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U.S. Plans First Warship in Space
June 1961 Popular Science

June 1961 Popular Science

June 1961 Popular Science Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Popular Science, published 1872-2021. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Concepts for the weaponization of space began long before the first satellites were launched in the late 1950s. Science fiction writers dreamed of battles in outer space to repel alien invaders, and war planners cogitated over such needs in warding off enemy attacks back when long-range rockets were in the design and planning stages. This "U.S. Plans First Warship in Space" from a 1961 issue of Popular Science magazine reports on the state of the art. Some of the countermeasures are comical, but were serious concepts being proposed at the time. I particularly like the scheme where an anti-satellite "warship" would essentially throw sand in the face of the offending craft in order to blind it's video surveillance capabilities. Another option would was to hit its camera lens with some spray paint. A robotic pair of bolt cutters might also snip off antenna elements, and maybe as a next-to-last ditch resort, a giant reflector could focus the sun's heat on the satellite and fry it to a crisp - like the old magnifying glass on the ant trick. If all else fails, a nuke would be dispatched to blow it to smithereens. Ah, the naiveté of youth.

U.S. Plans First Warship in Space

"Saint" Anti-Satellite inspects a satellite - RF Cafe

"Saint" Anti-Satellite inspects a satellite, as in coming trials. In likely design pictured, retro-rocket and umbrella-like radar antenna propel and guide Saint to within 100-foot range. As jets slowly rotate it, TV lenses and other sensors, amidships, scan the satellite in turn.

"Saint" anti-satellite will tryout design for a rocket craft that would intercept and knock out a foe's orbiting H-bombers

By Alden P. Armagnac

Military anti-satellite is in the making for the U. S. The Air Force reveals it is developing a crewless rocket vehicle to intercept an unidentified earth satellite, determine whether it is peaceful or hostile, and re-port the findings to our armed forces.

Spurred by the newly demonstrated possibilities of satellites as weapons, the high-priority $60,000,000, three-year defense program is called Project Saint, for SAtellite INspection Technique. It represents this country's first active step to prepare against warfare in space - whether cold war, or hot.

Four Saint anti-satellite spacecraft are being designed and built for Air Force trial by the Radio Corporation of America. Each will be the final stage of a three-stage rocket, with an Atlas booster and an Agena B second stage. From Cape Canaveral in Florida, the satellite chasers will be launched at three-month intervals, in tests unofficially expected to begin about December of next year.

Trial target for a Saint will probably be a 25·foot Echo-type balloon satellite, or a modified, angled version called a reflector satellite, put into 400-mile-high orbit just before firing the Saint.

For a kill, anti-satellites may wield weapons like these

For a kill, anti-satellites may wield weapons like these  - RF Cafe

Paint-Spraying Gun could blind a military photo satellite by coating its lenses with opaque paint - a possible cold-war tactic.

Hurling Sand or shot in path of satellite would simulate damage by meteor shower, and could serve for clandestine sabotage.

Solar Mirror would concentrate sun's rays to "cook" a satellite, putting its heat-sensitive electronic gear out of commission.

Nuclear Warhead could vaporize an H-bomb satellite at close range. At greater distance, it could disarm bomb by "neutron heating."

To intercept this 18,000-m.p.h. target, the anti-satellite will be rocketed into a position just above and ahead of it. Then, braked by a retro-, or backward-firing, rocket, the Saint will close in upon the target-and approach as gradually as by 10 m.p.h. to within 100 feet of it, for a good look.

The first four Saints will be unarmed. Their missions will be completed by inspecting the satellites - how, the Air Force doesn't say, but presumably with TV cameras, radar, infrared heat-detecting sensors, radiation detectors.

Later U. S. anti-satellites may be expected to be able to "kill" a dangerous satellite - either by destroying it outright or by subtler ways of disarming it. The Air Force reportedly is studying how to build this "destruct capability" into Saint's successors.

Russia, too, is believed to have an anti-satellite program under way. By unconfirmed but widely credited reports, it will be ready next year to "rendezvous" an interceptor with a satellite - and will be able to put an unwanted satellite out of business by 1963.

Here are the makings of combat fleets for space - of hostile actions and counter - actions, ranging from sabotage to all-out war. What are the incentives for this strange armament race?

Targets for Anti-Satellites

Saint will stand guard against the newly recognized danger that H-bombs could be orbited in long-lived Russian satellites-and then, by radio command at any moment, rained down upon the U.S. "For such a bombing system," a recent official report warns Congress, "satellite launchings could be conducted long in advance of a war, in a completely peaceful environment."

To drop a bomb, a satellite actually would launch a missile, which would use a retro-rocket to detach itself from orbit and head for a target below. Any doubt that this could be done was dispelled last August by the first successful U.S. recovery of a Discoverer re-entry capsule - and by Russian recovery of a live-animal capsule. Both were ejected from orbiting satellites, and directed to preselected areas on earth. The Russians claim they brought theirs down only 6 1/4 miles from the intended landing place; a sizable H-bomb as close could raze a target.

How Anti-Satellite Gets to Target - RF Cafe

How Anti-Satellite Gets to Target

Rendezvous maneuver launches Saint into orbit above that of satellite target, and it briefly becomes a satellite itself. At point ahead of target, it separates from Agena second-stage rocket (which has turned over to aim it backward) and checks its speed with retro-rocket. This makes it spiral down toward target. Homing controls regulate rocket engine and auxiliary jets for gentle approach to viewing range. Maneuver is simplest when Saint is launched into same plane as orbit of satellite-as in diagram and first trials - but alternate, dog-leg courses are feasible, experts say.

Preview of Saint's Launching - RF Cafe

Preview of Saint's Launching is given by photo of Atlas-Agena rocket combination, poised to put Samos satellite into orbit. Saint will use same rockets, and scene will resemble this.

Russia and the U.S. are both known to have studied H-bomb satellites. The Pentagon, so far, evidently prefers earth-based ICBMs. The Russians might decide differently.

That explains why it was disturbing news when, early last year, our radar "space fence" picked up what looked like the first mystery orbiter. The "black" satellite - which Russia hastened to disclaim - turned out to be only a Discoverer capsule astray in space. But the possibility of orbiting weapon carriers will continue to make any unidentified satellite an object of lively concern.

Space Blackmail?

Another possible satellite threat has been suggested. For cold-war purposes, suppose Russia launched a fleet of mystery satellites, and blandly announced they contained H-bombs. Whether they did or not, they could be used for international blackmail - if the rest of the world had no way of telling.

New menace of bomb-launching satellites spurs Saint project

Satellite-Launched H-Bomb Missile - RF Cafe

Satellite-Launched H-Bomb Missile, firing retro-rocket, would drop from orbit to target on earth. Diagram of trajectory, above, is based on official one in a recent report warning of possibility. Missile could be patterned after successful design, shown in cutaway view, of re-entry vehicle used to bring down our Discoverer space capsules from orbit for recovery.

First Object ever brought to earth from orbit was Discoverer capsule - RF Cafe

First Object ever brought to earth from orbit was Discoverer capsule. Photo at left shows it being lowered into heat shield that protects it from high temperature and shock of passage through atmosphere. Then parachute opens and lifts it free, for final approach to earth. Discoverer capsules range up to 350-pound size. Aversion not much larger (600 pounds or more) could hold an H-bomb.

U.S. anti-satellite was this 31-foot Martin rocket missile - RF Cafe

Forerunner of U.S. anti-satellite was this 31-foot Martin rocket missile. In pioneering 1959 test of anti-satellite guidance, it was launched from Air Force B-47 plane at 35,000-foot altitude off Cape Canaveral, Fla., and streaked to within about four miles of Explorer VI paddlewheel satellite in 160-mile-high orbit. Nose windows (in photo, covered before launching) were apparently part of a secret homing system.

Manned anti-satellites could use these designs - and tactics

Piloted Space Warships - RF Cafe

Piloted Space Warships could look like manned civilian spacecraft for rendezvous missions. Examples: joint Lockheed-Hughes design (top view), General Electric design (lower view).

Anti-satellite could snip off a satellite's antennas - RF Cafe

Spider and Fly: With mechanical arms controlled by pilot, anti-satellite could snip off a satellite's antennas to sever its radio control from the earth, and thus make it inoperative. "

Satellite would fall from orbit, bum up in air - RF Cafe

Sunk Without Trace: Towed backward to check speed and then cast loose, satellite would fall from orbit, bum up in air. Idea was first proposed to rid space of derelict satellites.

So a Saint will frisk a suspicious satellite for a nuclear bomb - possibly with a radiation detector, or perhaps with a nudge from its rocket exhaust, to see how far and fast the satellite bounces. That will tell if it is heavy enough to contain a bomb. Presumably Saint's armed successors would destroy or disarm an object as dangerous as an H-bomb satellite.

For a Soviet anti-satellite, obvious hot-war targets would be our military satellites - for communications, navigation, ICBM warning, reconnaissance. Might they also offer tempting targets for cold-war depredations?

Last January the U.S. Air Force launched the first of our Samos photo-reconnaissance satellites - which, when fully developed, should be able to take revealing pictures of Russian military installations. While the USSR has made no formal protest, its press is muttering that it will have ways of dealing with these satellites. Should a Samos suddenly and mysteriously go blind, it might be our first notice that Russian anti-satellites were operational.

Perhaps significantly, Samos has one of the first rocket engines that can be stopped and restarted in space - and so could try the first countermeasure against an anti-satellite. By restarting its engine and propelling itself into a new orbit, it could take evasive action to escape interception.

Satellite Killers

Anti-satellite weapons for a kill are likely to be decidedly unconventional ones, chosen to suit the target. Despite official silence on the subject, they can be quite reasonably predicted:

  • As unmilitary a weapon as a paint-spraying gun could be used to disable a photo satellite, by coating its lenses with opaque paint.
  • A large solar mirror would serve as a burning glass to "cook" the heat-sensitive electronic gear of a satellite, and put it out of commission.
  • Hurling sand, gravel, or metal shot toward an oncoming satellite could pit its solar cells and optical equipment, or even riddle it through and through. For dark doings in space, this would have the special advantage of simulating a natural meteor shower. A country whose satellite was the victim could never be sure whether there had been a clandestine attack upon its orbiter in space, or not.

More-violent weapons, or those that would leave telltale wreckage, might be avoided as too provocative for cold-war use. To cope with anything as warlike as an H-bomb satellite, however, a country would probably pull no punches.

Samos Photo Satellite - RF Cafe

Samos Photo Satellite (being made ready above) has inspired veiled threats in Russian press - and might offer tempting target for Red anti-satellites, believed under development.

A nuclear warhead will be likely to arm an anti-satellite for that mission. Its explosion will be blastless in space - but its heat and radiation will be all the more potent, for lack of air to absorb them. At 100 yards, an aluminum satellite shell of 0.15-inch thickness would be vaporized by a small one-kiloton A-bomb. The flood of neutrons from the same explosion would disable an enemy nuclear bomb at more than quarter-mile distance, calculates Prof. S. Fred Singer, University of Maryland physicist. Because these nuclear particles would release additional neutrons within the bomb, they should overheat it enough to damage its mechanism and make it inoperative.

Even a ray gun is not too fanciful to be considered. Recently the Air Force awarded a contract to the General Electric plant at Santa Barbara, Calif., to study the feasibility of "ion-beam projectors" as weapons.

For lack of blast, common high-explosive shells will be useless in space. Among conventional weapons, the few effective ones include machine-gun bullets and shrapnel or fragmentation shells.

Guided accurately enough, even an unarmed Saint could destroy a hostile satellite by borrowing one of the earliest naval tactics - and simply ramming it.

Start Already Made

Designers of Saint will build upon well-known principles, and a pioneering experiment.

The rendezvous maneuver Saint will use has been widely studied, because of its many applications in future civilian space missions: to assemble space stations in orbit, to dock spaceships at them, to go to the rescue of a rocket ship in distress. Suitable trajectories, starting either from earth or a "parking orbit" above it, have been worked out by space scientists in great detail. Already on the drawing boards are designs for civilian spacecraft, both unmanned and manned, to ply these courses.

From paper studies, experimenters have progressed to actual hardware. A forerunner of Saint was a 31-foot, air-launched Martin missile, dubbed Bold Orion by its maker. In a 1959 trial of anti-satellite guidance, this two-stage rocket hurtled to within about four miles of our orbiting Explorer VI paddlewheel satellite.

Convinced by last fall that an anti-satellite was feasible and needed, the Air Force outlined its requirements to 27 leading U.S. makers of spacecraft, and invited proposals. In December it adopted a still-secret design submitted by RCA for the four trial Saints, which are reputed to be of about one-ton size. (Later ones may be twice as large.)

The Future

Although early Saints will probably be limited to viewing a target satellite at a single pass, future models may permit repeated passes. An armed anti-satellite could first inspect an unidentified satellite - then, in response to a radio command, return for a kill.

Ultimately the future will bring manned military spacecraft - and space - war possibilities more fantastic than any in fiction. Encounters of killer anti-satellites on opposing missions, or of space destroyers with a manned military satellite, space station, or lunar base, may trigger anything from skirmishes to full-scale battles above the earth.

While space remains as lawless a frontier as our Wild West of other days, the U.S. has no choice but to prepare against space war. At the same time, it is actively seeking an international agreement - similar to one successfully negotiated for Antarctica - that would ban all military activities from space.

Thus, depending on the course of coming events, our Saint anti-satellites could be the prototypes for battle fleets in the wild black yonder - or for international space-police cruisers, enforcing the law and guarding the peace in regions beyond the earth.



Posted May 8, 2024

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