The shadow of Sputnik

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Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, was the commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado from June 2006 until this week.

Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Union surprised the world by launching Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite, into orbit. The satellite’s unfettered “flight” over our country and around the world brought home the Soviet threat for millions of Americans, and it motivated the United States to regain the technological upper hand through education, advanced science and civilian-military aerospace efforts. Yet with the Cold War now a fading memory, the idea of defending space may seem quaint to many Americans.

In reality, the security of space is vastly more important today than it was when Americans were building fallout shelters and fearfully looking toward the sky. As a Chinese anti-satellite missile test earlier this year made clear, space-based threats are still very much with us. Space systems are vital components of our security, society and economy. Military and civilian entities are heavily reliant on services that satellites provide, and space operations are so pervasive that it is impossible to imagine the U.S. functioning without them.

Consider how much you rely on satellites in your daily life. Global positioning system satellites assist key industries, everything from trucking to warehousing, manufacturing, mining and agriculture. Economic interests such as international banking are heavily reliant on civilian space-based communication and precision timing systems. A quick visit to Google Earth will reveal a wealth of information available, thanks to satellites, to anybody with a laptop.


Some estimates place global space budgets and revenues at about $200 billion annually. The $21.85-billion space industry in California is the largest in the nation and accounts for 19% of the global space market. It provides more than 265,500 jobs and $13.4 billion in wages, according to the California Space Authority, which represents aerospace companies.

Not surprisingly, space technology is just as central to our military and security profile. We rely on satellites to verify treaty compliance, monitor threats and provide advance warning of missile attacks. It’s important to remember that every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman in Iraq and Afghanistan relies on space technology for crucial advantages in the field.

That’s the good news. But early this year, we experienced a shock to our space systems that is, in its way, more menacing than Sputnik. On Jan. 11, China successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon system, breaking apart one of its own satellites. The test created thousands of pieces of hazardous debris in orbit around the Earth. We now know that this Chinese system has the potential to put our near-Earth satellites at risk, and we are forced to look hard at how we protect our space capabilities.

The first step we must take to protect our capability to operate in space is to have better knowledge of what is up there. The Air Force Space Command has the responsibility to identify, catalog and track each piece of debris in order to minimize the chances of an orbital collision with either civilian or military systems. It does this through a worldwide space surveillance network that was developed during the Cold War.

However, today’s environment requires that we enhance our space surveillance capabilities. The Air Force and its partners in the aerospace industry are working to increase our ability to identify each object orbiting the Earth and to understand why it’s there, what it’s doing or capable of doing and what is the intent of the originating country.

Today’s challenges, not unlike those we faced 50 years ago, demand close partnerships between the military and industry. Industry continues to play an integral role in how we develop and operate our space capabilities. It is vital that we modernize current systems -- many are decades old -- to help meet the increased military and civilian demand for space capabilities.


The 50th anniversary of Sputnik reminds us of the challenges we face in the space domain. The Chinese test brought those challenges into sharp focus. When the Soviet satellite terrified our nation, we rose to the challenge and achieved legendary successes in the space race. Although we now enjoy a tremendous advantage in space, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.