The satellite shootdown: the rest of the story
by Wayne Eleazer
|The main idea behind Space Test Range primarily was not to acquire a bunch of new instrumentation but rather to figure out how to network together and interface existing assets from the military services and NASA to meet specific test requirements.|
In the late 1980’s the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) conducted a number of fairly complex orbital experiments and planned others that would be far more challenging. SDI missions such as Delta 180, Delta Star, and Losat required specialized ground systems and innovative combinations of various different range assets, but missions such as the planned Zenith Star laser test would represent an order of magnitude increase in the range coordination and support challenge. Not only that, but the safety aspects of such tests had been all but ignored under the “little satellite, big sky” theory. Incidents such as the paint flake that became embedded in a Space Shuttle windshield indicated that the debris hazard in orbit was a problem; such space weapons tests were bound to make it a larger one.
US Air Force Systems Command decided that creating ad hoc networks as had been done in the past was both expensive and intrinsically limiting in nature. Test ranges designed to support land, sea, and airborne tests had organizations dedicated to figuring out how best to support such activities and it was time for space to have one as well. The concept was called Space Test Range.
The main idea behind Space Test Range primarily was not to acquire a bunch of new instrumentation but rather to figure out how to network together and interface existing assets from the military services and NASA to meet specific test requirements. It basically was a simple idea designed to handle complex problems. And the problems got more complex as time went on.
The Secretary of Defense (OSD) staff saw Space Test Range as a possible answer to a great many problems—if it could be made to incorporate just a few more requirements, requirements that grew all the time. All of the military services had some requirement for broad area tests, or for tests combining elements of air, sea, land, and possibly space assets. All of the services were describing their test requirements to OSD, and OSD, in its usual fashion, saw this as one big problem to managed centrally. But rolling these disparate requirements into one big, infinitely reconfigurable system was a significant challenge, to put it mildly.
The final kicker on complex requirements came from the OSD operational test people, who were figuring out how to test a fully-deployed missile defense system. The results of their assessments scared them: it probably was going to cost almost as much as actually fighting World War 3. And since it involved firing off upwards of 50 ballistic missiles more or less simultaneously, it might well end up starting WW3, anyway.
And it was not just the DoD that figured out that there was a big hole in space test and control activities either. One day I got a call at my office in the Pentagon from a gentleman who had been trying to figure out who could give his company “permission” to fire the apogee kick motor on their commercial comsat and move it from a transfer orbit to geosynchronous orbit. “Oh,” I said “what you are asking for is where is the Air Traffic Control center that can say to you ‘Roger, Comsat 612, you are cleared to climb from 625 by 22,300 nautical miles to 22,300 miles circular at 19 degrees west. Report when you have achieved your final orbit. Have a nice day.’” “Yes!” he cried, “That’s it! You understand!” I replied, “That’s easy. There is no such control organization. You are on your own.” “Thank God!” he responded, “Finally, someone gave me an answer! I have been calling all over the country and you are the first person who even understood my question!” Space Test Range potentially was the beginning of that “Space Traffic Control Center”, or at least the start of an organization that could understand and respond to that poor guy’s question.
The inability to even understand the question proved to be an insurmountable problem. Space Test Range may have been an idea borne of everyone’s needs but it was greeted with enthusiasm by virtually no one. The Army and Navy just wanted to go play in their own sandboxes. The SecDef staff kept rolling in more and more new requirements. NASA said that they would do their own space safety analyses, thank you very much. SDIO was interested in just getting their own tests done, not solving a much bigger problem. The Department of Transportation even complained that commercial requirements were not being incorporated in the system (not that there were any, as far as anyone knew). But the worst problem came from within the Air Force.
|Space Test Range may have been an idea borne of everyone’s needs but it was greeted with enthusiasm by virtually no one.|
Air Force Space Command was ramping up to take over the operational space role, and “Test” was not in their lexicon. Space Command had even eliminated “Test” from the titles of test ranges at Vandenberg AFB and Cape Canaveral AFS and often genuinely seemed to have difficulty understanding the very concept of a test range. At one meeting an Air Force Space Command representative even said that the idea if a Space Test Range was completely infeasible, since it implied a “Restricted Area” in orbital space, and satellites could not be told to fly around the restricted space as airplanes can. (Of course, the Space Test Range idea was to make sure that you did not hit satellites crossing the designated test area, not to force them to go around it.)
The anti-SDI types in Congress got into the act as well. Always looking for ways to hurt missile defense plans, preferably without being obvious, the fiscal saboteurs on Capitol Hill yanked the funding, citing “uncertainties in SDI.” And besides, an inability to test SDI systems would give them an excuse for defunding them in the future.
Faced with this kind of opposition, Space Test Range died quietly in the early 1990’s. It was just what was needed to accomplish the essential “netting of sensors” that a satellite intercept required. It looks like that for the NRO mission they figured out how to hook it all up—again.