Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts on War in Space

Proof that I do take requests...Lin suggested I write on this topic, so what the heck.

Let me start with this: I'm against war in space for a whole number of reasons. But first, I should lay a little groundwork for what I'm talking about.

Space During the Cold War
The US and the Soviet Union put up surveillance satellites almost as soon as they knew how to do so. The primary reason for these satellites, of course, was to track troop and naval movements as well as spy on any activity involving nuclear weapons (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs). ICBMs themselves are long-range suborbital rockets that briefly leave the atmosphere before reentering and striking their targets with fission or fusion warheads.

While we were neck-deep into the Cold War, the U.S. was feverishly looking for ways to defend the nation in ways that didn't call for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Developments included massive radars, high-speed ground-based missiles, and other classified toys, most of which were scrapped or declared illegal by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed by President Nixon in 1972.

In the midst of all this military activity, the Space Race was born. That the US and USSR (look it up, kids--I'm not going to explain ALL the history to you) were engaged in a contest for military supremacy was obvious to the whole world. However, in the wake of World War II, both sides were also trying to win hearts, minds, and allies through peaceful means because legions and empires are expensive. If you can "win the crowd," you just might win a few converts. Thus did Russia and America race to launch satellites and then men into space and, eventually, toward the Moon. We won that race through a supreme effort of national will...and through the fortunate circumstance that the Russians' moon rocket exploded. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, and America won the great Space Race of the 1960s.

After the Space Race
It would take another 20 years before the US won the Cold War (and some folks will still dispute that, including Vladimir Putin). In the meantime, space was still "up there." We still had nuclear missiles and satellites and a large NASA infrastructure for sending human beings into space. In Kazakstan, the Russians were still launching rockets and, eventually, space stations. We launched our own space station, Skylab, and eventually even a symbolic joint manned spacecraft docking with the Russians in 1975. After that came a long drought, out of which was born the Space Shuttle, the system we have today.

But meanwhile, back in the defense world, the generals and other technological dreamers saw all the cool hardware we had built during our race to the Moon and thought we could use some or all of it to defeat a massive ICBM strike before it ever hit the US. In an essay titled "How to Save Civilization (and Make a Little Money)," science fiction writer Larry Niven describes how a group of generals, physicists, and science fiction writers gathered in Niven's home proposed a series of technologies born out of the Space Race to defeat Russian missiles. This proposal eventually became formalized as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI included an extensive series of ground- and space-based missiles and lasers to knock down ICBMs upon launch, during boost and cruise, and during reentry. Other defenses included kinetic energy vehicles (KEVs), which were guided, non-nuclear missiles that would strike missiles in flight and destroy them. The laws of physics dictate that force = mass X acceleration, and a small mass flying at tens of kilometers a second was more than enough to take down an ICBM.

So Ronald Reagan bought off on the idea, and preliminary work began on all of it: interceptor missiles (you might have heard of the Patriot Missile System, or PAC-3, which defended Israel and US troops during Desert Shield/Storm), particle weapons, guided weapons in space (Brilliant Pebbles), and the rest. SDI was a staggering concept, so staggering that Mikhail Gorbachev offered to eliminate nearly all of his nation's ICBMs if Reagan would give it up. Reagan wouldn't do it, and SDI continued.

Space After the Cold War
Jerry Pournelle, one of the writers in the Niven house when SDI was first proposed, has claimed that SDI helped win the Cold War, as the Soviets could not hope to keep up with Reagan's conventional military buildup, the MX Peacekeeper Missile system, and SDI, so they shifted to glasnost and perestroika instead.

Regardless, the end of the Soviet Union, like the landing of Apollo 11 on the Sea of Tranquility, did not end our nation's military problems in space, though efforts had been made during the Cold War to contain the problem. The Test Ban Treaty of 1963 had restricted above-ground testing of nuclear weapons and forbade the use of nuclear weapons in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty tried to eliminate another potential source of conflict by stating that no nation had the right to claim or own territory in outer space. The 1979 Moon Treaty (defeated by the L5 Society, predecessor of the National Space Society) would have banned private property of any kind from the Moon. All these treaties aside, the potential for conflict in space is still possible, especially now that there are more nations capable of reaching space and sending up payloads capable of damaging or destroying others.

The US reconfigured Space Station Freedom to become the International Space Station as a way to subsidize non-communist Russia's space program and keep that nation's aerospace engineers ("rocket scientists") from going off to build rockets and missiles for unfriendly nations like Iran or North Korea. And while the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia delayed the construction of ISS, the station is nearly complete now, and soon the Shuttle will be retired, to be replaced by Russian, European, Japanese, and eventually US commercial crew and cargo vehicles.

War in Space, 21st Century Style
There are now nine nations or entities capable of building a rocket that can launch unmanned payloads into space: US, Russia, China, Japan, China, the European Union, India, Israel, and Iran. North Korea and Syria have ballistic (suborbital) rockets, as do many other nations. There are also many more nations now in possession of nuclear weapons than there were in the 1960s, and not all of the rocket-launching or nuclear-weapons-building nations are parties to the treaties signed 40+ years ago.

We are a long way off from troops battling it out with lasers in orbit (see Star Wars or the silly-but-fun James Bond film, Moonraker). But damage can still be done. A bucket of sand launched in a retrograde (opposite direction) orbit toward one of our satellites or (heaven forbid) manned spacecraft or stations would cause catastrophic damage. Of course another nation need not be so blatant as to launch kinetic weapons like that. China shot down one of its own satellites a few years ago, and a decommissioned Russian satellite collided with an Iridium commercial satellite after that. Neither of these acts is blatantly hostile--and the Russian satellite mishap was written off as an accident--but they do demonstrate what sorts of capabilities exist to create damage to space-based assets.

Accidental debris ranging from tiny flecks of paint up to full-size rocket stages and decommissioned satellites is still flying around in ever-increasing swarms along the most common orbits (700-800 kilometers/km and 35,888 km, to pick two) needed to conduct what is now basic economic activity. There are around 20,000 objects up there that we can track from the ground. That's just the stuff we can see, generally anything bigger than a baseball. The small stuff, more numerous, might be an even bigger hazard. Ever have a pebble crack your windshield after hitting it at 60 miles per hour? Then imagine how much damage that same pebble would cause to a spacecraft in orbit traveling at 10-20 km/second with no air resistance!

While this essay has focused primarily on military hardware, the fact remains that we depend very heavily upon satellites for a range of critical services, including communication (phone, TV, radio, internet), weather, environmental monitoring, search and rescue, global positioning systems, and yes, commercial and military surveillance.

It is that infrastructure that is at risk if anyone--us, our allies, or our enemies--start making messes up there deliberately. How effective would the Weather Channel be without satellite coverage of hurricanes? How many lives would be lost if floods or landslides were not detected? What sorts of mischief could unfriendly nations do with their armed forces if we were unable to detect their movements or transmit their activities on TV "via satellite," a new phenomenon just within my lifetime?

Long-term, there are other downsides to orbits full of junk left over from a destructive war in space: we might not be able to launch human beings or scientific instruments into orbit if the chances of impact and damage were 100%. If an asteroid were heading our way, we wouldn't even be able to launch anything to stop it. We would be stuck, as a species, on our one planet for the remainder of our lifetimes unless we were willing to wait years, decades, or even centuries until gravity cleared the skies for us--or we could hope for a friendly passing alien willing to clear our skies with a few orbiting bolt catchers. Regardless, we must continue to protect our nation's critical space infrastructure, hopefully without triggering the very conflict capable of destroying it.

1 comment:

lin said...

Excellent post!