Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lost in Space - Full Text

Lost in space

The US reprimand to China over its successful anti-satellite test has all the sincerity of King Herod leading a Unicef fund-raiser.
Ian Williams

Here's the full text of the Guardian Comment is Free piece for those who were too lazy or technologically challenged to click on the link.
January 19, 2007

The US reprimand to China over its successful anti-satellite test has all the sincerity of King Herod leading a Unicef fund-raiser. As inventors of the rocket, the Chinese have every bit as much tenure in orbit as the country that belatedly followed Sputnik into space.

Of course no sensible person can be happy at Beijing's action, not least if you look at the 900-plus missiles aimed at Taiwan. But test was entirely legal - and it is so because the United States has consistently blocked any international convention to "limit its freedom of manoeuvre" in space.

Restated only last year, US military doctrine is that it should control beyond earth orbit, and make sure nobody else can challenge it, which is why it will not accept any treaty demilitarizing space.

This has been yet another of those remarkable obsessions of the Republican right and neocons, going back to the Reagan administration.

One of the Bush administration's first reactions to the distinctly sub-orbital airliners smashing into the World Trade Center was to boost spending on the "Strategic Defence Initiative" - Star Wars. The US has spent well over $100 billion so far on it. And so far it has fairly consistently failed to hit the missile equivalent of a brightly painted fish glued in a barrel.

MIT professor Theodore A Postol has over the years unveiled the outright deceptions perpetrated by the Pentagon to claim success from abject failure in the hugely expensive anti-missile programme. Now, since it all depends on US spy satellites, the Chinese test threatens to bring the whole faith-based programme tumbling out of orbit to impact on solid reality.

Indeed, for a hugely expensive military failure, its only competition in costliness has been the Iraq War itself - which is of course one of the reasons that the Chinese could persuade themselves that the test was necessary.

This obsession with outer space, shown in his decision to invade Mars, is almost as mysterious as George W Bush's fixation on Iraq. Ironically his Yale Transcript gave him his very lowest score in Astronomy with 69, even lower than his 71 in political science classes.

Even so, if you sometimes suspect that Darth Vader is stalking the corridors of a reality-challenged White House and Pentagon, you may not be so far wrong. Along with the "Strategic Defence Initiative," Bush's Moon and Mars projects are an almost certainly motivated by an attempt to ensure that the Force is always with US.

And the genesis of the Star Wars programme was indeed science fiction. Hard-right hard-SF writer Larry Niven boasted: "The scheme that drove the Soviet Union bankrupt was first-drafted at my house in Tarzana, by about fifty good people invited and led by Jerry Pournelle (another SF writer of similar views). We were gathered to build a space program, with costs and schedules, to submit to Ronald Reagan via his science adviser. We generated the Space Defense Initiative (or 'Star Wars' if you didn't like it.)"

Niven recounted that other SF writers, like Robert A Heinlein (Starship Troopers!) and Poul Anderson, along with retired general Daniel Graham and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, joined lobbyists from companies like Boeing in the "Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy", which he credits with Reagan's 1983 Star Wars speech.

As Frances FitzGerald author of Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War, put it laconically about the myth of Star Wars crashing the Evil Empire: "The evidence for this proposition is wanting." She explains, "Soviet spending on strategic weapons was a very small fraction of the overall Soviet military budget."

The people who invented Iraqi WMD's had a dry run on this one. FitzGerald noted that the analysts who actually looked at the data concluded that Moscow's weapons procurement programs were flat, while its spending on strategic missile systems had actually dropped by 40% from 1976 to 1983. The administration suppressed those reports in favour of more threatening and politically correct estimates, just as later Star Wars test failures were rewritten as successes.

Other countries have every right to protest the Chinese test, which presumably has showered yet more debris to threaten satellites in orbit. But until they turn on Washington and demand that it supports effective demilitarization of space, they are allies in hypocrisy and fantasy with the Bush administration.

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