JPEG - 17.2 kb

The Pentagon’s space-related research is not offensive, officials have told arms control experts and the news media, noting that the name of the branch that conducts much of this research makes it clear: the Missile Defence Agency.

They add that the Defence Department’s space-related funding is too insignificant — just three percent of the 440-billion-dollar defence budget
— to suggest the U.S. is preparing to "weaponise" earth’s lower orbits.

But even if space-related research and testing now appear like a few small sparkles in a black expanse, the anxiety they’re spreading glows like a full moon.

U.S.-based arms-control experts tell IPS they have seen real concern about a U.S. space weapon in the faces of Chinese scientists. Also expressing alarm is China’s state-run press, which of late has reported on a future U.S. "space bomber".

Although still in the early research stages, one of several prototype U.S. military space planes might someday have the capability to strike anywhere on earth within 30 minutes, say experts.

"The Chinese military has enormous stress about U.S. space plans at large," said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Centre for Defence Information, a Washington-based think-tank. "There is a debate about what they should do."

And the uneasiness over U.S. space weapons is not limited to one of the world’s fastest growing economies. At the United Nations, there was a tip-off last year about Washington’s near-space intentions. For the first time, the U.S. voted against a U.N. resolution calling for a permanent ban on deploying weapons in space.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union in the state of Florida uncovered hundreds of government documents showing that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force collaborated to monitor and plant moles within an international space-peace activist group.

The U.S. military’s renewed interest in space is on the verge of "breaking taboos", says Laura Grego, a missile defence expert with the non-partisan Union of Concerned Scientists.

Grego and Hitchins say there are "space hawks" in the George W. Bush administration and the U.S. Air Force, most prominently Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The space hawks have made it clear in numerous planning documents, some published before the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, that the U.S. needs to "protect space assets" and possibly establish "full spectrum dominance".

Then there is the Pentagon’s missile defence spending, up nearly seven billion dollars since 1999, to 11.1 billion dollars for 2007. In total, the U.S. has spent about 120 billion dollars since Pres. Ronald Reagan (1981-89) first proposed the space-based missile shield programme famously dubbed "Star Wars".

But the most tangible evidence that space weapons are science fiction no more, say Grego and Hitchens, are the tests, which now occur more frequently than just several years ago.

Last year, the U.S. Air Force launched the XSS-11 satellite, which weighs no more than a large man. The U.S. military claims the micro-satellite has the potential to approach and repair larger satellites. But experts suggest the XSS-11 could also be used as a "satellite killer".

Within the next two years, the Missile Defence Agency will try to shoot down a satellite with a missile. Also on the schedule are ground-based laser tests that will determine if energy beams can disable a satellite.

"A unilateral decision to deploy anti-satellite weapons into space is provocative," says Grego. "Other countries will notice. This is a very dangerous situation."

And "once (the U.S.) starts down that road", she argues, other nations are likely to follow suit and begin developing space weapons to counter the U.S.

Space-peace activists argue that the U.S. actually started down this road long ago, at the beginning of the Cold War, when Washington first began publicly calling space and the moon "the ultimate high ground", says Bruce Gagnon, director of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

The Global Network, which includes well-known professors and peace activists from nearly every continent, promotes a somewhat controversial theory — one that is gaining respectability, however.

They claim that hundreds of years from now, when the moon and Mars are colonised, future generations will look upon NASA as the Christopher Columbus of their day. And much like the Spanish Queen Isabella, the U.S. not only had the money to bankroll the exploration, but also to build an "armada" to protect its newfound wealth and resources.

This theory, believes Gagnon, has earned the Global Network some unwanted attention. After doing some surveillance last year of their own, the Florida ACLU discovered that NASA and the Air Force were targeting Global Network protests and meetings near the Kennedy Space Centre on Florida’s mid-east coast.

Freedom of Information requests were filed, and the full extent of the operation started to unravel.

"NASA states, in these documents, that they (also) have ’confidential sources’ in Britain and Belgium monitoring Global Network activities," says Florida ACLU attorney Kevin Aplin.

Why exactly are NASA and the U.S. Air Force worried about the Global Network? For now that remains a mystery. But Gagnon speculates that the Bush administration, which has called for a base on the moon by 2020 as part of its manned Mars mission, plans to monopolise the moon’s resources, such as helium-3, a byproduct of solar winds.

Scientists like Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt claim helium-3 can produce fusion. While it is rare on earth, Schmitt has said there’s enough on the moon to power the earth for hundreds of years.

Russia says it too wants a permanent base on the moon by 2020. One of its main reasons: mining for helium-3. China has a manned moon mission in the works for the next decade, as well.

Gagnon says the U.S. may seek to protect financial interests on the moon, or simply cut the moon off from anyone but the U.S.

Under the guise of missile defence then, weapons-equipped satellites will be deployed to secure the earth-to-moon corridor, he says. The 1967 International Space Treaty outlawed weapons of mass destruction in space, says Gagnon, but not weapons of selective destruction.

The advent of a well-guarded moon base that’s mining for the ultimate energy source may sound laughable to some, Gagnon concedes. "[But] then why is Haliburton building a drill for Mars?" he asks.

NASA, Royal Dutch Shell and the Los Alamos National Laboratory are also working on this project.

In 1989, the U.S. Congress commissioned a study entitled "Military Space Forces: The Next 50 Years". The study suggested that U.S. bases on the moon and armed space stations on either side of the moon will "lie in wait at that location to hijack rival shipments on return", wrote the author of the study, John Collins.

"There’s going to be a scramble for the moon by the Chinese, the Russians and the Americans," says Gagnon. "This is real. There’s going to be a conflict over it."

Perhaps the roots of any future conflict over lunar resources are just starting to take hold. The Aerospace Daily & Defense Report wrote last spring that the Missile Defence Agency will begin awarding "space-based interceptor" concept design contracts to industry teams in 2008.

A decision on whether to build a constellation of 50 to 100 weapons-equipped satellites could take place in 2014, reported the paper.