David Axe / The Danger Room / WIRED – 2011-09-21 01:10:07
(September 19, 2011) — When the Space Shuttle flew its 135th and final mission in July and retired without a direct replacement, some critics accused Washington of abandoning America’s 50-year orbital legacy. The Telegraph even called it a “retreat.”
Then last week, the U.S. government revealed new and formerly secret space initiatives that underscore America’s continuing orbital dominance. NASA announced plans for the biggest-ever rocket, set to launch in six years. Meanwhile, the hush-hush National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), keeper of America’s most secretive surveillance satellites, used the occasion of its 50th birthday to declassify its ongoing orbital eavesdropping campaign over Afghanistan.
Far from retreating from space, Washington is doubling down on its orbital force structure. The risk is this: with more and more of its critical capabilities packed into Earth’s limited orbit, America is increasingly vulnerable to a space counter-attack by China or Russia.
At 400 feet tall, NASA’s planned Space Launch System, depicted in the video above, will carry more, higher than the Space Shuttle it will replace. The Shuttle payload to Low Earth Orbit maxed out at around 26 tons. In its ultimate incarnation, the liquid-fueled SLS will haul up to 143 tons, balanced atop five main engines and two bolt-on boosters.
NASA estimates the gargantuan rocket will cost $18 billion to develop; skeptics say it could cost four times that. When it enters service in the 2017, the SLS will “ensure continued U.S. leadership in space,” NASA chief Charles Bolden said.
The SLS will be an “exploration-class” rocket with enough oomph to boost a vehicle out of Earth’s orbit. NASA wants to use the SLS to send astronauts to an asteroid no later than 2025 — and Mars after that. But there are possible military applications, as well. Just like the Space Shuttle, the giant rocket will be “dual use,” capable of carrying big military satellites in addition to purely scientific payloads.
Satellites like those unveiled by NRO boss Bruce Carlson during his agency’s birthday celebrations. The formerly tight-lipped Carlson told reporters that the NRO has launched six new spacecraft in just seven months — “the best weâ€™ve done in about 25 years.”
The NRO’s secret sats have been busy spying on America’s enemies and rivals. The goal, Carlson said, is to “do sensing … in the daytime, at night, in bad weather, good weather â€¦ and sandstorms.”
To listen in on Taliban radio chatter in Afghanistan, the NRO redirected some of its oldest spacecraft. “Those satellites were designed to collect Soviet long-haul communications that dealt with the Cold War,” Carlson said. “Now they’re collecting phone calls or push-to-talk radio signals out of the war zone.”
NRO satellites also scan for the distinctive electromagnetic signatures of roadside bombs primed to explode. NRO speeds that data to front-line military forces in as little as a minute. The bombs’ locations show up as red dots on the troopsâ€™ digital maps. “I can’t tell you exactly how we do that, but it’s a pretty clever set of technologies,” Carlson quipped.
But Carlson is worried. The more satellites he puts in to orbit alongside Russian spacecraft and a growing number of Chinese sats, the more crowded it gets up there — and the more potential there is for catastrophic accidents or even a deliberate attack on American satellites. “It’s becoming more competitive,” the NRO chief warned.
Naval War College analyst Andrew Erickson shares Carlson’s concern. A few weeks back, we reported that Erickson was advocating a U.S. withdrawal from space in favor of better-protected aerial systems. We misunderstood. In fact, Erickson wants Washington to safeguard its spacecraft and also deploy back-up airborne systems. “The United States, and particularly the U.S. military, should… NOT remove assets from space or otherwise decrease its presence there,” Erickson wrote.
Carlson highlighted the NRO’s work with the Air Force on the so-called “Joint Space Protection Program” — the NRO’s “ace in the hole [should] somebody try to do something.” The protection program is largely classified, but it seems to include modifying spacecraft sensors so they can look around at themselves, as well as down at Earth. That would be a big help, it case our sats unexpectedly come under attack.
It’s a safe bet the Air Force’s secretive X-37B spaceplane is also part of the space protection plan. The robotic mini-shuttle can maneuver across orbits and, in theory, sneak up on enemy spacecraft, inspecting or even disabling them.
Secret sats, giant rockets and sneaky robo-shuttles are not the hallmarks of a world power retreating from orbit. With more and bigger U.S. spacecraft blasting into the heavens, the bloodless space war is only escalating.
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David Axe reports from war zones, shoots television and writes comic books.
Follow @daxe and @warisboring on Twitter
This story drew many comments. These are only a few
Zhu, in case no one told you, we *already* have thousands of nukes, ready to go on a much shorter notice than the minimum several *hours* it would take a constellation of orbiting satellites to get to the right positions for re-entry to multiple targets on Earth. The maximum time for positions to become right could be several days! Note also that orbiting nukes were tried by the USSR in the mid-1960s, and then abandoned, because they are inherently *less* accurate than a missile launched from a previously surveyed position on the ground, which position has a permanent physical relation to any target on Earth.
You see, when a satellite re-enters the atmosphere, if it is not to burn up on re-entry, its re-entry path must be long enough that it does not build up both pressure and heat to the point that it comes apart. That means it actually starts re-entry out of sight from its target about a quarter to a third the circumference of the orbit it is placed in. These orbits are changed by atmospheric drag in unpredictable ways, since the amount of atmosphere at these altitudes changes easily as the Earth’s atmosphere expands and contracts a bit every day. The fact, that most of the constellation is out of sight of both their targets and National Command Authority here in the US at any one time, means that we would not know the precise relationship of the position of each warhead satellite and its target most of the time nearly well enough.
No, this old idea is no justification for Senator Shelby’s pork launcher.
Even if we found a way to use nukes placed in orbit, there would be no reason at all to wait for the pork launcher to be developed, because the 25 ton payloads to LEO of current launchers would do it for us quite easily, about 50 at a time. You would not have to wait seven, or ten, or fifteen years, much less twenty years to start this. That would mean it got done cheaper as well, since these launchers are already developed, and they are in production today at higher rates than the pork launcher ever will be. That brings prices down.
No, you could not launch all of them in some “surprise” launch, because launching the SLS would mean it sits on the pad being prepared for weeks to months before launch.
Sorry, …the idea of a nefarious US plot to rule the world does not justify the Senate Launch System.
Axe, please quit trumpeting / rumoring / talking up the X-37 as being an on-orbit ASAT / Satellite “inspector”. You hadn’t even been born when that line of thought was deep-sixed at a national policy level due to technical difficulties, and the fact that it included the potential for extremely dangerous escalation scenarios.
It is damn easy for everyone to see everyone else up there in the IR wavelength, either from ground based radar and tele-optical systems or from other space-based assets. There is no such thing as ‘sneaking’ up on another satellite. And there are innumerable ways to rig satellites to detect and respond to tampering. This stuff was dirt old by the mid 60s.
When you start talking or implementing sneaky threats to observation/milcom/ and launch-early warning satellites, then national defense assets start getting jumpy and lowering their respective DEFCONs when even banal day to day glitches occur.
Ground based ASATs possibly have a place for use after the balloon goes up, but until then they stay in their silos/VLS cells/bunkers.
The US has wisely taken a redundant capability / ample replacement / strong observation base, that makes ‘capitulation’ ASAT attacks all but impossible.
The X-37 is most likely a quick-reaction reconnaissance craft, whose generous helping of delta-V theoretically allows it to show up over any point on the globe within 90 minutes. On top of that, it can fly home and be reconditioned with various consumables or the latest and greatest sensor suites.
Fer chrissakes do some space policy/history reading and quit with the hyperbole.
Yeah, damn him for personally dismantling the space shuttle program. Its not like that was a decision that was taken almost a decade ago or anything.
However, he was the president so he needs to take responsibility.
You really want to make that argument?
I’m pretty sure if we were talking about, say, the financial crisis, you would disagree that it was all Bush’s fault (he was president, so he needs to take responsibility right?) and completely ignore the bad decisions that lead up to that (repeal of Glass-Steagal in 1980 and 1999 for instance). .
You are not making a clear or cogent argument. The President has direct control of NASA. The executive branch has dozens of agencies that operate independently. This means they report to the president without being part of one of the fifteen executive departments. Agencies typically handle very specific areas of the government’s job. Examples of executive agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). That Means that Obama could have unilaterally saved the space shuttle program. He could have ignored the actions of his predecessors and made a binding executive decision!
Congress controlled most of the factors surrounding the 2008-2009 finical crisis. The democrats controlled both the House and Senate from 2006 to 2010. Even if bush wanted to effect the factors surrounding the financial crisis I am not sure he could have legally done so. The effects of the repeal Glass Steagal on the financial crisis are still debated, mostly by the left.
Space Shuttle was 60% military yet not on defense budget. Now its 90% defense budget.
I would like to see an end to personal attacks based on nationalism. It serves no one.
Just because you saw a TV show that showed a tiny sub-sliver of the American populace being awful doesn’t mean it represents how everyone in the U.S. thinks. It is a logical error of vast proportions to draw such a conclusion.
When I was a kid I dreamt of going to space, and was fairly sure that I’ll be able to spend my holidays on the moon as an adult. Well, bummer.
Anyways, I don’t really believe that any known and used type of spacecraft propulsion will ever get us to space for real. This stuff is actually rooted in ancient times, and the really new developments had taken place in the first half of XX century. Maybe some new physics or applications will bring us there, I dunno.
I’d rather focus on lifespan extension for now (to be able to spend my final years on the moon, maybe;))
What about the Spaceship One approach by Virgin? Won’t using a plane/pod combo be better suited to hauling loads of stuff into space, given that it can be assembled in orbit?
This whole giant rocket strategy seems awfully wasteful….
Remember Spaceship One doesn’t come close to approaching orbital velocity of 7km/s or better. It just goes straight up, and straight down. It would need about three times the mass in fuel to begin to reach LEO.
That said, there should be room for a reusable air-breathing first stage system. Particularly if it was super/hypersonic and capable of tossing the to-orbit stage at say mach 6, and 85k feet.
But developing such a beast would require a formidable commitment $$$$, and to be cheap it would require more than a few examples, ie more $$$$ and the risk of the entire thing being a flop is also high. Just too much risk right now unfortunately.
Not on the “Defense” budget. Just another way to cook the books for the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower warned us about. NASA, Vetereans, NSA, CIA, Contractors, all off budget. ALL COOKED BOOKS DEFENSE BUDGET.
Trillions for war but nothing for health care.
I’m a liberal I guess because I agree with Eisenhower:
We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. — Dwight Eisenhower 1961
“Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it compromises and develops the germ of every other. As the parent of armies, war encourages debts and taxes, the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended … and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people …” — James Madison
Questions: Where would such a monster leave Earth from? Would it be Cape Canaveral or the West Coast’s Vandenberg AFB. I suspect VAFB, as they are due to begin a touristy Space Center, similar to Florida’s and such a historic event would be a good priming send off, so to speak. In addition, while reading, I am envisioning the education and children of today and their roles in the development of this news. If Lockheed Martin was a success and with the now the defunct Hugh Aircrafts, who’s going to contracted, subcontracted to do such work and will the US truly stay true to the American prosperity of ensuring the security of space, unlike our subcontracting Airlines, who went for cheaper versus quality planes. I do hope that they are regulated in how this will come about as the NRO are as secretive as ever and may it not take 30 to 40 years before anyone gives a damn or knows what our government’s agenda might truly be. I am for space exploration but under what demands or conditions upon how we are here on Earth.