Military Uses of Space

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Military Uses of Space

During human history, the exploration of space has been based on more than just scientific potential. People may like to believe that we are exploring the cosmos purely for academic purposes, but the truth is that space plays a huge role in both offensive and defensive military planning. In fact, much of the exploration that humans have already achieved would not have come to pass if it had not been for the military motives that underpin most space missions. Long before satellites orbited Earth for cell phone calls,global positioning systems , or picture taking, the military was interested in space. Commercial interest would not come until years later.

While many countries now have space agencies and conduct missions into space, it was the United States and Russia who first began the competition to reach the stars. In 1957, more than a decade after World War II, and after the Cold War had been in bloom for years, the "space race" began. The Cold Wara war of spies and threats, of moves and counter-moveshad reached a new plateau. Nuclear power had been demonstrated by both superpowers and as rockets began slowly to become more advanced, space weaponry became the new battleground. Not only could weapons be placed in space, but powerful cameras could be used for spying on the enemy. The potential uses for space during the Cold War were numerous and clearly visible.

Each side believed that having weapons in orbit could mean their success in this war and the destruction of their enemies. Test planes were designed to fly in space, while rockets became more than just short range missiles. Satellites would soon be designed and the launches would lead to panic and confusion.

In 1952 branches of the U.S. military, including the air force and the navy, along with private companies began trying to design planes for space travel. During a time when all planes flew with propellers, these ideas were unheard of. When the experimental X-15 debuted in 1958, the craft was far ahead of other planes. For nine years, these three hypersonic, or faster than sound, planes made more than 200 trips with twelve different pilots. They continued their trips during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. These craft would lead designers to create a reusable spacecraft that later became the space shuttle. Amazingly, these planes made it into space and landed back on Earth decades before the space shuttle ever flew.

Ironically, the role these weapons played would become more defensive than offensive. As each superpower increased its stockpile of nuclear arms and continued its space program, it was obvious that an attack and destruction of one would lead to the mutual destruction of the other. Great efforts were made by both sides to keep the mutual destruction from happening while secretly trying to gain the advantage.

In January 1954, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced the new "Massive Retaliation" policy. If the Soviet Union attacked, the United States would return the attack with its huge nuclear arsenal. Despite this, the Cold War would continue to grow in scope, and while no nuclear weapons were fired, there were plenty of times when this Cold War almost became a hot one.

Russia Takes the Lead

Three years later, in 1957, America went through one of its biggest nuclear scares. On October 4, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Even though it was only the size of a basketball, many believed that a nuclear warhead was onboard and that this was a Russian attack. During the 98 minutes that it circled Earth, the 83 kilogram (183-pound) ball showed that the space race was no longer theoretical, or even solely missile based.

In reality, the Soviets had simply beaten the United States to the first satellite launch. No nuclear warhead was onboard and the only thing given off by Sputnik was a radio transmitter's beep, proving that the satellite was functioning properly.

The Soviet Union would improve its lead, as it would soon send up Sputnik II, containing a small dog in its cargo. This was still before any U.S. satellite had been launched. The seriousness of the situation led Congress to pass the National Aeronautics and Space Act in July 1958. This act created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, on October 1 of that year.

The United States would launch satellites of its own, but for years Russia maintained the lead in the space race. Russia beat the Americans to records for the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin; the first space walk, Alexei Leonov; and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.

As time went on, the Cold War would continue to visit new levels. A mere year after U.S. President John F. Kennedy had told Americans to begin building bomb shelters in a letter to Life magazine, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster for two weeks.

Going to the Moon

It was only the year before when President Kennedy set the bar for the United Statesgoing to the Moon. He said:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Great skepticism existed as to whether the United States would be able to perform this task in the time frame that Kennedy had determined. If Americans got there before the Soviets, it would mean the end of the race and a U.S. victory; if Americans did not get to the Moon before the Soviets did, the United States would have lost according to Kennedy. The next year, he further explained his decision, saying: "We have a long way to go in the space race. We started late. But this is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none." Kennedy also uttered this now-famous line: "We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Seven years later, on July 20, 1969, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin would be the first men to land on the Moon, and Armstrong would say the now immortal line: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The United States had successfully sent men to the Moon and back before the Soviets. Despite all the setbacksPresident Kennedy's assassination, astronauts who had died in previous Apollo mishaps, and the United States' start from the underdog positionAmericans had won. The country rejoiced, thinking it had won the space race. But then a new race began.

The New Race

No longer was the race about who could get their citizens to what location. Instead, the war became about technology. Defenses against offensive systems, imaging for early warning systems, and weapon ships for ensuring military victory. The Russians would build Mir, and the United States would build its Skylab. When the space shuttle was built, the hope was to have numerous shuttles, keeping one above Earth at all times, and possibly armed with nuclear weapons. Both sides launched satellites for spying, photography, and communication interception.

As the years went on, each division of the military would begin to form its own agenda for space defense and offense. Plans continued to become more complex, until on March 23, 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan introduced a plan for a new defense system, nicknamed Star Wars. In his speech, the president spoke of the continuing threat of Soviet attack and raised the question, "What if free people could live secure in the knowledge . . . that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil. . . ?" The controversy began.

The underlying technology was very new and untested. The idea that the required accuracy to destroy a missile either with a laser or by colliding another missile with it was too advanced. The concept was ahead of its time and was never successfully developed during President Reagan's days in office. Ironically, the animations of this shown on television during that time were created by the television networks and not by NASA or the government.

During U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration, tests were conducted to try and shoot down a test missile by hitting it with another. Every test failed. The proposed Missile Defense System or Missile Defense Shield did not look promising. During the office of U.S. President George W. Bush, the Missile Defense Shield again became a priority; despite massive cost overruns and failures, the tests continued.

It was during this time that the Missile Defense Shield had its biggest success and failure. For the first time, the test worked and the missile was successfully destroyed. However, the proposed Missile Defense System is in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the United States and Russia both signed. The treaty was one of many between the 1960s and the present designed to continue moving away from the prospect of nuclear holocaust. President Bush has stated that he believes the treaty is outdated, and will continue tests in spite of it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not agreed to abandon the treaty and is a strong critic of the plan. As of this writing, each side claims they are willing to make compromises to the treaty, but the exact form those compromises will take has yet to be seen.

Another controversial event occurred during President Clinton's term in office when the armed forces were given the right to attack another spacecraft, whether it be government owned or privately owned, should it "attempt to hinder the ability of U.S. spacecraft to operate freely in space." Any such attempted hindrance is now considered to be an attack on the United States itself. At first, this piece of legislation was destroyed using the line item veto but, on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court found the line item veto unconstitutional and this new policy replaces the one put in place by President Reagan in 1987.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been struggling to try and keep its space program afloat. From the costs of upkeep on the Mir space station to the new International Space Station, the Russian Space Agency has undergone many challenges. In 2001 the organization was restructured again as Russia continued to cut back on its military space program. Between cost concerns for the International Space Station and political feelings about Missile Defense Systems, experts predict that Russia's space program will either undergo a vast transformation in the coming years or a terrible collapse. Russia and the United States are not the only countries, however, with space programs.

Today, many different space agencies exist in numerous countries. France has its agency, the Direction Générale de l'Armement or DGA, while Japan has its own space agency, called NASDA, or the National Space Development Agency, founded in 1969. Even countries without large space agencies still have launch sites for military and commercial satellites. Brazil has prime real estate, near the equator, for launches. (Being closer to the equator means the rocket can leave Earth having used less fuel.) Many countries are joining together and launching satellites and rockets by combining their money and resources. It is in this fashion that the International Space Station is being built. Ironically though, as countries come together to build this station, many still develop and launch satellites designed for defense against other countries. It indicates that space exploration may always include a defensive submotive, at least as long as there is disagreement here on Earth.

Now, many military officers carry specially modified computer laptops that rely on satellite-guided data to ensure the positions of themselves, their allies, and their targets. The accuracy available is so remarkable, it puts the revolutionary GPS to shame. Military satellites with these abilities can map areas on Earth down to the last inch, and possibly even smaller areas. Full information on military space capabilities is not made available to the public.

see also Global Positioning System (volume 1); Launch Facilities (volume 4); Military Customers (volume 1); Space Industries (volume 4).

Craig Samuels


Collins, Martin J. Space Race: The U.S.-U.S.S.R. Competition to Reach the Moon. SanFrancisco, CA: Pomegranate Communications, 1999.

Johnson, Dana J., C. Bryan Gabbard, and Scott Pace. Space: Emerging Options for National Power. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1998.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

Internet Resources

National Aeronautics and Space Administration.<>.

Universe Today.<>.

Scientific American.<>. <>.


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Military Uses of Space

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