Space Invaders

How preparations for tomorrow’s satellite wars could ruin life as we know it today
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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).

All told, the national-security space budget is somewhere between $25 billion and $30 billion per year, estimates the Center for Defense Information, a think tank that tracks space spending. That may amount to “chump change” for the Pentagon, in the words of the center’s director, Theresa Hitchens, who is a critic of space weapons, but it would buy nearly two years of civilian space exploration at NASA.

One clue to what the United States plans to do about space weapons may be its February shootdown of the failed spy satellite. Officials stressed that, unlike China a year earlier, the United States was eliminating a toxic hazard, not conducting a test. Moreover, they said, the United States told the world all about the mission before it took place.

But in reality, China’s “surprise” launch was not all that surprising. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies had watched silently as the Chinese fired two earlier antisatellite missiles—misses or dry runs—before hitting the target on the third try. The administration stood by, one former senior official said, because it had concluded that nothing it could say would deter the test, so why bother? Besides, watching a Chinese hit might offer valuable intelligence.

Moreover, U.S. “transparency” turned out to be not all that transparent. A year passed between the failure of the spy satellite immediately after its launch in December 2006 and the administration’s request to Strategic Command to do something about it, and it was late January 2008 before U.S. officials publicly warned of the satellite’s imminent reentry. Still, they downplayed the risk. On Valentine’s Day, however, briefers told a different story: extensive analysis had led President Bush to conclude that the rocket fuel, a highly toxic compound called hydrazine, significantly threatened human life—enough to spend $112 million to destroy the satellite with a modified missile-defense interceptor.

But not until several months after the test did NASA and Strategic Command release (exclusively to The Atlantic) even part of the analysis that had led Bush to that conclusion. Geoffrey Forden, an MIT physicist who examined the documentation, said that although incomplete, it suggested to him that atmospheric drag would melt most of the hydrazine and destroy the fuel tank itself before landing, eliminating any hazard. His own independent analysis had earlier suggested only a 3.5 percent chance that the re­entry of the satellite and its toxic fuel would kill or injure anyone.

The failure to provide a rigorous threat analysis in a timely manner raises suspicions that the United States did nothing to stop China’s antisatellite test because it would provide political cover for our own future test. Even if this was not the case, the intercept offered the United States the policy equivalent of a threefer: save the world from hydrazine, test a missile-defense rocket as an antisatellite weapon, and put the Chinese on notice that we can kill satellites, too.

Looking to enhance the profile of military space, the Pentagon has found the Chinese test to be a gift that keeps on giving. In early 2007, the head of Strategic Command, General James Cartwright, told a Senate subcommittee that although “it is premature to start thinking about an arms race in space,” China’s test showed that the U.S. needed to invest in a variety of systems. These included quick ground-based counterstrikes to disable enemy antisatellite jammers and lasers, and better space-based sensors to detect these attacks and perhaps enable the United States to forestall them by going “pro­active.” During the NCAA basketball tournament last April, the Air Force began running a recruitment ad featuring an exploding satellite: “What if your cell-phone calls, your television, your GPS system, even your bank transactions, could be taken out with a single missile?” the narrator intoned. “They can.” Signaling that interest in weapons in space is bipartisan and promises to outlive the Bush administration, the Democrat-controlled Congress has ordered the Pentagon and the director of National Intelligence to develop a “Space Protection Strategy.”

Both China and the United States should recall why the superpowers stopped destructive testing in the 1980s. Blow up a few dozen satellites with the same abandon as the Chinese did last year, and a belt of space junk will soon circle the heavens. Unchecked by atmospheric drag and largely free of gravity, debris will zip through space at speeds up to 25,000 miles an hour, turning other multimillion-dollar satellites into extraterrestrial roadkill. No more space-guided cruise missiles. But also, no more instant weather, drought, or flood reports; no more GPS; no more space station; no more space telescopes; no more satellite radio; no more DirecTV. Human spaceflight? Maybe, if you like dodging objects while traveling at 25,000 miles an hour. Those of us old enough to remember the 1950s might welcome the return of the pre-Sputnik era, but probably not. Space war may not trigger nuclear winter, but it promises the end of technological life as we know it.

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