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Star Wars: My night under the missile

July 15, 2000

On Friday, July 7, the US military was scheduled to launch the third test of its much vaunted and ill-fated national missile defence system – or Star Wars as it has been dubbed. Political and military analysts around the globe agree that deployment of this system will inevitably lead to an new nuclear arms race and the crippling of existing nuclear treaties.

Because Greenpeace believes these threats are real and that, in a nutshell, Star Wars is stupid, we did our best to prevent this test taking place.


At three o’clock in the afternoon on July 7, the Greenpeace ship MV Arctic Sunrise arrived at its destination approximately 270 kilometres off the California coast. In three hours this would become Zone B in the Notice to Mariners posted by the US military. In four hours a missile would be launched from Vandenburg Air Base. Zone B covered an area 16 kilometres wide and 32 kilometres long. This was where the booster rocket from the Vandenburg missile was going to drop.

There were 23 people of 13 nationalities on board the ship. I was one of them. We were there to bear witness and protest against the Star Wars launch. We knew our presence in the zone might not stop the test, but we were prepared to give it our best try. We left Long Beach on July 5, assuming the U.S. military would be tracking us. We figured that somewhere outside of our radar range a coast guard or naval vessel was following us to establish which of three possible zones was our actual destination. Once the ship’s course was clearly committed to Zone B, we expected the word would get out and the welcoming committee would be dispatched to tow us out. The plan was to put four inflatables in the water as quickly as possible, so they could disperse and, hopefully, slow down the seize-and-tow operation.

The reality was that we arrived to find no ships within visual or radar sight. We launched our inflatables and then began the surprisingly difficult process of alerting the missile commander at Vandenburg to our presence. When we finally got through, the duty officer sounded quite surprised, thanked us for the information, and didn’t say much of anything else.

A few minutes later I discovered there had just been a press conference at Vandenburg where it was categorically stated that there was no Greenpeace vessel in the exclusion zone. The military hadn’t bothered to track or follow us because they’d assumed we would enter Zone A, a different zone 22 kilometres offshore, and that was where they’d been watching for us. Wrong zone.

The launch was originally scheduled for 7:01pm. Just before 6pm we heard that it had been delayed until 9:18pm. The official reason given for the delay was battery failure.

By 9:08pm we were forced to accept that we’d made another  faulty assumption. We’d been counting on some official reluctance to deliberately firing a missile and dropping a booster rocket over the heads of 23 people. We radioed the inflatables to tell them the test was going ahead. There wasn’t time to get them all on board.

At 9:18pm we saw the first red flash of the missile being launched. When we spotted it going up in the distance, we all held our breath. I don’t think anyone spoke until the flashing red tail of the missile was over our heads. That’s when the special effects kicked in behind the missile: the shroud began to spread, white in the night sky, widening into an arrowhead shape.

After a moment the arrow developed an intense blue-green tail. The resemblance to a Stealth bomber was uncanny. People gasped at the sight – and swore at the decision of the US military that our presence in the exclusion zone was considered acceptable collateral damage. As soon as the missile passed us, we strained our eyes to see when the booster would separate. It did with another red flash. The missile was so high up it felt as if the booster was falling is slow motion.

I scanned the water, looking for the inflatable, fearing the worst and hoping for the best. They’d moved in closer to the ship and I could see them all. As soon as I realized the disintegrating rocket was not going to hit anyone, I expelled another long-held breath and watched the ball of fire finish its descent into the water.

It was almost impossible to gauge – at night, over the water – the distance between us and the debris, but it was generally agreed it was no more than eight to ten kilometres. It looked closer to me. Too close for comfort, whatever the distance.

Media calls began coming through to the ship. It was through one of these, half an hour later, that we learned the test had failed. Another $100 million that could have provided health care or education had gone down in the Pacific. So far the only achievements of this disaster-prone, multi-billion dollar program have been increased nuclear tension worldwide and the creation of a great deal of space junk at the bottom of the ocean.

Greenpeace hopes the failure of the test will prompt US President Bill Clinton to cancel further funding for this ill-conceived plan. I feel privileged to have been on the ship with 22 other people who bore witness without flinching.

–       Victoria Times Colonist, 15 July 2000.

Antony Barnett of The Observer was also on board the Arctic Sunrise for this Greenpeace action. His report can be read here.

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