Alleged killer satellite: When the "Sputnik shock" showed the USA how vulnerable they are

The Cold War between West and East was only a few years old.

Alleged killer satellite: When the "Sputnik shock" showed the USA how vulnerable they are

The Cold War between West and East was only a few years old. The United States, as the great power and protective power of the West, was convinced that it was far technologically superior to its ideological opponent, the Soviet Union. But then a metal ball shocked the USA.

The space race was in full swing in the early 1950s. When it came to the question of who would fly into orbit first, many people were betting on the USA, after all, they had already won the race for the atomic bomb. But the Soviets are secretly working on a project called “Sputnik.” On October 4, 1957, the world's first satellite was launched into space.

The “Sputnik shock” then hit the USA and the West. Hardly anyone would have believed that the technically inferior Russians could pull off this coup. The USA came too late. Just four weeks later, Moscow launched the first living creature into space - the dog Laika.

The "Sputnik", which weighed more than 80 kilograms and was equipped with a radio transmitter, pulled the rug out from under the feet of the Americans, who were used to success, in 1957. "If the Soviets control space, they can also control Earth," said John F. Kennedy, who would become US President a few years later. Because "Sputnik" not only showed that the USSR was capable of sending satellites into orbit - but also that Moscow had intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach any target in the USA.

The United States and the Soviet Union were in a race to see who would be first in space: the first object, the first living thing, the first human. The Soviets were always ahead. It wasn't until 1969 that the Americans were the pioneers with the moon landing.

Parallel to the space race, the arms race in space began. The space programs of the superpowers were not just for science. They were always politically and militarily motivated, as the physicist and peace researcher Götz Neuneck writes.

There are no weapons in space – at least officially – yet. They are more likely to appear in James Bond films. But that doesn't mean the superpowers aren't working on it. Both the USA and the USSR were already researching weapon systems with anti-satellite functions (ASAT) in the 1950s. However, it was not “killer satellites” that were the main threat, but intercontinental ballistic missiles that could be equipped with nuclear heads and cross orbit in a very short time.

The USA therefore relied on missiles that could be fired from aircraft at targets in space - the so-called Direct Ascent ASAT. However, this system had a disadvantage: It had great destructive power - but so great that it would have damaged reconnaissance satellites and disrupted communications satellites. This was shown by the US nuclear test “Starfish Prime” in 1962 at an altitude of 400 kilometers. The 1.4 megaton TNT warhead produced a powerful electromagnetic pulse, knocking out streetlights and telephones in Hawaii and incapacitating several satellites in orbit. The lesson of "Starfish Prime": A nuclear explosion in space can paralyze an entire country - including its armed forces.

The Soviets, on the other hand, relied on systems in which a space weapon (Istrebitel Sputnik) was placed into orbit using a rocket and maneuvered to the target. There the weapon was supposed to destroy the enemy object with shrapnel. The system entered service in 1973.

In response, the US developed its own anti-satellite system five years later. Space armament in the United States picked up steam again after 1983, when President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI had something similar to "Star Wars": The missile defense program intended to destroy enemy missiles with futuristic laser weapons. Small, steerable satellites would later take over this task. The USA also tested rockets that were intended to destroy satellites in space. But the program had one major disadvantage: its astronomical costs.

Although Moscow resumed tests with Istrebitel Sputnik in the late 1970s, it stopped them again in 1983 - just as the USA began SDI. The Kremlin therefore restarted the space weapons program. Further weapons testing took place in the 1990s as part of the Naryad program. They were working on a battle station called Polyus, which would use a laser, and on a defense cannon for the Almaz space station. In 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev stopped the programs - they were too expensive and their benefits too doubtful.

Despite the space weapons programs pushed by the two superpowers during the Cold War, measures were also taken to prevent the militarization of space. Several contracts were negotiated between the 1960s and 1980s. The most important is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which regulates the military use of outer space. 107 states have now ratified it (as of 2017). It stipulates that outer space is available to all states for peaceful use. It also prohibits the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in orbit as well as military installations and exercises on all celestial bodies, including the moon. Taking (partial) possession of space is also prohibited.

But the contract is not perfect. For example, there are no regulations on nuclear tests in space, the stationing of conventional weapons, the use of military satellites or the passage of rockets through space. Shooting down objects in space is also not explicitly prohibited.

However, an update appears necessary, as shown by recent reports that Russia is planning to deploy nuclear weapons in space. Since the end of the Cold War, various countries have continued to research weapon systems for orbit. The USA was working on new anti-satellite technologies. Like the USA, Russia is working on so-called directed energy weapons that are intended to disrupt satellites or render them inoperable.

In addition to Russia and the USA, China and India are also investing in space weapons. In 2007, China destroyed its own weather satellite Fengyun-1C at an altitude of 860 kilometers during a test. The USA suspects that China has made significant technological developments since then and can interfere with US satellites. India's Prime Minister announced the first successful ASAT test in 2019. And when Donald Trump was still president, he proposed the creation of “Space Forces,” arguing that the U.S. needed to have “space supremacy.”

In recent years, there have been repeated efforts at the United Nations level to find ways to prevent an arms race in space. Resolutions were repeatedly passed with large majorities.

In addition to a sustainable contract regime, peace researcher Götz Neuneck also calls for transparency and trust-building. Acts of war or catastrophes in space would have a major impact on the earth and would therefore not be in the interest of states. "The film industry's space wars should remain science fiction."

Sources: Götz Neuneck: “Arms race in space?” (From politics and contemporary history), Federal Agency for Civic Education, Living Museum Online, Diplomatic Council, MDR (1), MDR (2), "Der Standart", "taz", "Die Presse", Vienna Technical Museum, ARD alpha, German Society for the United Nations