Space Invaders

How preparations for tomorrow’s satellite wars could ruin life as we know it today
space strategic defense star wars
BACK TO THE FUTURE: a 1980s rendering of a Strategic Defense Initiative weapons system designed to shoot down missiles
(Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy)

On February 20, a U.S. Navy cruiser launched a single SM-3 missile that slammed into a failed spy satellite carrying a half ton of toxic rocket fuel about 130 miles over the Pacific. As advertised by the Pentagon in a Valentine’s Day briefing, the destruction of the satellite was quick, clean, and complete. The impact blew the target to bits and vaporized the fuel; most of the debris was incinerated as it fell to Earth.

There was, however, one bit of alarming fallout: coming after China’s earlier, successful test of an antisatellite missile on one of its own old weather satellites, the U.S. shootdown may have marked the opening of a new arms race in space. Not only was the U.S. destruction of its own satellite less transparent and straightforward than billed, but it looks to have been part of a larger U.S. effort, mostly out of public view, to develop antisatellite weapons and to militarize space, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The world has twice decided that allowing weapons in space is a bad idea. Early dreams of using nuclear warheads to destroy enemy satellites foundered because neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could figure out how to keep the explosions from also damaging their own spacecraft. In the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, both sides agreed to ban weapons of mass destruction in space. Then, in the 1980s, after many antisatellite tests with nonnuclear weapons, the two superpowers stopped destructive testing. Development was too expensive, and kills could send debris zooming into other satellites.

That de facto moratorium lasted until China’s test on January 11, 2007. China’s interest in antisatellite weapons had quickened after the 1991 Gulf War showcased the accuracy of U.S. space-guided weapons. With the military playing field tilted sharply in favor of the United States, antisatellite weapons could be a leveler. In 2008, the United States had 444 military and commercial satellites in orbit, while the rest of the world, including the United States in partnership in some cases, had 403. China had 43.

The United States, of course, has long been aware that its broad array of potential targets makes it vulnerable. Many U.S. experts have suggested protecting space assets by seeking international agreements and waiting for other nations to build more satellites until they, too, are equally worried about the prospect of losing them. The Bush administration, however, is not fond of treaties. It sees space policy as another case of us-against-them.

The guiding spirit behind this belligerence was Donald Rumsfeld, who chaired a commission set up by Congress in 1999 to assess America’s vulnerability in space. He resigned in December 2000, when President Bush picked him as defense secretary; two weeks later, the commission released its findings.

The report warned of a “space Pearl Harbor” and urged the United States to “develop and deploy the means to deter and defend against hostile acts directed at U.S. space assets.” It noted that international law did not prohibit “placing or using weapons in space.” In 2006, true to Rumsfeld’s vision, the administration’s new National Space Policy emphasized a U.S. right to preserve “capabilities and freedom of action in space,” and to “deny such freedom of action to adversaries”—we do what we want, and the rest of the world does what we say.

It was a bureaucratic tour de force: Rumsfeld had crafted an aggressive new vision for militarizing space; changed jobs and accepted his own findings; and defined his president’s space policy, all without meaningful public debate.

Since then, the Bush administration has kept plans for new or expanded space-weapons programs mostly under wraps. The most visible program is a recurring Pentagon proposal—not funded by Congress so far this year—to spend $268 million over five years on a missile-defense system that attacks enemy ballistic launches with interceptors fired from space. But not only is at least half of the space budget “black,” as in classified, almost all space technology is “dual use,” muddying the distinction between civilian and military applications. Next year, for example, the Air Force has budgeted $74 million for the “Experimental Satellite Series” (small satellites that would drive around space, inspecting, servicing, or perhaps destroying other spacecraft) and the Starfire Optical Range (a ground-based laser system at New Mexico’s Kirtland Air Force Base that tracks satellites but could easily “dazzle,” “blind,” or burn up enemy spacecraft in orbit).

Presented by

Guy Gugliotta, a former science, space, and congressional reporter for The Washington Post, is now a writer based in New York.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In