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Peacekeeper ICBM
The development of the ICBM, and the satellite systems linked to these missiles, created a synergistic relationship that effectively settled the near-Earth space frontier. (credit: US Air Force)

Is the near-Earth space frontier closed?

How the ICBM opened, developed, and closed its own frontier

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If you challenged people in the civilian space community to identify a set of space systems that repaid their initial investment in proportion to their cost, most would be hard pressed to identify more than one or two nonmilitary systems. That set of applications would unlikely be a compelling enough reason to pour the resources that would be needed to open the space frontier from scratch.

Nuclear weapons delivery has been the one compelling reason for the initial development of the near-Earth space frontier.

Additionally, it is unlikely that the same people would identify the one reason space has been developed as far as it has. There is an application that received the most benefit from space development, and is the cause for the vast majority of integrated space development from the 1950s to the 1990s. It’s the problem that started it all, and is still very much in the driver’s seat. It’s an application that is so well developed it can be questioned if the frontier of near-Earth space has already been developed and maybe even closed. What might the root application that seems to elude most space enthusiasts? Command, control, and delivery of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons delivery has been the one compelling reason for the initial development of the near-Earth space frontier. The combination of the vacuum of space and Earth’s gravitational field allow for the acceleration of nuclear weapons to extreme speed with aim-points on a global basis. Acceleration of nuclear bombs to 95% of orbital velocity on trajectories that required precise control of burnout times, and burnout vectors at points in space, paved the way for our first systems used to access near-Earth space. The use of ballistic trajectories to transport nuclear arms had such a synergetic effect that many tend to treat the launch vehicle and the nuclear bomb as one and the same.

The magnitude of damage that a nuclear bomb can inflict justified the decision to make the delivery vehicle disposable as well. After all, during a nuclear exchange it is unlikely any facility capable of servicing large aircraft or anything else capable of delivering another salvo would escape bombardment and complete destruction. This, therefore, establishes the dominating quality of space transport to this day: the design and production of complex transportation systems as if they were munitions of war.

In the economics of nuclear conflict, this approach makes sense. A nuclear war would not be a contest of industrial production during war, rather it would be a come-as-you-are and use-everything-you-have affair. The marriage of the bomb to the rocket was the first synergy of the Space Age. This marriage set the terminal condition of conflict between the superpowers, and to an expanding number of nations today. Within 10 years of the birth of the ICBM any war between the USA and the USSR would end in an exchange of at least a few hundred—and probably many more—nuclear bombs over a period of an hour to a few hours. For the first time in history, a weapon had been developed that was too awesome to be used en masse. General warfare became suicide. The revolution had just begun.

The ICBM and its network of satellites

Delivering nuclear munitions with an ICBM is not an easy proposition. The target is over 5,000 kilometers away. Almost all your control authority is available in only the first few minutes of a half-hour flight. In the terminal phase of an attack conditions are extreme. Reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere heats the warhead to incandescent temperatures. Early warheads had no maneuvering capability, so all maneuvering was performed during boost. Boost is a very short portion of a ballistic flight and any errors induced during boost amplify over the long coast stage. During the terminal phase of flight, the velocity with which a warhead closes with the target is on the order of 3 kilometers a second. To compound the problem, the warhead cannot turn around and try again.

This establishes the dominating quality of space transport to this day: the design and production of complex transportation systems as if they were munitions of war.

To a first order two fundamental pieces of information are needed: the exact placement of the launch site and the target. The launch site is easy: just place a team of surveyors at the launch site to fix its position. The target is another issue. Surveillance of an enemy’s missile fields, before the space age, was not an easy proposition. Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union had a long established tradition of restricting access to large portions of the country. The Russians made special efforts to publish maps with errors deliberately placed. Survey records were state secrets, much as they are becoming in the increasingly paranoid post 9-11 United States. Photographic aircraft attempted over flights but the Russians eventually developed a very effective air defense system long before most of their missile infrastructure was ever built. The flight of Sputnik and the acceptance of the rest of the world to unchallenged orbital overflight, though, opened up orbital space as a legal and tolerable option to surveil nuclear targets as they were built and developed. A photographic platform in orbit would be like a nuclear warhead on a ballistic trajectory, in that it is almost uninterceptable.

The first reconnaissance satellite was publicly called Discoverer, later officially designated Keyhole. Images were stored on film and returned via an early model reentry vehicle. The images returned allowed for medium resolution wide area survey and was a revolution in geodesy. Not only did it make the first in-depth survey of the Russian interior available to the United States, it also improved the location information of the launch sites. Additionally, each spacecraft launch was yet another test of their ICBM-derived launchers and added to recorded flight time used to test and improve the propulsion and guidance systems of the combat units. The constant need for new spacecraft also kept in place the production lines, tools, and skilled workforce to stay with the program long after the weapons were deployed.

To further improve accuracy an attacker needs to understand the state of the atmosphere that the reentry vehicle has to slam through on the way to target. To fulfill this need, the TIROS satellite project was started. TIROS was a low-resolution imaging satellite that operated in both the visible and infrared. TV scanned film and live television feeds were used to report weather for not only the Soviet interior but also the launch sites. The images also allowed for high-quality weather data for the bomber force to use for planning their bombing runs deep into the Soviet interior.

Another important factor in planning an attack against a well-developed foe is understanding their warning, control, and communications systems. Thus was born “ferrets”, or signals intelligence satellites. At first these satellites were small satellites in low Earth orbit with a bevy of radio receivers. Telemetry was stored and played back on magnetic tape and then downloaded when in communication with a friendly command station on the ground. With such a simple setup one could record the locations of radar installations as well as listen in on radio, teletype, and telephone communications. Establishing the location and type of radar stations is a key tool in understanding the depth and capability of air defense systems the bomber force of the Strategic Air Command would have to deal with during combat.

As the data piled in, a holistic view of an enemy’s capabilities and even intentions could be synthesized independent of flawed human sources. Thus the military could take into full account the potential set of enemy reactions and the diplomats had a near objective check in the very subjective world of treaties and arms control. The information gathered by observing Soviet military exercises and operations provided a rich source of objective information that allowed for mature analysis of Soviet intentions, policy, and reactions. It was a revolutionary tool with which the United States would govern its own behavior on the international and domestic scene.

The ICBM became not only the ultimate weapon in the truest sense of the word, but it also opened and settled its own frontier, near-Earth space.

Imagery and signals intelligence satellites generated a large data set from which strategic warning of enemy attack could be synthesized. In other words, months before an attack could be made the electronic and physical footprint of the preparations for war would give warning that an enemy was intent on attack. However, a nuclear force also needs to know when the attack is actually launched. This tactical warning is central to effectively owning a nuclear arsenal. Whether your second strike policy is to ride out the attack or launch on warning, you at least need to have objective information that an attack is under way. This poses a difficult problem requiring persistent observation on an almost real-time basis. This real time requirement ruled out the imaging and ferret systems.

The remaining option was infrared imagery. Day or night, a missile’s plume is bright against the background of the Earth as well as the darkness of space. Not only can an infrared detector see an ascending missile plume but it can also detect a reentering warhead, a nuclear burst, and the combustive aftereffects. Compounding the problem was the need to not only observe the known ICBM fields of the USSR, but the world’s oceans had to be covered to observe the launch of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Since such global coverage would have required a constellation of several dozen satellites in LEO, higher orbits were needed. Geosynchronous orbit allowed the ideal persistence over the target but presented technical challenges because of its distance and the sensor resolution required to track a missile. This eventually lead to the Defense Support Program (DSP) series of satellites that provide global coverage of missile launches.

Implications for civilian spaceflight

The ICBM became not only the ultimate weapon in the truest sense of the word, but it also opened and settled its own frontier, near-Earth space. From just beyond GEO all the way to the ground the ICBM established an interlocked self-amplifying network of systems that, when added up, far exceed the sum of the individual parts. All these systems have the root function of assisting in the command, control, protection, delivery, and effective use of ICBMs armed with nuclear weapons. Not only did the nuclear-armed ICBM create a whole new set of problems, but it also provided the means to solve those problems.

In the end, a weapon is a tool used to drive human behavior or stop it and while the engineering footprint for these systems provided a revolution in military affairs, it had an equal impact on the human world. In creating a world where resorting to force of arms would be toxic to the interests and existence of the owners of such systems, the ICBM provided the means of conducting a level of diplomacy and arms control that could never been attempted before.

We in the civilian space community have yet to see the same level of synergy among civilian systems. Yes, civilian GPS and communications systems have reached a similar level of synergy as the military systems. However, as a holistic whole we have yet to reach the same level of positive feedback in the civilian world as in the military one. Civilian space development is still a hodgepodge of approaches to opening and developing near-Earth space. Approaches are tried and abandoned, no matter the level of success. Even in the expensive game of space exploration, where promises are constantly given that the next mission will be based on systems from the last success, almost every mission is custom-built. Some missions promising heritage to past success are so heavily modified that they are sometimes development efforts from scratch.

This era of stability will end one way or the other. It is in the interests of the US to have the upsetting actions and new systems defined and under control of American citizens, just as it was in the interests of the United States to have its citizens conquer and settle the West.

For decades prominent voices of varying degree of respectability have proposed some idea or system in order to provide the level of synergy and persistence that the military achieved from day one. However, more than 50 years into the Space Age nobody yet has been able to articulate and carry out a system of self-helping and self-reinforcing systems that would do for civilian applications what was done in near-Earth space for the military. This seems to be a problem that is invariant of education level and lifetime experience. Perhaps the engineering needs of nuclear warfare present such a stark, clear cut message that even the most parochial organizations on Earth not only got it right, but made an art and a science of it.

If this is true, it presents a few problems. One, how do we in the civilian sector achieve the same level of synergy with our systems? This is an open-ended problem that started nearly 60 years ago and remains open. After 20 years of working in civilian space, the author has no solutions to propose, only problems to identify. Two, the military—specifically, the US military—owns space by default. While the United States currently does not have systems to actively deny use of space to an adversary, this may change. Currently, space is treated along the same line as international waters, open to anyone with the means to get there. After even 50 years of open space operations only one state has come to present a threat to American space operations, the Soviet Union. The USSR could—and did—have credible active means of denying space to the United States. They were such an awesome foe, however, that stopping them by force was an option only in a time of general war.

As other interests begin making use of near-Earth space, though, the game will begin to change drastically. Future operators will find themselves stepping on territory already in use by the US military. Even the simple act of pointing a space-based telescope at operating satellites will change the game in a major way for the US. The American military has such a strong monopoly on near-Earth space that the simple act of taking a look around will have serious implications that feed back to the most fundamental levels that in the end have driven the very nature of relations between the world’s major states for decades. If the problem is really that sensitive one has to ask, is the frontier really already closed?

We have seen an increase in the level of separation of launch providers from direct ties with the American state. Anyone who attends a conference that deals with the problem of non-state launch knows that the opening lines of the FAA-AST presentation: “Flight is not a right, it is a privilege.” The privilege of flight may be denied for reasons of policy, security, or treaty. That suggests that the frontier is closed, and the tight coupling of nuclear warfare to operations in near-Earth space is one of the big reasons for this.

Given nature of use of space for nuclear weapons delivery, we in the civilian sector are presented with yet another dilemma: how do we operate in near-Earth space in a manner that does not negatively impact the nuclear stability of the world? However, leaving that question to the government alone is probably not the best idea. The simple solution for any state is to simply say “No” for now and maintain the status quo just a little bit longer. This leaves the potential of any upsetting actions to non-American actors who, depending on alliance status and military strength of their own, will have the means to resist American government parochialism.

This era of stability will end one way or the other. It is in the interests of the US to have the upsetting actions and new systems defined and under control of American citizens, just as it was in the interests of the United States to have its citizens conquer and settle the West. To a first order that means that we in the civilian space community need to be cognizant of the nature of the root causes for the opening of the space age we now take for granted. It also means that the American government is going to have to deal with the fact that the great envelopment of the Earth by American military hardware will lose its near-monopoly status. The American military will also have to gradually let go of its space-based inward fixation and accept the fact that as humanity expands its sphere of operations, an increasing number of pertinent variables will come from without rather than from within.