Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Phantom Menace

Jim Oberg, a space expert and analyst has an interesting article up at USA TODAY: Hyperventilating over ‘space weapons', where he argues that the mere military exploration of space hardware doesn't mean the next Star Wars is at hand. In fact, misinformation in such matters is quite dangerous in this world:

Weapons have occasionally been deployed in space for decades, without sparking mass arms races or hair-trigger tensions. These are not just systems that send warheads through space, such as intercontinental missiles or the proposed global bomber. These are systems that put the weapons into stable orbits, circling Earth, based in space. And these systems were all Russian ones, by the way, most of them predating President Reagan's “Strategic Defense Initiative” to develop an anti-missile system.

But it's not the equipment that's important (that's why the United States never responded to earlier Russian space weapons); it's the offensive capabilities the hardware is supposed to deliver. That's what must be considered foremost before considering the likelihood of responses.

So scary tales about U.S. “death stars” hovering over target countries promising swift strikes from space rely merely on readers not understanding the basics of orbital motion in space. A satellite circles Earth in an ever-shifting path that passes near any particular target only a few times every 24 hours, not every 10 minutes. It's quicker and cheaper to strike ground targets with missiles launched from the ground.

Nor is a space rendezvous robot, such as those under development by half a dozen nations and commercial consortia, a “space weapon” — despite media claims that one of them, the Air Force's XSS-11 satellite, could perform as a weapon. Plenty of productive peaceful rationales for these vehicles exist, from refueling to repair to resupply, and they are going to be deployed in large numbers in coming years.

Raising unjustified fears about them and other so-far-totally-conceptual space vehicles may be politically or ideologically satisfying to some, but in the big picture, feeding foreign prejudices and stoking the insecurities of some naturally paranoid cultures is a dangerous game.

As the saying goes, read the entire piece. I just want to make one point, though, and that is this: just because some paranoid cultures object, doesn't mean we should abandon the process of going from conceptual to real; particularly in space-based suveillance and other technology that might be of considerable benefit down the road in the War on Terror. This is a valid area of research and development, whether some countries like it or not.

Besides, the paranoid cultures seem to remain paranoid no matter what we do or don't do; and are unlikely to become less paranoid by appeasement. Nevertheless, Oberg is right that it is ridiculous for the media etc. to stoke the paranoid fantasies of psychotic leaders and their followers.

OTOH, just because they're paranoid, doesn't mean we aren't out to get them.

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