Space, the Military, and Civilian Exploration

Why does the United States spent somewhere between 5 and 10 billion dollars more per year on military space programs than on its civilian space agency NASA?

Ostensibly, policy makers and supporters of the Pentagon’s space program argue that defensive space-based weapons systems are necessary deterrents against ascendant foreign powers or groups of foreign powers (read: China, Russia, India, the European Space Agency). We, in short, are occupying the ultimate high ground and are heavily invested in establishing ‘full spectrum dominance,’ a gaseous defense(offense)-industrial complex buzzword that is more fiction than fact. Terrestrial hegemony is simply not enough. If you find any of this unconvincing I recommend On the Edge of Earth: The Future of American Space Power by Steven Lambakis.

Lambakis and others, notably Joan Johnson-Freese in Space as a Strategic Asset (which is absolutely essential reading for anybody interested in American military and civilian space policy) have documented, in comprehensive fashion, the US Military’s desire to dominate earth’s near-space for a variety of defensive purposes, from communications satellites, to imaging satellites, to NSA communications monitoring devices.

A part of this debate that is entirely missing from the public discourse however, is the fact that in the hard vacuum of space, physical properties of matter in motion ensure that any defensive piece of hardware is, also, an offensive piece of weaponry. A maneuverable satellite orbiting the planet at 17,000 mph is also a missile, especially when other satellites are concerned. Chips of paint and fragments of metal become potentially mission-destroying projectiles, and micro or nano-sats that can be remotely piloted into the path of say, anything else in orbit, is just as much a weapon as a MAC gun of HALO renown (MACs have a bit more punch, but that’s a discussion for another day). Now, numerous international treaties, most visibly the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, and parts of the SALT agreements prohibit the extension of offensive military capabilities into orbit. The international community has, for quite some time now, been serious in its devotion to preventing the weaponization of outer space.

The Pentagon, led by the Airforce, (all branches maintain some form of official ‘space’ program, its a great way to juice up budgetary projections), has recognized the dual-purpose nature of any object placed into orbit and thus we have the 21st century space weapons race. China has already successful tested a ground launched anti-satellite weapon, and there are an unbelievable number of far-fetched ideas being actively pursued in the US to build offensive capabilities into the American space infrastructure. Some of these, like the CAV, or ‘Rods from God’, are fan-boy wetdreams.

‘Rods from God’, in case you were wondering, is an idea to launch tungsten rods from space that would strike targets anywhere on earth with the force of a two ton meteorite. The official name is/was Project Thor and falls under the ‘kinetic bombardment‘ school of military thought. Projected yield is something in the range of a small, tactical nuclear weapon: without any of the radioactive fallout. I didn’t make that up, none of it. The possibility of launching huge tungsten weapons from orbiting weapons platforms was explored and some, probably ten to twenty million dollars of taxpayer money, was spent investigating its feasibility.

So, instead of focusing on projects which might reduce the cost per kilogram (or pound) to reach orbit the US has embarked on a mission as foolish as it is impossible: to deny any other country equal access to space. As a strategy this won’t just damage American social, scientific and diplomatic progress in the long term, as a military preoccupation this is bad for the entire human species. It hinders the planning, development, and implementation of sustained, multi-lateral space operations (as anyone who followed the evolution of the International Space Station is aware). It shunts critical funding dollars from civilian programs, is stunting the emergence of a private space exploration industry by imposing rigid, often arbitrary prohibitions on the exportation of space related technologies, and is possibly the most wasteful national defensive(offensive) strategy ever conceived.

UPDATE: As of 2003, budgetary allocations for exploring the feasibility of space-based kinetic bombardment technology stood at around 40 million dollars for the years 2002-2003, a sum that does not include the years before or after. After 2003, research into kinetic energy weapons was folded into the overall ‘interceptor’ line. Space Based Lasers, SBL, get about about 200 million dollars per year.


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