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 we’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 … 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 troops’ 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.