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Last Updated: 06/14/2005
Rods from who?
Peter Krupa

A recent U.S. Air Force proposal suggests militarizing space. But why even consider opening up this can of giant, planet-orbiting, laser-firing worms?

There's a story by E.B. White about the future, a future in which the United States has developed a space weapon that makes even the hydrogen bomb obsolete. The space platform, they call it, and in the story a TV station tries to do an interview with the two soldiers stationed on the space platform.


Unfortunately for the world, the soldiers are bored with space, and in the middle of the interview they decided to do something about it:


"You feel like doing a little shooting, Obie?" 

"You're rootin' tootin' I feel like shootin'."

"Then what are we waiting for?"


The obvious target is the little blue marble down below, and so the world comes to an embarrassing end.


"There is, of course, mild irony in the fact that it was the United States that was responsible," says White's narrator with characteristic understatement. "Insofar as it can be said of any country that it had human attributes, the United States was well-meaning."


White was writing in the late 1940s, when the nuclear arms race was just heating up, so of course the story was a darkly humorous look at that looming insanity. But unfortunately, if written today the story would be quite literal.


A recent story in the New York Times outlined a U.S. Air Force proposal to militarize space. The most plausible part of the proposal deals with satellite-to-satellite warfare that would include jamming and destruction of other satellites, as well as defense.


But the long-range objectives of this multi-zillion dollar enterprise are much scarier. They include the development of Global Strike, a military space plane with the ability to deliver 1,000 pounds of high explosives to anywhere on the globe within 45 minutes.


Another program, nicknamed Rods from God, would "hurl cylinders of tungsten, titanium or uranium from the edge of space to destroy targets on the ground, striking at speeds of about 7,200 miles an hour with the force of a small nuclear weapon."


Yet another program would employ space-based laser blasts reflected off blimps and other satellites, and a fourth system would use radio waves to create orbiting death rays.


The possibility of a new arms race comes to mind immediately. And as David Wright, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, points out in Wired, the U.S. is the country with the most satellites in space anyway, so opening up this can of worms would likely backfire.

But aside from any complex world political argument on proliferation and the possibility of the U.S. provoking neighbors into reacting in kind, the simple question that should come to mind is: Why?

Why does the U.S. need the ability to drop a half a ton of explosives on someone's head on the other side of the world in under an hour? Why does it need to protect its satellites from threats that don't exist? And, taking an obvious lesson from last century, why invent new destructive technologies that we are sure to regret?


Someday, and like the space platform in White's story, these weapons will be sure to get out of control maybe not because of the bored high jinks of some underpaid military personnel, but certainly because of dangerous foreign policy or because of the technology leaks and parallel development by other countries that are bound to happen.

So why even start? Maj. Karen Finn, an Air Force spokeswoman, told the New York Times, "The focus of the process is not putting weapons in space. The focus is having free access in space."

Funny, White's narrator said something similar after the end of the world:


"It was inevitable that what happened, at last, was conceived in goodwill."

Peter Krupa is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor