War in Space 
by Bleddyn Bowen.
Edinburgh, 356 pp., £85, July 2020, 978 1 4744 5048 5
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Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics and the Ends of Humanity 
by Daniel Deudney.
Oxford, 443 pp., £22.99, June 2020, 978 0 19 090334 3
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In December​ 2019, the US space force was established as the sixth branch of the US armed forces. Though founded by the Trump administration, the space force was not a Trump invention. Its precursor, air force space command, was set up in 1982. In 2001, a commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld concluded that it was being neglected, and recommended setting up a separate ‘military department for space’, something that has remained a goal of American generals ever since. But even some military space enthusiasts thought the 2019 announcement was premature. For the first four months of its existence the space force had an official staff of two: thousands of its personnel were technically still working for the air force. It has since added more than eighty Air Force Academy lieutenants, and plans to have a permanent staff of 16,000 within a few years. The old air force wings – a wing is a unit incorporating a number of squadrons – have been reorganised into space deltas and garrisons, which have attracted plenty of bored volunteers from the terrestrial military branches. In part, this is an organisational drive, designed to bring US government space organisations under one roof. But the space force has a planned annual budget of $15.4 billion (and an official motto – ‘Semper Supra’). It’s not yet clear what equipment it will have at its disposal. It will operate systems that can jam communications satellites, and there is much speculation about new tests of the Boeing X-37 robotic spacecraft. When asked about this, the second in command of the space force, David Thompson, said: ‘We don’t need to tell the world everything we’re doing.’ The US hasn’t yet made what aerospace analysts call the transition from ‘space operators to space warfighters’. But the vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, John E. Hyten, has described space war as ‘inevitable’.

The American strategeion sees itself as waging a constant battle against complacency. To ward this off, the political class periodically conjures up imminent threats to US superiority. In the 1990s the ‘threat’ was Japanese corporate power. The new millennium saw the (never convincing) rise of transnational ‘terrorism’. The latest existential phantom is the ‘malign influence’ of China on the Indo-Pacific and beyond. But it was the old Soviet Union that fitted the part best – and never better than in 1957, when Sputnik was launched into orbit from a test range on the Kazakh steppe. As a satellite, Sputnik was unimpressive: a beach ball with antennae that maintained orbit for just three months. As a catalyst for military development, however, it was unmatched. The US already had the technology needed to build an artificial satellite but had refused to fund one. Sputnik provoked a frenzy among the American political establishment. In January 1958, Lyndon Johnson, then Senate majority leader, convened a series of hearings that occupied the front pages of newspapers every day. The first hydrogen bomb test had taken place five years earlier. ‘But there is something more important than any ultimate weapon,’ Johnson told the Senate. ‘That is the ultimate position – the position of total control over Earth.’ As Johnson saw it, it was in space that decisive power over humanity’s future would be won or lost:

Control of space means control of the world, far more certainly, far more totally than any control that has ever or could ever be achieved by weapons, or by troops of occupation … From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the Earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the Gulf Stream and change temperate climates to frigid.

A state that controlled space would have the ability to refashion the Earth itself according to its will. Johnson argued that if it didn’t seize mastery of space the US would be just as helpless as a post-Second World War state without an air force. It was in these Senate hearings that the US doctrine of space superiority, or space supremacy, was born. Sputnik launched the space race, which led to the Apollo programme, conceived – despite being a civilian undertaking – as part of a new era in which space was at the forefront of strategic thought. Wernher von Braun, the Nazis’ chief aerospace engineer, had been brought to America on account of his experience on the V2 programme (the fact that his rockets had been built using slave labour was overlooked). He appeared regularly on American television, where he spoke of plans for the Moon, and imagined advanced bases in orbit with nuclear power plants for refuelling spacecraft. Before the development of good satellite reconnaissance cameras, the military believed human spies would have to be in orbit at all times. The US air force was planning to train astronauts before Nasa was even founded.

The militarisation of space proceeded at a measured pace, in part because the early practical military uses of satellites were limited: electro-optical imagery, radar, radio frequency sensing and targeting for ground weapons. These systems were integrated into the American military machine, and to a lesser extent into those of other armies. The first push to build orbital weaponry, the ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defence Initiative of the Reagan years, was cast as no more than a missile defence system, but recently declassified reports show that, just as the Soviets believed, the SDI was always intended to be used for ‘space control’. These early efforts at space war planning faced the objection that the US military was already so far superior to any competitor as to make unnecessary any grand investments in revolutionary systems. The end of the Soviet Union meant that the US had command of space without the need for weapons. Military space development stalled. The parts of the defence budget intended for space were spent instead on tweaks to planes and ships.

The US still possessed the most advanced communications and spy satellites, which over the years enabled it to carry out global surveillance and the drone assassination programme. But satellites are inherently vulnerable, and the US’s heavy reliance on its orbital machinery is connected with its fear of space war. Being straightforward to track and predictable in their trajectories, satellites can in principle be easily taken out by anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs, which can be simple ground-based missiles. The 2017 National Security Strategy claimed that America’s adversaries possessed ‘an asymmetric advantage’: they were capable, at modest cost, of attacking the satellites on which US power now depended. As a result, US policy would now be to meet ‘any interference with critical components of our space architecture … with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner and domain of our choosing’. Trump revived Johnson’s phrasing when he spoke of the need to secure ‘the ultimate high ground’ and declared space ‘the world’s newest war fighting domain’.

Last August, the space force published its ‘capstone doctrine’, Spacepower, which lays out a vision of a military apparatus the equal of the army, navy and air force. Given that war in space is likely, what is needed is ‘a cadre of military space forces’ to protect, defend and project US power there. Much of the document deals with the threat of anti-satellite weapons, but offensive operations against America’s adversaries are also envisaged. Space itself is to be ‘a source and conduit of national power’. The document outlines seven areas in which the US will seek to dominate: ‘orbital warfare, space electromagnetic warfare, space battle management, space access and sustainment, military intelligence and engineering/acquisitions’. Plans for apocalyptic space weaponry are announced in the language of an accountancy firm.

The idea that US space power is a national military imperative presupposes the existence of competitors. A slew of small states have established space programmes in recent years, many of them farces (the ‘UAE Mars probe’ was built in the US and launched on a Japanese rocket). South Korea’s first military satellite was launched last July by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX. The Indian Space Research Organisation now has a Mars orbiter. The EU uses its Copernicus satellite network for border surveillance, though in extremis it could also be used to direct missile strikes. The US National Air and Space Intelligence Centre records that the number of non-US reconnaissance and remote sensing satellites has tripled over the last ten years; only half of them were controlled by Europe, Japan or another US ally. American planners are forecasting ‘a new competition for space beyond Earth’s orbit’, but not through concern about the Egyptian Space Agency or the Hellenic Space Centre but because they have cast the current space race as a struggle against Russia and China. Russia does have the ability to shoot down satellites, but Roscosmos is a shadow of its Soviet predecessors. Many of its satellites are no longer operating. Until just a few years ago some were still equipped with film cameras rather than digital imaging systems. It didn’t help that the planned replacement for the Soyuz rocket, versions of which have been sending payloads and cosmonauts into space since 1966, was being developed in Ukraine when the Soviet Union was dissolved and so Moscow lost some of its more advanced facilities to Kiev.

The father of the Chinese space programme was a scientist on the Manhattan Project. Qian Xuesen went to America on a scholarship programme in 1935 and studied at MIT and Caltech before being recruited to work on jet propulsion and the atomic bomb. He would probably have remained in California, had he not been swept up in the red scare. After being questioned by the FBI and put under house arrest, Xuesen was traded to China in 1955 in return for eleven pilots captured during the Korean War. He was put in charge of the Chinese nuclear weapons programme and the programme that produced the Dongfeng series of ballistic missiles. China launched its first satellite, Dongfanhong-1, in 1970, using a rocket based on Xuesen’s missile designs. In hindsight the Xuesen affair was a remarkable blunder by the Americans. China made its first lunar landing in 2013. In June last year, it launched the final satellite in its geolocation network, BeiDou – its equivalent of the US government’s GPS, Russia’s Glonass and the EU’s Galileo. Like Nasa, the China National Space Administration has a rover on its way to Mars. Excluded by the US from co-operating on the International Space Station, it is now starting to build its own equivalent, the Large Modular Space Station.

In January 2019, the Chang’e-4 lunar mission landed on the far side of the Moon, something that had never been done before. In a follow-up mission launched in November 2020 Chang’e-5 collected and brought back samples from the Moon’s surface, which no country had done since the 1970s. The Chinese lunar programme, like Nasa’s Artemis programme, has declared the long-term goal of establishing a Moon base. These are impressive endeavours, achieved with a space budget around a sixth the size of America’s. In the US, Chinese space activities are spoken of as though they were inherently threatening, and different from America’s in some fundamental way. US officials complain about China’s hacking of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for which two Chinese nationals were indicted by a grand jury in 2018. There is a latent fear that, while hopelessly outclassed by American military power on Earth, China may find an advantage in space. Chinese officials, too, see their efforts in strategic terms. The head of the Chinese lunar programme, Ye Peijian, has described the Moon as being like the Senkaku Islands, the ownership of which is disputed between China and Japan: If we don’t go there now, even though we are capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over and you won’t be able to go even if you want to.’

Whatform would strategic competition in space take? As well as an orbital infrastructure of satellites, space enthusiasts have imagined outposts on the Moon, habitats on Mars and spaceports in the asteroid belt. The first is the most straightforward. In the orbital plane shared by the Earth and the Moon, there are five Lagrange points, where the combined gravity of the two bodies allows for objects to be suspended, relative to both, without using thrusters (which otherwise maintain a spacecraft or satellite’s position in space). China found the L2 Lagrange point useful for its Queqiao satellite, which provides continuous relay communications between Earth and the lander on the far side of the Moon. The L4 and L5 Lagrange points, along the route of the Moon’s orbit of the Earth, are more stable and may be just as valuable to occupy. The same is true of Lagrange points between the Earth and the Sun. Building a Moon base would involve overcoming some severe logistical challenges: the Moon is dusty, Sun-beaten, dark for two weeks a month and has low surface gravity. But at least it has water ice at its poles. Controlling the mineral and energy resources of asteroids may also be an attractive prospect. The entire mass of the asteroid belt is only around one thousandth of the mass of the Earth, but around half of that is contained in just four large asteroids: Ceres, Vesta, Pallas and Hygiea. Unlike planets, asteroids have no atmosphere and much less energy is needed to lift materials off their surfaces. In December, a Japanese mission returned to Earth with the first samples taken from below an asteroid’s surface. Nations have fought plenty of wars over shitty little islands. Fighting over shitty little asteroids is not implausible.

The present age of astrostrategy remains for the most part concerned with satellites. More than 2700 are active and in orbit around the Earth. Around 70 per cent of them are in low Earth orbit – often at an altitude of just a few hundred kilometres – and are used for communications, navigation or reconnaissance. A further 20 per cent, including the major weather satellites, are in geostationary orbit, circling above the equator in the direction of the Earth’s rotation at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres. There is no questioning the value of possessing parts of Earth’s orbital infrastructure. The US government and US companies control more satellites than the rest of the world combined, and four times as many as China. But there is a strong argument that many satellites, at least at their current altitudes, aren’t really in space at all. Conventional definitions, such as the Kármán line, say that space begins around one hundred kilometres above sea level. But this is quite arbitrary: at eighty kilometres there are still wispy clouds. The Kármán distance is less than 2 per cent of the radius of the Earth. Compared with the scale of outer space it is Earth’s epidermis. Theodore von Kármán, who helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1944, thought of the line as no more than a ‘jurisdictional boundary’: the area within it could be said to belong to nation-states. Satellites in low Earth orbit follow a trajectory just above the lower layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. The International Space Station orbits at an altitude of around four hundred kilometres, or less than 1 per cent of the distance to the Moon. The Earth’s thermosphere extends to six hundred kilometres, and the exosphere is visible, using a spectrometer, up to ten thousand kilometres from Earth. High-orbiting satellites, such as Galileo and GPS, are indisputably in space, but there are far fewer of them. The Outer Space Treaty (1967), which underpins international space law, didn’t attempt to define where space begins.

A small coterie of military and aerospace analysts have considered the possibilities of space strategy and space war far beyond the Earth’s immediate periphery. In 2001, Everett Dolman, professor of strategy at the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College, published Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age, which has become the central text on the subject. Dolman and others like Jim Oberg and John Klein began by applying the theories of late 19th and early 20th-century geopolitics to space. Considering space as analogous to the oceans, they turned to theorists of naval power like Antoine-Henri Jomini and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Classical geopolitical writers such as Mahan are out of fashion, but they got some things right: he predicted war between Japan and the US over their imperial possessions in the Pacific forty years before it happened. Dolman’s main insight was that the effects of gravity mean that even the vacuum of outer space has a topography, providing the equivalents of naval chokepoints such as the straits of Hormuz and Malacca. In space, linear distance is less important than the energy required to travel between two points. Thanks to the gravity wells formed by the planets, far more energy is required to travel from the Earth to the Moon than from the Moon to Mars – a distance 150 times greater. The mass of the Earth and other celestial bodies effectively create a terrain in the ostensibly featureless void, determining routes as surely as shipping lanes. Radiation belts (bands of charged particles caught in a planet’s magnetic field), which damage spacecraft and kill humans, further define the topography of outer space transit.

Dolman attempted to provide what he called a ‘blueprint for space control’ in which the topography of outer space informs strategic decisions. In his schema, the space theatre was subdivided into Earth Realm, Earth Space (extending as far as the geostationary belt), Lunar Space and Solar Space. Being ahead in the number of satellites in low Earth orbit does not equate to control of Lunar and Solar Space. But it must be given priority because everything that enters space must pass through low Earth orbit. For this reason, Dolman recommended that the US, as a unique and benign hegemon, seize military control of low Earth orbit while it can. This view is not unusual in elite circles and Dolman at least has a sense of irony about it: on the internet he goes by the moniker ‘DrDethray’. In the grandest of grand strategies, war for control of near Earth space is a distinct possibility. It isn’t hard to see the logic of these designs at work in the US space force.

No terrestrial conflict has yet ascended into space. In 1996, a dispute began between Tonga and Indonesia over the same segment of the geostationary belt. The Tongan government contracted for its national communications satellite to be placed in orbit before the Indonesians. The Indonesian armed forces responded by jamming it. Among minor states the furthest such disagreements can go is old-fashioned terrestrial war, but states with space forces could fight it out in the heavens. War in space would not look like war on Earth. There are unlikely to be dogfights between spaceships or marines dropped onto dusty regolith surfaces far away. There would be disadvantages to crewing spacecraft at all – humans have to breathe and eat, and that comes at a cost – but remote control from Earth has disadvantages too, since over the distances of space it is subject to communications delays. Battles may well be resolved by careful positioning rather than by speed. It isn’t helpful for military planning in space to model fleet combat on naval battles or fighter jet combat. And while submarines may approximate space movement better than ships, they can’t adequately capture the strangeness of space.

Bleddyn Bowen’sWar in Space takes up the strategic questions posed by Dolman and considers the tactical problems of space warfare. As is to be expected in this sort of study, there are nods to such military theorists as Jomini, Mahan and Julian Corbett, as well as Sun Tzu (for worldly flavour). Bowen offers a number of revisions to the usual accounts of space war. He too favours maritime metaphors but argues that for current purposes space is better thought of as a coastline than an ocean. This idea, reminiscent of Carl Sagan’s concept of the ‘shores of the cosmic ocean’, suggests a reduction in scale. Rather than becoming preoccupied with the vastness of interplanetary space, it is better to recognise that contests in space will take place closer to the human societies of Earth than to the distant reaches of the solar system. (Sallies further into space require far better forms of power generation than currently exist.) ‘Satellites, their infrastructure, methods of attacking them, and their influence on modern warfare and strategy’ will be the focus of inter-state competition in space for the foreseeable future. Battles will be over satellite constellations and their terrestrial hubs and launch facilities. US space strategy has so far limited itself to enhancing the capabilities of its terrestrial forces. Anti-satellite weapons threaten those enhancements.

Destroying a satellite in low Earth orbit brings the risk that the resulting debris, travelling at thirty thousand kilometres an hour, will destroy or damage other satellites in orbit. There is a danger that this could lead to a cascade, endangering all human activity in space, an eventuality known as the Kessler effect. As the number of satellites increases so does the risk. The US military is concerned with this possibility – which could be brought about by an accidental collision between satellites as well as by an attack – because it would pose a greater threat to US military power than to the forces of other nations. In 2007, China tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against an old weather satellite in high orbit. A large amount of debris was produced that is still a threat to satellites today. The US condemned the test as an unacceptable step towards space militarisation, but a year later destroyed one of its own military satellites as a reminder of its capacities. In 2019, an Indian ASAT test caused debris to pass above the International Space Station. The first US ASAT test took place in 1959 and there have been others: in 1985, an American ASAT created a ring of debris that remained in orbit for years. Other anti-satellite weapons seek to block operations rather than to destroy and don’t risk causing a Kessler effect. The US has experimented with using its ship-based anti-missile system, Aegis, against satellites, along with ground-based launches, but has not seen the need for extensive ASAT development. When you have most of the satellites there is little incentive to research anti-satellite weapons.

All analogies have their perils, but Bowen’s notion of space as coastline works when it comes to space weapons: ASATs have more in common with shore defences than broadside cannons. The weaponisation of space is banned under the Outer Space Treaty, but the ban has never been properly observed. The Soviet Almaz space station was mounted with a machine gun. Space weapons tests seem to be on the increase, and states keep a watchful eye on one another. Last July, the US claimed that Russia had fired a projectile from an orbiting satellite; the Russian government says it was an inspection probe. Darpa, the US Defence Department’s research agency, has launched tiny satellites – CubeSats, just ten centimetres across – from larger ones. More exotic kinds of weaponry are for the most part untested fantasies, but one particular dream refuses to die: the space laser. Demonstrations have been rumoured to be imminent since the 1980s but have been put back and back: the Pentagon’s latest target test date is 2023. All the calculations suggest that such a weapon is unlikely to be effective. A laser powered by hydrogen fluoride or deuterium fluoride would use up two to three kilograms of fuel per second per megawatt of laser power. Even assuming it can be pointed at the right target, and avoid jamming efforts, such a laser would be too large to be practical in space. More serious technical problems confound partisans of ‘directed energy weapons’, particle beams and so on. For some reason the space weapons systems envisioned by the SDI and its predecessor programmes all had lithic names: ‘smart rocks’, ‘brilliant pebbles’, ‘Excalibur’. Perhaps the futuristic can never escape the archaic imagination.

Bowen criticises space analysts for their US-centric perspective, but he doesn’t really resist the imperial tractor beam. The scenario du jour in Washington is a conflict with China over Taiwan, and Bowen devotes a chapter to showing the way space power might affect the course of such a conflict. He discusses what would happen if the People’s Liberation Army attempted to disable American space infrastructure, or to disrupt parts of it, in advance of an attack on the island. US aircraft carriers and other naval forces stationed at bases around China rely on satellites for navigation and targeting. With enough ASATs, China might be able to knock out American systems and take advantage of the ensuing confusion, but Bowen notes problems with this scenario: an attack on American military satellites would lead to reprisals against China’s satellites; using jammers would reveal the locations of jamming facilities and invite their destruction. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would rely to some extent on surprise, and attacking or interfering with satellites would serve as advance warning. The overriding problem is that even a limited attack on US satellites would force American involvement in the conflict: it would be a terrible strategic blunder. Bowen doesn’t believe that satellite warfare means ‘certain doom and destruction’, but this is meagre comfort.

Most of the orbital infrastructure built by the United States isn’t for war but for spying. The first images of the Earth taken from space, or at least from low Earth orbit, were produced in 1959 by a US reconnaissance satellite, codenamed Corona. The Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which interprets satellite imagery, has a staff as large as the Defence Intelligence Agency and occupies one of the largest headquarters buildings of any military or intelligence agency in the world, second only to the Pentagon. It was the GIA, along with the CIA, that provided funding for Google Earth. US reconnaissance satellites are essentially giant telescopes, but instead of being pointed out at quasars or searching for the universe’s origins, they look down on Earth. In the sky-blue office complexes of the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly, Virginia, information gathered by US satellites is fed into an algorithm called Sentient. In 2013, when the NRO launched its reconnaissance satellite USA-247, it produced a logo for the launch that depicted an octopus embracing the globe; the tagline read: ‘Nothing is beyond our reach.’ It was a moment beyond the imaginative capacities even of hippie satellite conspiracy theorists.

The question of what the face of the Earth looks like, and what is moving across it, has become central to the global surveillance state America has constructed. While the national space agencies are brewing coffee in low gravity, the security state wields the global surveillance system for its own purposes. Not all of the ten million lidless eyes of the NSA and GCHQ surveillance network look down from space – the hacking of transcontinental and subsea internet cables, along with phone and location tracking, is at least as important – but satellite Earth observation is critical to global surveillance, and the capacities available to states are increasing. There is a sense in which the US drone assassination programme, and its concomitant policy of treating all adult males as combatants, shows ideology evolving to meet technology. At the same time, the scientific possibilities of satellites are being squandered: the two satellites responsible for monitoring the extent of polar ice, CryoSat-2 and IceSat-2, are set to expire years before any replacements are launched.

Daniel Deudney’s​ book makes a sustained argument against the militarisation of space and indeed the Promethean excitements of space itself. To those who believe that space contains the possibility for transforming the human condition, Dark Skies will be anathema. Deudney dismantles the idea that space exploration will lead to a transcendence of the Earth’s natural constraints: more likely, he thinks, is total surveillance and an increased risk of ‘planetary scope technological catastrophe’. Though he doesn’t mention it, the idea that humanity must escape the confines of Earth owes a debt to the ‘Limits to Growth’ models that came out of the MIT School of Management in the 1970s, and which served as part of the inspiration for China’s one child policy. Deudney makes much of the fact that the technology of space exploration has its roots in the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, and calls military expansionism ‘the von Braun programme’, pushing the beginning of the space age back to German rocket research in the 1940s.

Ballistic missiles travel well into low Earth orbit in the course of their flights. Deudney says that for this reason they are space weapons, an argument that is wrong for the same reason mortars are not classed as bomber aircraft. It’s no secret that the rockets that launch satellites and Mars probes are the cousins of ICBMs, but it all depends on the payload: space enthusiasts hope that they will carry the components for the first human outposts on other celestial bodies. Private space companies, SpaceX first among them, have succeeded in generating popular support for such enterprises, even as their corporate activities resemble those of any government contractor with good PR. There is a plausible argument that plans for space settlement – which is impractical and in the near future extremely unlikely – have provided cover for a really existing military expansionism concerned with Earth’s orbit rather than grander projects. At great expense, military powers may be able to support outposts with potential strategic value, but the notion that flourishing habitats can be created on the frozen wastes of other planets as the Earth’s ecosystems are destroyed is fanciful. Most are just too dark and cold. In the Islamic tradition, hell has rivers of boiling water to be drunk by the damned. On Saturn’s moon Titan there is a 400 km river of liquid methane at -18o°C. Deudney compares the dream of civilian space settlements to the sky religions of ancient man, and is against them in principle. Human societies struggle to unite lowlanders and highlanders in a single polity. Imagine the possibilities for violence between denizens of separate worlds.

Deudney claims to support an Earth-oriented space programme for planetary security and habitability, and accepts the benefits of communication, navigation and monitoring satellites. But he wants more international co-operation. He is – quite reasonably – sceptical about private space development and calls for a strengthening of the Outer Space Treaty. His aims are laudable, but not realistic: he doesn’t really reckon with the role of national – particularly American – military power. Sitting in an office in Virginia or Beijing, one can now view the workings of power grids in California, monitor the front lines in a border war in the Caucasus, get ahead of the weather, observe with great precision the course of ships from São Paulo to Singapore, or count the number of trees in the boreal forest. This is not a power that will be relinquished voluntarily, and states will go to war for it. To attribute the danger more to the meagre support given to space exploration than to the configuration of the military state is a curious perspective. A more radical form of political opposition than any that someone like Deudney envisages will be needed to avert the militarist tendency represented by the US space force.

There is a temptation to view the prospect of space warfare as a product of inexorable technological advance. But there is a sense in which this view is itself outdated. Compare the rate of technological advance during the five decades between 1920 and 1970 with that of the fifty-year period that ended in 2020. The great and terrible scientific and technological inventions we associate with the present are almost all more than half a century old. The terrible pace of the mid-20th century has long since slowed. The Saturn V, built in 1967, is still the most impressive rocket ever made. During that axial age, humanity dreamed of ecumenopolises, of heavy industry and its by-products removed off-planet, of giant cylindrical worlds in orbit, of towers stretching into the heavens, of Dyson swarms of man-made infrastructure harvesting the full power of the Sun, of a Kardeshev II civilisation capable of re-engineering the solar system. These dreams already seem absurd. In the great stagnation through which we are now living, comparatively modest projects to collect solar power in space or deposit nuclear waste into the Sun seem like grand schemes. Where are the space arks in orbit? The exploration of exoplanets in the circumstellar habitable zone? Satellite wars over the tiny layer of space immediately above the atmosphere are evidence of a fear of decline rather than of expansionary apotheosis. If, as Deudney and others believe, the project of space exploration, and not the military state, is an irredeemable danger to human survival, then the stagnation of modernity is a form of salvation.

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Vol. 43 No. 7 · 1 April 2021

Tom Stevenson notes that the fact V2s were built by slaves was ‘overlooked’ when Wernher von Braun was brought to America (LRB, 4 March). The systematic plundering of German technical expertise went way beyond rocket scientists. The historian John Gimbel noted in 1990 that fear of the Russians was merely an acceptable public excuse for ‘riding roughshod over American denazification policies’. Under Operation Paperclip the US government deliberately obfuscated scientists’ involvement in atrocities. Some officials complained, but the economic benefits outweighed any moral qualms.

In December 1945 John C. Green of the US Department of Commerce described Paperclip as ‘essentially “intellectual reparations”’. The Allies all felt they deserved their fair share. In the LRB of 28 October 1999 Francis Spufford gave a summary of the ‘loot’ from the rocket programme: ‘The Americans got von Braun and several hundred completed V2s which they fired across New Mexico. The Russians got a mixed bag of more junior scientists, and the V2 assembly line at the subterranean Mittelwerk factory. Britain carried off the pioneering German work on hydrogen peroxide. It became the distinctive technology of the British programme.’

Liam Shaw

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