Faux Pas

That Time the USA Accidentally Launched a Missile at Mexico

Even the best-intentioned friend can make a mistake. If you borrow your buddy’s car and accidentally scratch the paint, it’s embarrassing. If in your excitement at a ball game, you wave your arm and mistakenly slap your pal in the next seat, you feel horrible. Fortunately, the goodwill between friends goes a long way toward fixing whatever harm the mistake inflicted on the relationship.

What goes for individuals also holds true for nations. That is why Liechtenstein and Switzerland remain allies, despite the latter’s unfortunate habit of performing accidental military invasions.

Of course, neither Liechtenstein nor Switzerland are nuclear powers. It’s hard to imagine any amount of goodwill that could make up for accidentally lobbing an ICBM at a neighbor. It turns out that we don’t have to imagine such a scenario. Look no further than the relationship between the United States and Mexico — one that is solid enough to brush off an accidental missile strike.

Athena RTV missile

It was July 11, 1970. The U.S. Air Force was conducting tests on the Athena RTV missile. At 50 feet tall and 16,000 pounds, the Athena was assembled as a sub-scale model or simulator for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Athena missile allowed comparatively inexpensive research into the reentry dynamics of warheads.

The Air Force had been testing the Athena since 1964. On this fateful day, Athena missile number 122 blasted off from Green River, Utah. Its target was the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

As the missile left Green River, everything seemed to be going as expected. Its four stages burned solid propellant. The first two stages pushed Athena to an altitude of about 200 miles. Onboard computers performed quick calculations before triggering the final two stages. Precise targeting should have sent the reentry vehicle to its intended target at 15,250 miles per hour — a breathtaking 4.25 miles per second.

Much to the horror of those who were monitoring the launch, things started to go wrong shortly into the flight. According to the summary provided by the Air Force Systems Command, “An inflight malfunction, fourth stage motor ignition on V123D, caused both stage four and the payload to fly off course…”

Controllers scrambled to figure out what happening. Telemetry signals provided information for a while, but when the missile disappeared over the horizon, Air Force staff had to make an educated guess about its ultimate destination. That guess put the missile deep into Mexico.

Some hopefully speculated that it could have burned up on reentry. The best guess was that it probably came down in a remote mountainous area 150 miles south of Juarez, Mexico. In a hastily-written three-paragraph memo, Henry Kissinger informed President Richard Nixon of the accident and reassured him that the Mexican government was happy to grant access to US officials to search for the wreckage.

Despite the optimistic tone of the memo, it was nearly a month before a search team located the wreckage. It was in the Mapimi desert in the northeast corner of the state of Durango. The missile had overshot its target by more than 400 miles.

Redacted and unclassified memorandum from Henry Kissinger, notifying President Nixon of the accidental missile strike on Mexico. (Click the image read the entire memo)

Kissinger’s brief reference to Mexico’s willingness to grant access, the aftermath of the accident was far from simple. The Athena reentry vehicle happened to contain two small containers of radioactive Cobalt 57. Cleaning up the mess proved to be long and expensive. It included constructing a road through the Mapimi desert and the excavation of hundreds of tons of soil from the impact site.

Although relations between the two countries remained cordial, Mexico felt the need to point out that this was not the first time it had been accidentally attacked by its neighbor to the north. In September 1967, a Pershing missile fired from Blanding, Utah went off course and crashed just across the Mexican border south of Van Horn, Texas.

“In other words,” suggested Mexico, “we’d really appreciate it if, in the future, you could try a bit harder to keep track of your toys.”

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