"The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea," a military academy commandant voiced by Willem Dafoe intones toward the end of a now-classic 1997 episode of The Simpsons. "They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain." This was meant as a joke, but the latter half of that statement would soon prove eerily prescient when India and Pakistan battled over Kashmir's Siachen glacier -- a strategically irrelevant ice field sitting over 18,000 feet above sea level -- during the Kargil War in 1999. For now, the prospect of military conflict in outer space still resides in the realm of dystopia or absurdity, to the point that a White House petition demanding the construction of a Star Wars-style "Death Star" could be treated as a harmless prank. In rejecting the petition this week, the White House rightly wondered why a debt-strapped U.S. government would spend $850 quadrillion on a weapons system "with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship." Thankfully, the prospect of an orbital space-to-earth battlestation doesn't even need to be treated seriously.
But it wasn't always this way. In 1952, the eminent rocket scientist Werner Von Braun imagined that a future space station would function as an orbital nuclear platform. Space historians believe that Russia's Salyut 3 space station, which was launched in June of 1974, had a cannon on board, in case a craft or satellite from an enemy country attempted to disrupt its mission. The Soviet Union experimented with Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems in the 1960s and 70s -- basically nuclear delivery systems that were capable of orbiting the earth. The U.S. even detonated a nuclear weapon over 200 miles above the Pacific Ocean in July of 1962, an incident known as Starfish Prime that, according to Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, halved the useful lifetime of all satellites then in orbit, knocked out power in Hawaii, created an artificial Van Allen Belt that persisted for five years, and released radiation into the atmosphere that wouldn't fully dissipate until the end of the decade. For a time, it was all but taken for granted that space would not only be militarized, but weaponized -- used as a venue or staging area for violent clashes between space-faring nations, or attacks on the surface of the earth. Space war wasn't a punch line, but a possibility that nuclear-armed powers didn't think they could afford to ignore.
The results of the Starfish event hint at one reason why that changed. "This is a great weapon. It does a lot of damage -- but it also killed everything you had yourself," McDowell says of the results of the high-altitude nuclear test. War in space was sure to have a cataclysmic effect on the country with the most space assets, regardless of the end result.
But what about war from space? For powerful space-faring countries, space-to-earth or earth-to-space combat is about as practical as it is desirable -- which is to say, not very. "Space is incredibly useful for the military for a lot of things," McDowell explains. "It's great for intelligence, communication and navigation. The natural thing is to ask, 'where are my X-Wing fighters?' The fact is that it's hard to find a rationale for them."
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