#BookReview – Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home

#BookReview – Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home

By Dr Brian Laslie

Jack Clemons, Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018. Appendices. Glossary. References. Further Reading. Hbk. 264 pp


In the first of our space-related book reviews, Stages to Saturn, I discussed a book about a technology and a ‘thing,’ that thing being the family of Saturn rockets. This next review is a book about people or rather, a single person: Jack Clemons.

Author Jack Clemons is one of the 400,000 (or so) people who worked on Project Apollo. You should quickly surmise that 399,999 other stories could be told about NASA and space exploration, but this is Jack’s story. This is the story of one person’s efforts to help put Armstrong’s (and eleven others) boot prints on the moon, but at least as far as Clemons was concerned bringing him, as well as and Aldrin and Collins back to Earth. Clemons, employed by TRW Corporation and working for the Apollo program as a re-entry specialist, presents himself as part of the group of ‘Americans who embraced the study of engineering and the sciences’ (p. 3) and who joined President Kennedy’s call for landing a man on the moon, and the oft-overlooked second part of that sentence, returning him safely to Earth. The call for Clemons (p. 21) was so great that ‘I stayed in Houston for sixteen years for one reason, because that’s where NASA was.’

The prime crew of the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission is photographed during spacecraft checkout activity at North American Rockwell Space Division at Downey, California. Left to right, are astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot; and Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot. (Source: NASA)

HBO’s TV series From the Earth to the Moon based on the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin introduced viewers to stories of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. In one episode, the launch of Apollo 12 is shown to be struck by lightning, and the crew is informed they must ‘switch SCE to AUX’ to start restoring power to the crippled command module. This is also where Jack Clemons book Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who brought the Astronauts Home begins as well when flight controller John Aaron makes the call to have the crew switch Signal Conditioning Electronics to Auxiliary. This is what separates Clemons work from all that has come before it – and becomes the real strength of the work; this is not a book about the astronauts themselves, but about the unnamed masses of the support team.

This is not a purely academic work, and Clemons is clearly not speaking to an exclusive audience. Instead, he brings forth in a very accessible manner what it was like to be ‘in the trenches.’ Clemons also provides a certain levity in his book. He often ‘breaks the plane’ by talking directly to the reader, a massive ‘no-no’ in most professional writing, but it works and much to Clemons credit, I found myself smirking.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: his work on the Apollo Program and his later work in the Space Shuttle program. During Apollo and found many times throughout the pages of Safely to Earth, the role of technology is clearly on display. In the modern world where our phones hold more computing power than some of the early computers, it is nearly overwhelming to remember a time where so much of a computer processing ability first had to be input by hand. In one example, Clemons notes (p. 41) that the process of entering information into the IBM mainframes and waiting for results: ‘was a tedious and labor-intensive way to grind out data, but at the time it was cutting edge, high art, and great fun.’ Clemons primary work was on reentry data (p. 70), ‘[S]ince every Apollo mission was unique, reentry procedures had to developed and tested for each one.’

During the 1980s, Clemons moved over to IBM where he worked on the Space Shuttle’s computer programs and flight software, and this work provides a good history of the development and operation of the Shuttle. During these years, Clemons, responsible for the displays and controls of the Orbiter, worked closely with the early shuttle astronauts, including Bob Crippen and Dick Truly. Ostensibly, Clemons seeks here (p. 122) to ‘to convey here a sense of the scope of this singular effort, and an appreciation for some of the unheralded people behind the scenes’ and this occurs not only in the latter half of the book but throughout the entire text. The reader gets a sense of how many people at so many levels worked towards the singular goal of space exploration.

This is a welcome addition and is truly a unique work that contributes something new to an already overcrowded field of books about manned spaceflight. Clemons brings into focus what it was like to be one of the 400,000 who contributed to getting man to the moon and in doing so broadens our understanding of getting into space in general. While those aviation, history of technology, and space readers and historians will find much to enjoy here; those interested in race and gender issues, particularly as they apply to employment in STEM career fields, will also find enjoyment in the marked switch that occurred between Apollo and the Space Transportation System programs; Clemons covers this transition particularly well. The ultimate question posed by Clemons (p. 190), and so many others in recent years, and one for which we do not have a definitive answer for is, ‘[S]o where does human spaceflight go from here?’

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The last of 13 captive and free-flight tests on 26 October 1977 with the space shuttle prototype Enterprise during the Approach and Landing Tests, validating the shuttle’s glide and landing characteristics. Launched from the modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the Enterprise’s final flight was piloted by Fred Haise and Gordon Fullerton to a landing on the main concrete runway at Edwards Air Force Base before a host of VIPs and media personnel. (Source: NASA)

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

By Dr Brian Laslie

Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003. Illustrations. Notes. Sources and Research Material. Pbk. 544 pp.


This entry in our continuing series of book reviews might strike you as something a bit different from what we usually publish in several respects. First, this is an older work and originally published as part of the ‘official histories’ by NASA. Initially published in 1979 by the NASA history office, this 2003 updated version published by the University Press of Florida, was written, at its creation, primarily for an internal audience. Second, and as promised, this is the first book review in a series on Space exploration and space power. Finally, this review is inherently about a thing, and a means rather than an event or person. It is a review of technological history.

Even with fifty years of retrospective, the images of the gigantic Saturn V rocket with the Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) perched atop the three-stage rocket remains impressive. Histories of NASA and the Apollo Program tend to focus on the Saturn as a completed unit, stacked and rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) ready for transportation to the launch pad and final countdown and liftoff of the series of Apollo missions. The University of Florida Press’s and author Roger E. Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles plays this familiar tale in reverse. The book begins with the launch of Apollo 11 and the ‘fiery holocaust lasting only 2.5 minutes’ of the first stage (S1-C) five F-1 engines that included the combination of 203,000 gallons of RP-1 kerosene and 331,000 gallons of liquid oxygen.

SA-9, the eighth Saturn I flight, lifted off on 16 February 1965. This was the first Saturn with an operational payload, the Pegasus I meteoroid detection satellite. (Source: Wikimedia)

Bilstein then roles the tape back to the earliest days of rocketry before moving into the primary purpose of the book, the development of the Saturn family of rockets. This is the history of an object albeit, one of the largest moving objects ever created. Stages to Saturn is the story of the development of the launch vehicles that took man into deep space for the first time. There are hundreds of books (see our reading list) about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, but this book is fundamentally different in that it focuses on the creation of the means it took the latter program to get into space.

A note of warning for the prospective reader up front, this is not a book for the layman reader, and in all fairness, it is hardly a book for the professional historian. It is an extraordinarily technical history, what might be most justly described as a ‘dense’ read. If there is a drawback to this work, it is that one might enjoy the book more if one were an expert mechanic or an aircraft engineer, someone who fundamentally understands the way machines work. It is also as much an organisational and logistical history as it is a technological history. All, this should not indicate that the book comes across as is inaccessible; it does not. Still the reader should be prepared for some overly technical discussions of thrust chambers and cryogenic propellants.

Rollout of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, 20 May 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is built, not chronologically, but rather by component pieces of the rocket itself, each earning a detailed developmental history. This includes a ‘building blocks’ section which is a short history of rocketry but, thankfully, not a history of everything. From there the book details the development of the engines (RL-10, J-2, H-1, and F-1), before moving into the building of the various Saturn stages (S-IB, S-IVB for the Saturn IB and S-IC, S-II, S-IVB for the Saturn V) and finally on the management and logistics. While the development and building of the massive Saturn systems are fascinating enough in their own right, the logistical undertaking, which required ships and the development of special aircraft just to move the various stages and components to Cape Kennedy is a worthy addition to understanding of the continental network required simply to have the rocket components arrive at their destination. Bilstein ends his book with a disposition of the remaining Saturn systems (most on Static display now), but also a retrospective legacy section. It should also be noted that Bilstein includes a series of appendices covering everything from a detailed schematic of the Saturn V to the Saturn V launch sequence (beginning at nine hours and 30 minutes before liftoff) as well as R&D funding. While ‘richly detailed’ or ‘meticulously researched’ are overused in reviews, a trait myself am guilty of; they aptly apply to Stages to Saturn.

In the end, this is the story of the Apollo and Saturn programs that needed to be told. All the histories and biographies of the ‘Space Race,’ fail to rise to the level of detail and the important contribution of Stages to Saturn. It is a first-class organisational and technological history, and it stands alone as, perhaps the very best of the overall government ‘official histories.’ Historians of air and space power studies will find much to enjoy here, but also aerospace engineers. It is often said that 400,000 people helped get the United States the moon. This is the history of that rocket, but it is equally the history of those 400,000.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Apollo 6 interstage falling away. The engine exhaust from the S-II stage glows as it impacts the interstage. (Source: Wikimdeia)

Space: A Reading List

Space: A Reading List

By Dr Brian Laslie

As the combatant command of the ‘newly re-established’ United States Space Command inches closer to being stood up (or reincarnated we are really not sure), we at From Balloons to Drones thought now would be an opportune time to publish articles, book reviews, and reading lists on the very best of space scholarship.[1] The simple fact is that here at the site we have focused almost exclusively on air power. We just have not gone high enough. Therefore, to make a mid-course correction, we are looking to expand into air and space power. The first step is this reading list. Hopefully to be followed by book reviews and original articles like this one here that we have previously published.

Our Assistant Editor, Brian Laslie, has chosen to divide this reading list up: Primer texts, NASA and civilian histories, and finally a list of biographies, memoirs and autobiographies.

Much of what you will find below was done in coordination with historians at the United States Air Force Academy, Air Command and Staff College, and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. We reached out to some of their senior scholars for their list of ‘must reads’ plus what they assign to students. We also reached out to several academic presses who specialise in space scholarship. Here you will find some of the usual suspects (University Press of Kentucky, MIT, Johns Hopkins), but also some really impressive works out of the University Press of Florida, look for book reviews of some of these titles below coming shortly. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but we believe that if you are interested in expanding your space knowledge, professionally or for fun, this list is a great place to start.

Primer Texts:


  • Ted Spitzmiller, The History of Human Space Flight (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2017);
  • Michael J. Neufeld, Spaceflight: A Concise History (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018);
  • Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1985);
  • William F. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (New York, NY: Random House, 1998);
  • A. Heppenheimer, Countdown: A History of Spaceflight (New York, NY: Wiley, 1997);
  • Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (London: Frank Cass, 2002);
  • Joan Johnson-Freese, Space as a Strategic Asset (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007);
  • Matthew Brezezinski, Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age (New York, NY: Times Books, 2007);
  • John Klein, Space Warfare: Strategy, Principles and Policy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006);
  • David Spires, Beyond Horizons: A Half Century of Air Force Space Leadership, Revised Edition (Maxwell, AL: Air Force Space Command in association with Air University Press, 1998);
  • Bruce DeBlois (ed.), Beyond the Paths of Heaven: The Emergence of Space Power Thought (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 1999).

NASA History Series (@NASAhistory)

The NASA History Office runs arguably the single best history program in the entirety of the United States Government. With dozens of publications (and most available to download for free here, this is the first place you should stop for the history of space flight in the United States. More recently some of their titles have been re-published with the University of Florida Press.


So much of the literature of the space race focused exclusively on the American perspective. Even the Soviet ‘firsts’ are often viewed through the lens of how other Americans reacted. If you are interested in the development of the Soviet space programs there is Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race (2000) by Asif A. Siddiqi and the four-volume set by Boris Chertok Rockets and People (2005 to 2012) which provides ‘direct first-hand accounts of the men and women who were behind the many Russian accomplishments in exploring space.’

If the early American experience in spaceflight interests you then download: Where no Man has Gone Before: A History of the Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions (1989) by William David Compton, Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions (2007) by Robert C. Seamans, Jr., On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini (2010) by Barton C. Hacker and James M. Grimwood, and “Before this Decade is Out” Personal Reflections of the Apollo Program (1999) edited by Glen. E. Swanson

Under the UPF bin there is Pat Duggins, The Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program (2008) which seems a bit dated in 2019 (there is a reference to a pre-iPad that might perplex readers) but provides an excellent treatment of the history of the Shuttle Program as well as NASA’s uncertain future.

The Final Mission: Preserving NASA’s Apollo Sites (2018) by Lisa Westwood, Beth O’Leary, and Milford W. Donaldson details the importance preserving sites related to the Project Apollo and moon missions both here on Earth and the lunar surface.

Other works by NASA or UPF that are well worth your time include: Safely to Earth: The Men and Women who Brought the Astronauts Home (2018) by Jack Clemons, and Spies and Shuttles: NASA’s Secret Relationships with the DOD and CIA (2015) by James David. If you are an engineer by trade or just interested in highly technical work, there is Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (1999) by Roger Bilstein

Memoirs and Biographies:

There are dozens of books in this genre from the ‘Golden Age of Manned Spaceflight.’ Many of the Mercury, Gemini, and particularly the Apollo astronauts either wrote a memoir or have had a biography published. We cannot list them all here, but we agree the following rate among the very best: First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong (2018) by James R. Hansen, Carrying the Fire: An Astronauts Journey (2001) by Michael Collins, The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space (1999) by Eugene Cernan, Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele (2017) by Don Eisele, and Calculated Risk The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom (2016) by George Leopold.


More recent works by the space shuttle and ISS astronauts include Scott Kelly’s Endurance about his year in space. As space flight becomes increasingly commercialised, the recently published The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos (2018) by Christian Davenport were also showing up from many of the academic institutions with whom we spoke.

Finally, in a departure from the readings above, we recommend the YouTube channel of Amy Shira Teitel. Amy is a ‘spaceflight historian, author, YouTuber, and popular space personality,’ who does a great job in her web series Vintage Space.

Again, this is not a comprehensive list, but rather a starting point. As interest increases and we enter what may very well be a second golden age of space exploration, these are the titles that provide the background and history of working with, in, and through the space domain. If you have suggestions, leave them in the comments.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: The US Air Force launches the ninth Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM satellite at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida., 18 March 2017. Such satellites play an integral part in the strategic and tactical coordination of military operations. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] There continues to be debate about whether the U.S. Space Command is being re-established from its predecessor or if this truly a new combatant command

2018: An Australian Space 2.0 Odyssey

2018: An Australian Space 2.0 Odyssey

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

These spacecraft are able to gather remote sensing information with radios and cameras, and are the sort of innovative space capability that can help meet many ground-based needs in ways that make sense for Australia. Because they have re-programmable software defined radios on board, we can change their purpose on the fly during the mission, which greatly improves the spacecraft’s functional capabilities for multiple use by Defence.[1]

Professor R Boyce, Chair for Space Engineering, UNSW Canberra (2017)

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Defence Science Technology Group (DST) of the Australian Department of Defence have separately established partnerships with University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra which has resulted in a space program with one DST space mission already in orbit, one RAAF mission about to be launched. Additional follow-on missions are planned for each of RAAF and DST for launch in the near future. A combination of disruption in space technology, associated with ‘Space 2.0’ that makes space more accessible, and a commitment by UNSW Canberra to develop a space program, has delivered M1 as the first Australian space mission for the RAAF. These small satellite missions will provide research that will give a better understanding, for the current and future Defence workforce, of the potential opportunities for exploiting the space domain using Space 2.0 technology. As such, this article explores the move away from Space 1.0 to Space 2.0. While discussed in more detail below, broadly speaking, Space 2.0 relates to the reduced costs of accessing space and conducting space missions with commercial-off-the-shelf satellite components for lower-cost small satellites and mission payloads.

A lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The objective of the ADF’s employment of the space domain is to support a better military situation for the joint force in operations planned and conducted in the air, sea, ground, and information domains. Currently, ADF joint warfighting operations are critically dependent on large and expensive satellites that are owned and operated by commercial and allied service providers. As such, a Defence-sponsored university program is currently underway to explore the potential benefits of employing microsatellites as a lower-costing option to augment the capabilities traditionally fulfilled by the large-sized satellites. Furthermore, orbiting space-based sensors can view much larger areas of the Earth in a single scan than are possible with airborne sensors. Thus, a space-supported force element can observe, communicate, and coordinate multiple force elements dispersed over large areas in multiple theatres of operations. Finally, the transmission of signals above the atmosphere enables better communications between satellites, performed over long distances over the horizon without atmospheric attenuation effects, to enable better inter-theatre and global communications.

In the twentieth century, space missions were only affordable through government-funded projects. Government sponsored organisations and missions continued to grow in size and their capabilities. In retrospect, government agencies and space industry now refer to these large-sized, expensive, and complex mission systems as ‘Space 1.0’ technology.[2] As national space agendas drove the development of bigger space launch vehicles able to carry and launch larger payloads with one or more large satellites, changes in government funding priorities away from space lift services began to stifle innovation in space technology which remained as high-end and expensive technology. Recently, in the twenty-first century, the large government agencies looked to commercial industries to find ways to innovate and develop cheaper alternatives for launching and operating space missions. This resulted in the commercialisation of affordable access to space, now commonly referred to as Space 2.0; an industry-led evolution that is generating more affordable commercial alternatives for space launch services and operations management, reusable space launch vehicles and, significantly, miniaturised satellite technology.[3] For example, in 1999, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and Stanford University’s Space Systems Development Lab developed the CubeSat standard, prescribed for the pico- and nanosatellite classes of microsatellites.[4] The CubeSat initiative was initially pursued to enable affordable access to reduce the barriers for university students to access space. CubeSat was initially designed to offer a small, inexpensive, and standardised satellite system to support university student experiments.

CubeSat modules are based on building up a satellite with a single or a multiple number of the smallest unitary 10cm cube module, referred to as a ‘1U’ CubeSat, i.e. a picosatellite.[5] This basic building block approach has enabled a standardisation in satellite designs and launchers. Each 1U can weigh up to 1.5 kg[6]; a ‘6U’ CubeSat, i.e. a nanosatellite, measures 30cm x 20cm x 10cm, six times a 1U and weighs up to twelve kilograms[7]. Microsatellites are typically comprised of a standardised satellite chassis and bus loaded with an onboard computer, ‘star tracker’ subsystem to measure satellite orientation, hardware to control satellite attitude and antenna pointing in orbit, solar power subsystem, communications subsystem, a deployable mechanism actuator for unfolding the solar panels and antennas, and the mission payload, i.e. mission-related sensors, cameras, radio transmitter/receiver and the suchlike.

Microsatellite projects exploit commonly available Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology to reduce costs and development schedules, even in military mission systems. The use of COTS technology enables a simplified plug-and-play approach to microsatellite engineering and design. By having pre-made, interchangeable and standardised components, microsatellite designs can be rapidly assembled, tested, evaluated, and modified until an acceptable solution is realised. Agile manufacturing methods such as 3D printing can further reduce the time taken to engineer and manufacture a viable operational microsatellite design.[8]

The Buccaneer miniature satellite CubeSat at the UNSW Canberra satellite research laboratory at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra on 17 October, 2016.(Source: Australian Department of Defence)

The CubeSat model has become a commonly accepted standard for low-cost, low-altitude orbit, and short duration space missions. Microsatellites are relatively cheaper, more flexible in mission designs, and can be built more rapidly when compared to larger satellites, and can be replaced on-orbit more frequently, thereby taking advantage of recent technological innovation. Their small size can also exploit spare spaces in the payload section of the launch vehicles that are scheduled and funded mainly for larger satellites. This is commonly referred to as a ‘rideshare’ or ‘piggyback.’ The challenge for the designers of such ‘piggyback’ missions is to find a suitable launch event with a date and planned orbit that matches the readiness and mission of the microsatellite.

Space 2.0 evolution has realised commercial alternatives to the traditional space mission designs that used heavy satellites launched from heavy rockets. These smaller and cheaper rockets have been specifically designed to launch lighter payloads of microsatellites. In 2017, an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle using a PSLV-C37 heavy-lift rocket set a world record in lifting 104 small satellites into orbit in a single space launch event. As the Times of India reported:

India scripted a new chapter in the history of space exploration with the successful launch of a record 104 satellites by ISRO’s [Indian Space Research Organisation] Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in a single mission. Out of the total 104 satellites placed in orbit, 101 satellites belonged to six foreign countries. They included 96 from the US and one each from Israel, the UAE, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Kazakhstan.[9]

The growing maturity and expanding capabilities of CubeSat systems have seen a growing acceptance beyond university users. For example, DST and UNSW Canberra are designing, building, and testing microsatellite designs for space missions to meet Defence needs in Australia.

Space 2.0 standards and microsatellites are not intended to replace the traditional large satellites deployed into higher altitude orbit missions. Large and small-sized satellites each offer different benefits and limitations. Large satellites can collect information with higher fidelity when configured with bigger optical and radiofrequency apertures, with room available for better pointing control subsystem, larger and more powerful on-board computing systems, and multiple mission, all needing a larger power subsystem. Alternatively, disaggregating space missions across different small satellites, deployed into a large constellation, may be more survivable to environmental hazards and resilient to interference in a contested environment.

Small satellite missions can now fulfil the potential mission needs of military, commercial operators, scientists and university students. Microsatellites have already been employed for communications, signals intelligence, environmental monitoring, geo-positioning, observation and targeting. They can perform similar functions as larger satellites, albeit with a much smaller power source and reduced effective ranges for transmitters and electro-optical devices. They are easier and cheaper to make and launch for a short-term, low-Earth orbit mission. This is ideal for employing space missions to improve ADF capabilities on the ground.

Defence has partnered with UNSW Canberra, including ‘UNSW Canberra Space’ – a team of space academics and professionals – to collaborate in space research, engineering, and mission support services with Space 2.0 satellite technology in space missions for DST and RAAF. When combined with new and agile manufacturing techniques, these microsatellite missions provide the ADF with opportunities to test and evaluate potential options for operationally responsive space capabilities.

UNSW Canberra has already built the ‘Buccaneer Risk Mitigation Mission’ (BRMM) as its inaugural microsatellite space mission, in partnership with DST.[10] In November 2017, NASA successfully launched BRMM from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. BRMM is a collaboration, in both the project engineering project and space mission management, between DST and UNSW Canberra to jointly fly and operate the first Australian developed and operated defence-science mission. BRMM is currently operational in low-Earth orbit, at a height above the ionosphere which is a dynamic phenomenon that changes with space weather effects and the Sun’s position.

The importance of this orbit is that the RAAF is dependent on the ionosphere to enable functioning of its Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) systems, which is a crucial component of a national layered surveillance network that provides coverage of Australia’s northern approaches.[11] The JORN coverage and system performance are critically dependent on the ionosphere. The BRMM satellite is configured with a high-frequency receiver to measure the JORN signal that passes through the ionosphere. These signal measurements allow DST scientists and engineers to study the quality of JORN’s transmitted beam and signal, and the propagation of High Frequency (HF) radio waves that pass skywards through the ionosphere. BRMM was planned with a one-year mission-life but could stay in orbit for up to five years, depending on space weather effects and atmospheric drag.[12] BRMM is also a risk reduction activity for the ‘Buccaneer Main Mission’ (BMM) as a follow-on space mission.[13] BRMM will provide space data on how spacecraft interact with the orbital environment, to improve the satellite design for BMM, and also provide mission experience that can be used to improve the operation of the BMM. The BMM will also be used to calibrate the JORN high-frequency signals but will use an improved payload design, based on a heritage of BRMM. BMM is planned for a launch event in 2020.

This space odyssey pursued by UNSW Canberra is also bringing direct benefits to RAAF. The UNSW Canberra space program includes parallel efforts to develop three CubeSats, funded by RAAF, for two separate missions in separate events. These space missions will support academic research into the utility of microsatellites, configured with a small-sized sensor payload, for a maritime surveillance role. The first mission, ‘M1,’ will deploy a single CubeSat, currently scheduled to share a ride with a US launch services provider in mid-November 2018.[14] UNSW Canberra will continue the program and develop a second mission, ‘M2,’ which is planned to deploy two formation-flying, with inter-satellite communications, in a single space mission in 2019. The M1 and M2 missions will support research and education for space experts in Defence, and UNSW Canberra, to further explore and realise new possibilities with Space 2.0 technologies.

To conclude, the advent of Space 2.0 has reduced cost barriers and complexity to make access to space missions and space lift more affordable for more widespread uses. The increased affordability of space technology has helped to demystify mission systems and increase the interests and understanding of the potential opportunities for Space 2.0 missions as alternatives to more expensive and more complex space missions. Additionally, Space 2.0 enables agility in the design phase for the rapid development of new and viable concepts for space missions hitherto not possible with Space 1.0 technology. Space 2.0 evolution makes it possible for ADF to consider affordable space options; UNSW Canberra’s knowledge and technical achievements in space engineering and operations, with DST for Buccaneer and RAAF for M1 and M2, will provide critical research for considering the potential for new space missions for Australia.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is an Officer Aviation (Maritime Patrol & Response), currently serving in the RAAF Air Power Development Centre, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future employment of air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defence, Royal Australian Air Force, or the Government of Australia. The Commonwealth of Australia will not be legally responsible in contract, tort or otherwise, for any statements made in this document.

Header Image: Lunch-box sized satellites (CubeSats) used for the Buccaneer and Biarri space missions. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] UNSW Sydney, ‘RAAF invests $10 million in UNSW Canberra Space missions,’ UNSW Newsroom (2017).

[2] F. Burke, ‘Space 2.0: bringing space tech down to Earth,’ The Space Review, 27 April 2009.

[3] Ibid.

[4] NASA, ‘CubeSat 101 – Basic Concepts and Process for First-Time CubeSat Developers,’ NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative, NASA Website, 2017.

[5] ‘What are SmallSats and CubeSats?,’ NASA Website, 2015.

[6] Cubesat, 1U-3U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 13, The CubeSat Program, 2014.

[7] Cubesat, 6U CubeSat Design Specification, Revision 1.0, The CubeSat Program, 2018.

[8] European Space Agency, ‘Ten Ways 3D Printing Could Change Space,’ Space Engineering & Technology, 2014.

[9] U. Tejonmayam, ‘ISRO creates history, launches 104 satellites in one go,’ The Times of India, 15 February 2017.

[10] H. Kramer, ‘Buccaneer CubeSat Mission,’ eoPortal Directory, 2017.

[11] Royal Australia Air Force, ‘Jindalee Operational Radar Network,’ 2018.

[12] Kramer, loc cit.

[13] Ibid.

[14] UNSW Canberra, ‘M1 satellite on track for September launch,’ 2018.

SPACE FORCE: The Militarisation of United States Space Policy from Eisenhower to Trump

SPACE FORCE: The Militarisation of United States Space Policy from Eisenhower to Trump

By Bradley Galka

On 18 June 2018, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to create a new branch of the United States armed forces. This new branch, the US Space Force, would be charged with controlling the nation’s military activities in space. The fact that the US would be involved in military activities in space in the first place should not be taken for granted. The US’ first military space policy was based on the principle that space ought to remain a ‘sanctuary’ from the sort of martial competition that was taking place on earth’s surface. Despite these peaceful beginnings, nearly every successive president has established a military space policy more aggressive than the last. The proposed establishment of the Space Force as a new branch of the US military represents the apex of this decades-long trend toward increased militarisation of space.[1]

President Eisenhower visiting the George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, 8 September 1960. (Source: NASA)

The US government’s first space policy was established during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower and the military saw the nation’s developing satellite program as a valuable tool in monitoring Soviet military concentrations and looked forward to developing the critical capacity of detecting hostile missile launches from space. The president’s views differed with military leaders in significant ways. While the military advocated the development of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile technology and other generally hostile technologies for use in space, Eisenhower was more interested in the scientific possibilities of the space program. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on 29 July 1958, as a separate entity from the Department of Defense – one with a purely peaceful civilian mandate. Though he did green-light some early research into ASAT technology, the US never developed a functional ASAT capability during Eisenhower’s presidency.[2]

John F. Kennedy took the first steps toward a more militarised space policy by approving the full-scale development of the anti-satellite and anti-ballistic missile technologies first considered during Eisenhower’s tenure. Kennedy was concerned with the nuclear ‘missile gap’ that was said to be developing between the US and the Soviet Union and was alarmed by reports that the Soviets were seeking a capacity to place nuclear weapons in earth’s orbit. Ultimately, however, Kennedy chose not to increase tensions between the superpowers through military competition with the Soviets in space, but rather to seek a diplomatic agreement limiting or banning such hostile actions. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, brought about the successful culmination of these efforts with the signing of the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty by the US and the Soviet Union in 1967. The terms of this treaty forbade the testing or positioning of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction in space, prohibited the construction of military installations or fortifications on the moon, and banned any military manoeuvres in earth’s orbit. The terms of the treaty stipulated that space would only be used for peaceful, scientific purposes.[3]

Richard Nixon’s presidency was not marked by significant changes in the US’ military space policy. Gerald Ford, however, set the US on a drastically new, and far more aggressive, course. During Ford’s presidency, a series of internal government review boards reported to the president that the US’ existing space policies were woefully insufficient to protect the nation’s important space assets from the threat of Soviet attack. Experts warned that deterrence was not enough. The US, they said, would need to develop not only substantial defences in space but would need to obtain potent offensive firepower as well. Ford acted on this advice by drafting a new military space policy. This policy declared that ‘the Soviets should not be allowed an exclusive sanctuary in space for critical military supporting satellites.’ The employment of non-nuclear anti-satellite technology, Ford declared, would enable the US to ‘selectively nullify certain militarily important Soviet space systems, should that become necessary.’ By the end of his presidency, Ford had put in place the US’ first outwardly aggressive military space policy, mandating that the nation obtain both offensive and defensive capabilities in space.[4]

Jimmy Carter followed in Ford’s footsteps by officially rescinding the US’ self-imposed prohibition on testing anti-satellite weaponry in space. In 1978 Carter promulgated a new space policy which affirmed the right of the US to ‘pursue activities in space in support of its right of self-defense.’ Regarding anti-satellite capability, Carter declared that the US would continue to seek a ‘verifiable ban’ on such technology but would continue its research and development ‘as a hedge against Soviet breakout.’ In other words, the Carter administration sought to obtain a ban on ASAT technology but was unwilling to let the US fall behind if the Soviets refused to cooperate or broke the terms of any prospective treaty.[5]

Project Excalibur was a proposed x-ray laser based anti-missile technology. It used a nuclear warhead surrounded by a number of metal rods that acted to focus the output of the explosion into narrow beams that would be aimed at nuclear missiles and their warheads. (Source: Wikimedia)

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981 the US upped-the-ante yet again. One of the most notable products of Reagan’s whole presidency was his famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known popularly as the ‘Star Wars’ program. The nature of SDI changed significantly over time but was a program designed to give the US the capacity to intercept and destroy a massive Soviet missile barrage en-route to the US or its allies using space-based weapons platforms. Though regarded by most now and many in his own time as wildly unrealistic given the technology of the day, Reagan’s intention of stationing military weapons in space capable of defeating Soviet attacks on earth was far beyond anything the US had been willing to attempt before. This technological program was coupled with Reagan’s stated unwillingness to continue negotiating with the Soviet Union over any form of disarmament which he believed would interfere with American prerogatives or American interests.[6]

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 the ambitious nature of Reagan’s SDI program was scaled back under George H.W. Bush from a massive global missile shield to a smaller, regional defensive program capable of interdicting missiles in smaller numbers but with higher accuracy, reflecting the new realities of a post-Cold War world. Both H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton maintained the US’ stated willingness to both attack and defend military assets in outer space, but the post-Cold War world saw a marked decrease in the perceived importance of military space readiness. Bill Clinton was notable for his administration’s desire to open up the US’ space technology for the benefit of civil and commercial interests around the world. GPS, the global positioning system which serves as the basis of modern satellite-directed navigation, was initially a military asset unavailable to the public until Clinton opened access to the program in the 1990s.[7]

US Navy Ordnance handlers assemble Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs in the forward mess decks before putting them on elevators headed for aircraft on the flight deck aboard USS Constellation, c. 2003. JDAM’s are guidance kits that convert existing unguided bombs into precision-guided ‘smart’ munitions. The tail section contains an inertial navigational system and a global positioning system. JDAM improves the accuracy of unguided bombs in any weather condition. (Source: Wikimedia)

The advent of the Global War on Terror and the protracted conflicts in the Middle East has reinvigorated the government’s concern with space policy in recent years. George W. Bush took steps to limit the free access to GPS established by Bill Clinton claiming the nation’s enemies – whether conventional military, insurgent groups or terrorist organisations – could use GPS as a useful tool against US interests. Perhaps the most notable use of military satellite technology, however, has been the drone program. Satellite-enabled drone reconnaissance and bombing missions have been central to US military operations around the world since the 1990s and have only grown in importance. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each found space assets to be indispensable in the conduct of their military missions abroad and have each affirmed the importance of space in their iterations of national space policy.[8]

In his 2006 exposition of US space policy, George W. Bush declared:

In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power. In order to increase knowledge, discovery, economic prosperity, and to enhance the national security, the United States must have robust, effective, and efficient space capabilities.[9]

By declaring that space is just as crucial to the modern military as air power and sea power Bush seems to have prefigured the seminal development in US space policy that incumbent President Trump announced in 2018: the planned establishment of the US Space Force.

In the six decades between Eisenhower’s first military space policy and the space policy of Trump, the US has gone from a purely peaceful conception of space to a grudging acceptance of defensive militarisation to a modern policy in which an aggressive militarisation of space is regarded as essential to national defence. The elevation of space activities from auxiliary status to an independent branch of the armed forces not only solidifies the importance of space in the modern US military but represents the next logical step in a pattern of increasingly aggressive military space policy established since the earliest days of the US space program.

Bradley Galka obtained his Master of Arts degree in history from Kansas State University in 2017. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Kansas State. His research focuses on the relationship between politics and the military in the United States, particularly regarding fascism and the U.S. military during the inter-war period.

Header Image: The launch of the STS-74 mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Source: NASA)

[1] Namrata Goswami, ‘The US Space Force and Its Implications,’ The Diplomat, 22 June 2018.

[2] Nelson Rockefeller, National Security Council, ‘US Scientific Satellite Program,’ NSC-5520, 20 May 1955; Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, KS, S. DDE’s Papers as President, NSC Series, Box 9, 357th Meeting of the NSC, NAID#: 12093099, Everett Gleason, National Security Council, ‘US Objectives in Space Exploration and Science,’ March 1958; Eisenhower Presidential Library, DDE’s Papers as President, NSC Series, Box 9, 339th Meeting of the NSC, NAID#: 12093096, S. Everett Gleason, National Security Council, ‘Implications of Soviet Earth Satellite for US Security,’ 10 October 1957.

[3] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Kennedy Administration National Security Council, ‘Certain Aspects of Missile and Space Programs,’ NSC-6108, 18 January 1961; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Johnson Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson, ‘Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space,’ NSAM-285, 3 March 1964; United Nations General Assembly, ‘Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, 27 January 27, 1967.

[4] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Ford Administration, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council, ‘Enhanced Survivability of Critical US Military and Intelligence Space Systems,’ National Security Decision Memorandum 333, 7 July 1976; George C. Marshall Institute,  Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Ford Administration, Brent Scowcroft, National Security Council, ‘US Anti-Satellite Capabilities,’ National Security Decision Memorandum 345, 18 January 1977.

[5] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Review Memorandum – NSC 23, ‘A Coherent US Space Policy,’ 28 March 1977; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC 33, ‘Arms Control for Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Systems,’ 10 March 1978; The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Atlanta, GA, Presidential Directives, Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC-37, ‘National Space Policy,’ 11 May 1978, pp. 1-2.

[6] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 42, ‘National Space Policy,’ 4 July 1982.

[6] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 85, ‘Eliminating the Threat from Ballistic Missiles,’ 25 March 1983; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘White House Announcement on the Development of a Defensive System Against Nuclear Ballistic Missiles,’ 25 March 1983; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 119, ‘Strategic Defense Initiative,’ 6 January 1984; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Reagan Administration, Ronald Reagan, National Security Decision Directive Number 195, ‘The US Position: Nuclear and Space Talks,’ 30 October 1985.

[7] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the George H.W. Bush Administration, George H.W Bush, NSD-30, NSDP-1, ‘National Space Policy,’ 2 November 1989, p. 3; George C. Marshall Institute,  Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, Office of the Press Secretary, PDD/NSC-23, ‘Statement on Export of Satellite Imagery and Imaging Systems,’ 10 March 1994; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, William Clinton, PDD/NSTC-2, ‘Convergence of US-Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite Systems,’ 5 May 1994; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Clinton Administration, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Fact Sheet: US Global Positioning System Policy,’ 29 March 1996.

[8] George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the George W. Bush Administration, George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006; George C. Marshall Institute, Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents from the Obama Administration, Barack Obama, ‘National Space Policy of the United States of America,’ 28 June 2010.

[9] George W. Bush, ‘US National Space Policy,’ 31 August 2006.

#BookReview – Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens

#BookReview – Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Joan Johnson-Freese, Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. Notes. Index. xx + 202 pp.


In this book, Joan Johnson-Freese, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, has written a comprehensive history of the development of US national policy for space security. In the preface, Johnson-Freese cited General John Hyten, the then Commander, US Air Force Space Command, as stating that, ‘if the United States is “threatened in space, we have the right of self-defence, and will make sure we execute that right.”’ (p. ix) The underlying driver that persists in twenty-first century US policy developments on space security, up to the publication of this book in 2017, is to be able to access and securely use space for its purposes independently and at the time of its choosing. The US also seeks to keep pace with the increasing number of space-faring nations and developments in space power projection.

The book’s title invokes visions of nations in the twenty-first-century posturing to exploit niche combat capabilities to project their influence into future confrontations into the common grounds located above the Earth that is the shared orbital domain. However, this book is a well-constructed guide that walks the reader through the process of US national policy development for space security. More specifically, the book logically describes to the reader the policy determinants for US national security and space security. It also considers the drivers adopted by the US government that has steered its space security interests and shaped attitudes and organisational responses to assert those interests in the shared space orbital domain in the early period of the twenty-first century. The book concludes with suggesting that US space security policy take the lead in providing a secure space domain.

Space is one of the domains used as a common ground to globally connect actors in activities that either permeates across the globe or are discrete interconnected nodes remote located around the world. Moreover, individual state actors wish to exploit that common ground to build compartments within it for their exclusive purposes. State actors will then seek to build systems to protect these compartments that inadvertently increase the congested, contested, and competitive character of the space domain. This also has implications for dependent capabilities, for example, the use of the electromagnetic spectrum for assured access to space systems that support state interests. The challenge for US policy development is to adopt mechanisms that can discriminate between a hostile act and an accidental on-orbit event and provide options for appropriate responses that will not further exacerbate the problems of congestion and inadvertently escalate the competition into an uncontrolled contest.

Chapter one provides a rolling history of the US government’s inaugural efforts in developing policy statements that injected space interests into national security policy. These were then elaborated further in the first dedicated national space policy and space security strategy. US policy-makers, along with many space-savvy actors, have accepted that in a globalised world, economic and national security have become critically dependent on space. However, space is increasingly complex, not regulated, and serves as a global common, which is a challenge for the security policy of individual nations.

Chapter two characterises the priority problems posed by the utility of the orbital space domain to security policy-makers. The characteristics of space activities in the global common fundamentally challenges the management of national security by individual nations. Space cannot be a physical extension to sovereign airspace. Additionally, space is increasingly more affordable and accessible to more state and non-state actors, and increasingly more critical to designs for public infrastructure and daily lifestyles. Although it is accepted that space is a globally shared common, it has become increasingly congested, contested, and competitive in the absence of robust regulation. The space domain is difficult to control, and this is a driver for significant space-faring nations to consider structuring military force options to help assure space access from adverse environmental effects, on-orbit accidents, potential future adversary actions.

Chapter three discusses the reasons why the US should make strategies for space security. The fundamental assumption made is that conflict in the common grounds is inevitable and that concern over the future capabilities of potential adversary nations in the space domain is an acceptable driver for the development of US space security strategy irrespective of the publicly announced intentions of other nations. Johnson-Freese postulates potential strategy developments in the US along the four separate themes. First, space dominance is essential to assuring US military/civilian capabilities. Second, the weaponisation of space is inevitable. Third, while space is essential to military capabilities, the government should seek to limit the militarisation of space, and finally, the US should promote the use of space as a sanctuary, in a similar analogy to the international cooperation for managing Antarctica. Irrespective of the strategic theme, all discussions conclude that space is the Achilles heel for military power.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access program is developing a much-less expensive way to routinely launch small satellites, with a goal of at least a threefold reduction in costs compared to current military and U.S. commercial launch costs. (Source: US Department of Defense)

In chapter four, Johnson-Freese discusses options for military roles that can be performed in and with space to assure space security with a focus on the separate roles and potential technologies for the military to deter, defend, and defeat an adversary in space. The challenge for military commanders is that space is not a logical extension of the air domain. This requires strategists and capability developers to recognise the need to understand the differences in science, technology, and costs. The conduct of warfare in the orbital space domain will be challenged by the definition and ethics of military endstates involving any on-orbit military actions. This is especially true of those legacy effects, such as orbital space debris and disruption to critical public infrastructure, which may endure, potentially, for many generations after a conflict has ended.

Whereas chapters one to four steps the reader through a logical process of understanding the outcomes for a space security strategy and deriving the necessary outputs, chapter five discusses the critical national stakeholders who are essential in putting space strategy into effect, and the support necessary to make it useful. The observation made is that the issue of space security has generated an industry for the pondering, pursuit, and procurement of new space applications by military, industry, aerospace think tanks, academia, and support research organisations. Thus, it is good to define a threat that can be used to justify the significant and long-term investments into space security.

Chapter six is a discussion on the impact of the newest space actors and their behaviours and attitudes towards space. Space access is no longer considered to be exclusive to government-run organisations in space-faring nations. Technology miniaturisation and reduced launch costs have democratised space access to allow non-state actors. Moreover, entrepreneurial investors have triggered a need for strategists to reconsider space as ‘New Space’ to be shared with new additional actors and an increased level of unexpected and complexity in space behaviours. Johnson-Freese refines the book’s premise to consider that access to is space is inevitable but that space warfare is not necessarily inevitable.

Chapter seven concludes the Johnson-Freese’s discussion on strategy development for US space security by highlighting the challenges of democratisation of space access and the globalisation of interdependent space users, both military and non-military. While it is difficult to define a policy for space warfare when a definition for ‘space weapon’ has not yet been universally agreed, space security is complex and might be better achieved under a multi-lateral cooperative arrangement between space-faring nations. While space warfare might serve to achieve a short-term goal, it may be better to appreciate that the more prolonged effects of destabilising the space domain will be detrimental to all space users. A continuously growing number of space users want evermore space-derived services driven by ever-evolving technological improvements that allow more space missions to be conducted near each other. However, this uncontrolled approach by separate nations to individually access the common grounds of the Earth space orbital domain must logically converge at a point where the risks of accidents or deliberate action on orbit must be considered as a likely determinant for future space security policy, and not necessarily a space warfare policy.

In conclusion, this book is well-referenced, and presented in a logical flow of clearly articulated thoughts, making it a useful study reference for strategic thinkers. Johnson-Freese, herself a noted specialist on the space domain, has consulted with subject matter experts from appropriate military and space industry organisations and think-tanks, and is supported by critical individuals typified by the international recognised experts such as Dr David Finkleman, who has served on numerous technical and scientific advisory and study boards for industry and the federal government and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently a serving officer in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). He serves at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra where he is involved in the analysis of potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to future air and space power. His RAAF career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the RAAF, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

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Header Image: An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for a US Air Force mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, 19 January 2018. (Source: US Department of Defense)

Fearing a Space Pearl Harbor: Space Warfare, #highintensitywar, and Air Power

Fearing a Space Pearl Harbor: Space Warfare, #highintensitywar, and Air Power

By Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen[1]

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Bleddyn Bowen examines the place of space power in modern high-intensity warfare. In doing so, he discusses two competing astro-strategies and their applicability to air forces and the use of air power.


Modern air forces cannot conduct precise and highly coordinated operations without the navigation and communications services provided by satellites. Proven in 1991, America’s space power-enabled military forces decimated Iraq’s massed conventional forces and turned a defeat into a rout as Iraqi troops abandoned their heavy weapons and dispersed. Other military forces have now emulated precision bombing and networked air interception capabilities. Space power integration within the military forces of China and Russia proceeds apace with their precision strike and sophisticated standoff area denial weapons.

It is inevitable that space power’s influence on the battlefield, as well as attempts to disrupt or disable satellite operations, will be a significant feature of high-intensity warfare. Deterrence failure would open up space to the trials of space warfare for the first time.[2] Satellite communications, intelligence, and navigation services are essential to the operation of modern warfare in all terrestrial environments, and in particular, enable the combat and logistical effectiveness of fifth-generation air forces. Air power in future wars will be increasingly shaped by the influence of space power upon terrestrial warfare.

Two astro-strategies encapsulate competing visions of space warfare: a Space Pearl Harbor and a Reserve strategy. Both centre upon when and where each side wants to unleash a precision-guided munitions (PGM) salvo from and against air and maritime forces as well as fixed bases. Such a PGM salvo is the tip of the spear that a fifth-generation air force provides.[3] Space warfare threatens to blunt or parry this tip that modern military forces have come to rely upon. This article examines these two astro-strategies that influence the employment of airpower. While both astro-strategies centre upon when and where either side wishes to exploit and deny the dispersing effects of space power on the battlefield, modern air forces have a crucial role to play in imposing and denying those dispersing effects of space power and have a critical dependency on space power themselves to function.

The Influence of Space Power

Space power enables aggressive air forces to reliably shoot what they see promptly and increases the efficiency at which they can operate. This imposes dispersing pressures on the opposing force because of the reliability of precision-strike weapons.[4] Unless the PGM can be intercepted, its launcher destroyed, or its space-based navigation crippled, the targets must hide or scatter. As well as imposing a dispersing influence on enemy forces, dispersion through space services allows friendly deployed forces to remain physically dispersed while retaining a networked ability to concentrate firepower in time and place. The exploitation, denial, and negation of the dispersing effects of space power is a critical operational dynamic for future high-intensity warfare.

The hard edge of Western military forces – deep and precise airstrikes conducted at long distances from home – cannot function without space power. Fifth-generation aircraft and the emergence of ever-more autonomous and remotely piloted aircraft increases the reliance of modern air forces on the communications, navigation, and intelligence provided by satellites. In future high-intensity warfare, the practice of air power seems to grow acutely dependent on possessing a command of space.[5] Naturally, then, satellites are logical targets in any future high-intensity conflict as part of a range of options to degrade a PGM salvo capability. Air forces can be a direct counter-space or anti-satellite capable service with the employment of air-launched suborbital-capable missiles and electronic warfare suites.

Without space systems, the modernised military forces that have dispersed lose their connectivity and become less effective and vulnerable to any massing and concentration of the opposing force. Early warning of enemy movements and a return to ‘dumb’ weapons make massing against a fifth-generation air force and modern ground forces no longer a suicidal option. This is the reason that space infrastructure is a lucrative target in modern warfare: space power makes vulnerable opponents scatter and hide while allowing smaller forces to stand up to larger massed conventional forces. Attacking the space power that supports this military advantage improves the odds against fifth-generation aircraft and their joint methods of warfare.

How and when should an opponent’s space infrastructure be attacked, then? Fears and confidence in the success of a first strike in space warfare, or a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ may be over-blown but timing a coordinated space warfare campaign with operations on Earth and holding counter-space operations in reserve may be more difficult than anticipated. These opposing views of space warfare in a future great power clash dominate operational-level thought about space warfare.

Space Pearl Harbor Strategy

The phrase ‘Space Pearl Harbor’ gained traction following the publication of Donald Rumsfeld’s 2001 Space Commission Report. The Commission noted a potential threat to U.S. space systems in the form of a debilitating first strike from a near-peer adversary against its space systems. Striking space systems first is an attractive strategy from China’s point of view because it undermines America’s dependencies in long-range precision-strike capabilities. Reducing the speed and flexibility at which fifth-generation aircraft can be tasked, reducing their weapons accuracies, decreasing the ranges at which they can fire-and-forget, as well as hampering battle damage assessment, can improve the odds of strategic success for the People’s Liberation Army. The incentive to strike American space systems and risking a like-for-like retaliation may seem like a possibly acceptable cost given China’s disproportionately reduced dependence on space power for a Taiwan scenario.

Not only has China developed a credible suite of anti-satellite capabilities, but China has also begun to resemble the early stages of the space power-enabled military machine the United States had in 1991. A massed military force is slowly transitioning to a lighter and more lethal-per-platform professional force. Today, both China and America are developing longer-range precision strike and uncrewed weapons to counter increasingly sophisticated air defence and maritime denial systems. These increase the dependency on space power and its dispersing effects on oneself and the enemy.

In future high-intensity warfare fifth-generation air forces must consider their dependencies on space systems for various degrees of operational capability as area-denial, and anti-access (A2AD) capabilities increasingly seek to disable and disrupt space communications. A Space Pearl Harbor strategy is increasingly appealing for the United States – not only its potential adversaries. China’s Qu Dian system – its satellite communications, command and control, and intelligence-gathering capabilities – is a potential target for America. China and America may become the first two military powers with competing systems-of-systems and fifth-generation aircraft to fight each other, with space systems providing the backbone for all long-range military capabilities. Both military powers possess reconnaissance-strike complexes, have provided ample targets for each other in orbit and on Earth.

U.S. Navy intercepts malfunctioning intellegence satellite
Launch of the SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193. (Source: Wikipedia)

A key calculation in the strategies of China and the US with their opposing precision strike complexes is how long naval and airborne forces could operate within one another’s A2AD zones to fire their PGM salvos and retreat to safety. Successful counter space operations – whether through soft kill jamming or hard-kill destruction of satellites – may provide more time for aircraft in an anti-access region as dismantling the space component of A2AD weapons reduces the effectiveness and reliability of a precision-strike complex. However, the United States is also thinking and acting along these lines. China’s ever-increasing space infrastructure provides more targets worth hitting for US and allied ASAT programs, especially as China itself intends to project the dispersing influence of space power-enabled terrestrial strike weapons across the Pacific.

There is a strong incentive therefore to an early strike against space systems for both sides to prevent fifth-generation aircraft from being able to reliably intercept enemy fighters and bombard targets on Earth’s surface. Doing so would undermine the opponent’s ability to launch a fully capable PGM salvo which requires reliable celestial lines of communication. Part of China’s A2AD plan for a war in the Pacific may require the targeting of US bases in Guam, the Philippines, and Japan, and is developing longer-range air-launched PGM capabilities to do so. Such deep PGM strikes resemble what Clausewitz called an attack on the enemy’s army in its quarters, which prevents the enemy from assembling at its preferred location and buys significant time for the assailant as the victim spends days assembling at a more rearward, safer, position.

Space power’s influence on fifth-generation air forces partly increases the value of the first strike against space systems, especially if it is to prevent an expeditionary force from arriving in theatre before other hostilities begin. A fifth-generation aircraft’s utility in future high-intensity warfare may be determined by what happens in orbit to a degree only glimpsed by fourth-generation aircraft. Losing a space warfare campaign may seriously undermine the long-range strike options available for fifth-generation air forces, as without some space systems aircraft could not even leave an airfield, let alone navigate to a specific target and reliably hit it with one-shot-one-kill reliability. In close combat operations, impaired space support may disable reliable close air support that small and dispersed land units have come to rely upon in Western armed forces.

However, this does not mean that a U.S.-China war will inevitably begin in space. For strategists, the discussion of when and how which satellites may be targeted in war is particularly thorny, and has no obvious answer, despite the benefits of striking space systems. Space power is pervasive and diverse in its functions and influences, and space infrastructure may be more resilient or redundant than a first strike strategy may anticipate. Surprise attacks may not produce the strategic results desired, and forces will be needed in reserve. Betting everything on a surprise attack and a debilitating first strike is the other aspect of the Pearl Harbor analogy that seems under-emphasised in such discussion. A surprise attack has no guarantee of success, and there are good reasons why strategists tend not to commit their entire force and war plan to the success of the opening shots. The Space Pearl Harbor strategy has its merits, but it is only one possible astro-strategy. The defender is not always so helpless, and not necessarily so strategically vulnerable to such attacks.

Reserve Strategy

Beijing must assault Washington’s celestial lines of communication that support the maritime and air forces that Washington must dispatch to aid Taiwan. The consequences of doing so, or failing to do so, results in the dispersing influence of space power being brought to bear on the side that manages to keep using space power and commanding space to a good enough degree.

A strike against space systems at the outset of hostilities or manoeuvres may not be necessary or inevitable because of the needs and conditions of the terrestrial campaign. If a terrestrial campaign requires complete surprise, an attack on space systems may give away the terrestrial attack and reduce its effect. Expecting space superiority for an air strike may tempt the opposing force to conduct an opening airstrike without space superiority – much like how Egypt’s land offensive in the 1973 Yom Kippur War took Israel by surprise because they did so without air superiority.

A simple incentive to use a reserve strategy is that its timing can be used to increase the terrestrial consequences of the loss of space support at a crucial time. America would have more incentive to wait until its forces are converging on Taiwan when China needs to gather more data from sensors ashore to increase its anti-ship missile hit probabilities – making this the opportune time to disable the Qu Dian system and launch a concerted American space offensive. This is seemingly risky, but if timed well, can create the crucial opening for amphibious reinforcements of the Taiwanese resistance by the US Navy and Air Force. If the Qu Dian system is neutralised too early, workarounds may have been deployed by the time American expeditionary forces arrive in-theatre.

The reserve strategy may be useful to as a responsive posture based on when the adversary is about to launch a PGM salvo, and that salvo in itself may be used only when enemy terrestrial forces have concentrated on Earth around a geographical point, such as Taiwan and its surrounding waters. Counterspace operations and point-defence systems can parry the blow of a PGM salvo, or at least deny the one-shot-one-kill potential feared in Chinese A2AD systems. Indeed, the best time to deny Chinese A2AD systems is when the Chinese are counting on them to work at a crucial time of their choosing. This approach, however, may require a risk appetite that is now alien to the leaders of Western air and maritime forces.

The US Air Force launches the ninth Boeing-built Wideband Global SATCOM satellite at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 18, 2017. Such satellites play an integral part in the strategic and tactical coordination of military operations. (Source: US Department fo Defense)

Space power and air power are not immune to strategic logic. The abstract and absolutist nature of a Space Pearl Harbor assault on space systems is feared and has triggered thought and planning on mitigating the damages of such an attack on both sides. Mitigating the risks of a decisive blow from above in space follows a classic logic of strategy. Space systems may be more resilient than some assume. Terrestrial mitigation measures to parry the blow of a PGM salvo may decrease the need for excessive and pre-emptive counter-space operations. Fifth-generation aircraft may have a significant role as interceptors of long-range A2AD platforms and projectiles to protect the heavy-hitting destroyers and carriers as they approach a point of geographic interest and increase their risks of taking on damage. There may be an incentive not to shoot at or disrupt satellites first if one side thinks they can weather successive rounds of PGM salvos and exhaust the enemy’s supply of PGMs while retaining the ability to meet the objectives of the campaign in the aftermath. Space warfare and astro-strategy in a Taiwan scenario should – in part – be subordinated to the needs of a terrestrial salvo competition, which is itself partly subordinated to the needs of the amphibious Taiwan campaign and its political objectives.


The proliferation of space power increases its usefulness in warfare. Therefore the payoff of counter-space operations also increases. This proliferation, however, does not necessarily result in reduced strategic stability, as the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ mentality encouraged by the Space Pearl Harbor astro-strategy is not without its inherent strategic flaws as a surprise attack. Space weapons and anti-satellite operations may be held in reserve to coincide with a critical moment on Earth: joint operations must include space power, but space operations must also embrace the needs of terrestrial warfare. With the advent of fifth-generation air forces and the emergence of remotely piloted or autonomous reconnaissance and combat aircraft, the reliance of air power on space power will only increase. Future high-intensity warfare will witness competing systems-of-systems, and space warfare will play a frontline role as a method of parrying and blunting each side’s precise airborne spear tips as two high technology militaries exploit and impose the dispersing effects of space power.

Dr Bleddyn E. Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the School of History, Politics, and International Relations, University of Leicester. Previously, he lectured at King’s College London and Aberystwyth University. Bleddyn is a specialist in space power theory, astro-politics, and space security, and has published in The Journal of Strategic Studies, The British Journal of International Relations, and Astropolitics, frequently contributes to blogs on space warfare, and has featured in the podcasts The Space Show and The Dead Prussian. Amongst other things, Bleddyn is currently working on his research monograph on space power theory and convenes the Astropolitics Collective.

Header Image: An Atlas V rocket carrying a Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit satellite for a US Air Force mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, 19 January 2018. (Source: US Department of Defense)

[1] This article is based on research presented at the International Studies Association 2017 Annual Convention and will feature in a forthcoming monograph. Bleddyn E. Bowen. ‘Down to Earth: The Influence of Spacepower Upon Future History’, paper presented at ISA Annual Convention, Baltimore, February 2017.

[2] Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘The Art of Space Deterrence’, European Leadership Network, 20 February 2018, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/the-art-of-space-deterrence/

[3] Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, Winning the Salvo Competition: Rebalancing America’s Air and Missile Defenses (Washington, D.C.: CBSA, 2016)

[4] John B. Sheldon, Reasoning by Strategic Analogy: Classical Strategic Thought and the Foundations of a Theory of Space Power (PhD Thesis, University of Reading, 2005)

[5] Bleddyn E. Bowen, ‘From the sea to outer space: The command of space as the foundation of spacepower theory’, Journal of Strategic Studies, First Online, 2017 https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2017.1293531