Poker Flat

The main entrance to Poker Flat Research Range, about a mile past Chatanika Lodge on the Steese Highway, boasts a two-stage Nike Tomahawk rocket, many of which were launched at Poker Flat. It is similar to but slightly larger than the first rockets fired from the range, which were Nike Hydac rockets. 

Poker Flat Research Range, owned and operated by the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute (GI), is a rocket range located at Chatanika, 30 miles north of Fairbanks. Construction on the facility began in 1968, but the site’s development was years in the making.

In the 1950s scientists across the United States and Canada began using sounding rockets for meteorological testing, and in 1959 the Meteorological Rocket Network (MRN) was formed to foster synoptic weather observations. One of the launch sites for the MRN was at Fort Greely near Delta Junction.

According to Neil Davis’s book, “Rockets over Alaska,” scientists from the University of Alaska’s GI participated in Fort Greely rocket launches in 1964 to study noctilucent clouds. Also, Fort Wainwright had a small missile testing facility, and GI personnel participated in launches there in 1965 for auroral studies.

Neither of the two sites were ideal for launching scientific rockets, and GI personnel became convinced that Alaska needed its own launch facility. Neil Davis, who graduated from the University of Alaska in 1961 with a Ph.D. in physics and eventually became the GI’s assistant director, was instrumental in establishing Poke Flat Research Range.

An Alaska launch site needed to be located where ground observations could be conducted during a rocket’s flight. Davis found an ideal site just past Chatanika. The area was sparsely populated, as were lands to the north all the way to the Arctic Ocean. The site also lay along a line between the GI’s primary aurora viewing stations at Ester Dome and Fort Yukon. Observations could also be done from Barter Island, father north.

The site was accessible via the Steese Highway, a White Alice communications site at nearby Pedro Dome could be linked to, and electrical power was readily available.

Davis secured a long-term lease on 5,132 acres of land at Chatanika from the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The U.S. Interior Department also agreed that federal lands farther north could be utilized for rocket landings.

By 1966 the Poker Flat launch facility existed on paper. All that was lacking were funds to build it. Those funds were not immediately forthcoming, which meant that GI scientists needing to launch rockets had to use a rocket range at Fort Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.

That changed with the January 1968 crash of a U.S. B52 bomber in Greenland. The U.S. had military facilities in Greenland, and the bomber, which was carrying thermonuclear bombs, crashed while attempting an emergency landing at Thule Air Base. Because of the incident, the Danish government (Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark) curtailed most U.S. military operations in Greenland. This was disastrous for the U.S. military, but fortuitous for Alaska.

At that time the U.S. military was developing a series of rocket-boosted experiments aimed at developing the capability to detect atmospheric nuclear weapons testing by the Soviet Union. Launches had been planned for a rocket range in Greenland, but with Greenland now off-limits, another launch facility near the arctic had to be used. Fort Churchill was booked up, so it was agreed that the launches be moved to the as-yet unbuilt Fairbanks range.

With limited funds from the U.S. government and lots of Northern ingenuity, Davis and his crews began work on the Poker Flat facility in July 1968. A rudimentary facility was operational by the beginning of March 1969, and during that month six military sounding rockets were successfully launched, also inaugurating Poker Flat operations.

The Poker Flat Research Range, the only university-owned rocket range in the world, is still in operation. Now much expanded, it has launched more than 2,000 rockets in the past 50 years.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

• “Cold War inspired the first launch from Poker Flat” Ned Rozell. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.”

• 2-18-2017

• “Neal Brown gives a lecture entitled “History and stories about Poker Flats research” on September 25, 2017 in the Schaible Auditorium at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Alaska.” Neal Brown. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Oral History Collection. 2017

• “Rockets over Alaska: The Genesis of Poker Flat.” Neil Davis. Alaska-Yukon Press. 2006