We are, I hope, entering into a new era of space travel and exploration: private, commercial spaceflight. Space travel was always the domain of governments: mainly the United States and the Russians, but others are now joining the club. For this series of articles, I thought we would take a look at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, both near-term and a little bit longer out. Here, we discuss the potential for the militarization of space.
Militarization of Space
One other way of expanding our presence in space which is often shied away from in popular press (probably because they know almost nothing about what is going on, so there is nothing to talk about) is through the military. And the US is doing just that. In fact, during the process of writing this series of articles, I learned that the US Air Force just launched its new spaceplane for its third flight. Here’s a rendering of it from 1999:
The military has long had a presence in space through satellites. The first satellites were spy satellites. People seem to forget, but the global positioning system (GPS) is a military system; the Department of Defense has just made it freely available to everyone, albeit at a reduced level of accuracy. Even the space race itself was a thinly veiled military action; almost every single astronaut was a member of the armed forces before joining NASA. Various militaries around the world have been working on anti-satellite measures, as well. The US famously destroyed a failed spy satellite back in 2008.
It makes sense that militaries would want to expand into space. The high ground has always been an advantage in battle; first it was the hill, then the air. Being in space would be even better. George Friedman, a geopolitical analyst whom I highly recommend that you check out, sees that most of the humanity’s near-term expansion into space will come from the military. In his book The Next 100 Years, he discusses the tactical advantages that he sees for militaries in space. For one, it solves a massive supply chain problem. If you can have a satellite that beams power down to you, you don’t have to worry about oil supplies or other sources of power and you can take out the enemy’s power without worrying about having your own. And, as I mentioned earlier, height is a tactical advantage, it will probably make sense to have a field commander in a space battle headquarters to be able to respond as quickly as possible to battlefield data and changes. But a headquarters will make a great target for attack, which means that the enemy will deploy weapons in space. Which means that the headquarters will need its own defenses and weapons of its own in space. And so on.
As sad as it is, this is probably how space exploration will truly take off. Our first tentative steps were interesting and cool, but it is clear that the government’s priorities are currently focused on the military and not on scientific endeavors or commercialization opportunities. Carl Sagan was fond of comparing the sailing expeditions of exploration of the 1400’s through the 1800’s to our current exploration of the solar system and beyond. It’s easy to forget that armies and battles soon followed to those newly-discovered lands. And I think the same will happen with space as it did with our planet.