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Review: Heavenly Ambitions

Heavenly Ambitions: America’s Quest to Dominate Space
by Joan Johnson-Freese
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009
hardcover, 192 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8122-4169-3

One of the talks at the just-completed Space Elevator Conference in Seattle dealt with how the US military might evolve, developing new roles and capabilities, should the promise of very low cost access to space ever be realized by the space elevator concept. The speaker, a US Air Force officer—speaking on his own behalf and not representing the service or the Defense Department—painted an elaborate picture of how the existing military branches could evolve space commands and arms to protect American interests in Earth orbit and beyond should they be opened up at some future time by low-cost space access. (Interestingly, he felt that model was more likely than the development of a “Space Force” branch of the military independent of the other services.) However, the central theme of his presentation was that the movement of military forces into space was inevitable.

“The hubris which has dominated U.S. attitude and policy has become counterproductive. It is time to change,” Johnson-Freese writes.

However, is the growing militarization—ultimately leading to weaponization and even conflict—of space truly inevitable? In Heavenly Ambitions, Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the national security studies department of the Naval War College, examines the changes in US national policy towards the military use of space, particularly developments in recent years that have raised questions and concerns about American policy. These changes, she argues, have the roots in the Reagan Administration, which moved away from the original policy of space as a “stabilizing” medium (through the use of reconnaissance satellites, for example) with the proposed “Star Wars” missile defense system. This was accelerated in the George W. Bush Administration with a number of measures, including the 2006 National Space Policy that stated that the US reserved the right to “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”

But what exactly is wrong with “space dominance”? It would seem, in some respect, an extension of other military philosophies like air dominance. However, part of Johnson-Freese’s argument is that space is a very different environment than the air, sea, or land, with very serious issues like orbital debris that have to be contended with, as well as the technological challenges of space operations in general. More importantly, though, she argues that attempting to achieve space dominance will be counterproductive: countries concerned about such growing US capabilities will develop countermeasures, and even allies will seek to develop their own independent capabilities rather than be reliant on the US, as Europe is seeking to do with its Galileo navigation system. “The more other countries develop indigenous space systems,” she writes, “the more elusive domination becomes.”

Johnson-Freese makes it clear in Heavenly Ambitions that she is not a fan of the space policy promulgated in the previous administration: “The hubris which has dominated U.S. attitude and policy has become counterproductive. It is time to change,” she writes. Certainly, such change is possible in the Obama Administration, although she does not go into much detail (or speculation) about what form that change might be. The space policy white paper his campaign released a year ago did call for development of “rules of the road” for space activities and called on “engaging other nations in discussions” about preventing space weaponization. There has been little concrete movement on those issues in the first six months of the new administration, which has understandably been preoccupied with much bigger and more immediate issues. How and when they will make changes to national space policy remains to be seen, but it will likely be a step back in some respect from the space dominance approach rejected in this book.