, or more likely because the probability of such another fluke accident seemed comfortably remote at that time.
The final orbits of COSMOS-954. Three orbits earlier
and the re-entry would have been across densely
populated urban centres.
Since then (incredibly), two more of the Soviet nuclear powered COSMOS series spy satellites have re-entered out of control. Fortunately both landed harmlessly in the oceans. Meanwhile the 1986 Chernobyl affair dwarfed all other incidents of accidental release of radioactivity. The really bizarre aspect of that was the fact that the huge radioactive cloud which drifted over western Europe was not detected until a worker entering an atomic research plant in Sweden at the beginning of the day, tripped a radiation alarm that was in place to monitor workers for radioactive contamination on leaving the plant! Since then of course governments the world over have set up nuclear emergency response teams and have invested in radiation monitoring equipment both for ground stations and for airborne use in emergency situations.
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