Russia tested a space-based anti-satellite weapon earlier this month, the United States Space Command reported Thursday. The military branch suggested that this is at odds with a Russian statement that the mission of the craft was to serve as an “inspector satellite.” Geopolitics reached space more than 60 years ago.
According to the United States Space Command, Russia’s anti-satellite weapon is concerning for a number of reasons. “The U.S. State Department raised concerns in 2018, and again this year, that Russian satellite behaviors were inconsistent with their stated missions and that these satellites displayed characteristics of a space-based weapon,” the announcement said. “According to the Department of State, this behavior is hypocritical and concerning. Last week’s test is another example that the threats to U.S. and Allied space systems are real, serious, and concerning.”
International politics expanded beyond the land, sea, and air more than 60 years ago, in the early days of the “Space Race.”
Russia Takes an Early Lead in the Space Race
Geopolitics left Earth’s atmosphere long before Neil Armstrong took one small step for man.
“A key moment came on October 4, 1957, when the Soviets seemed to leap forward in the race with the launch of Sputnik, their orbiting satellite,” said Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“The impact on America was catalytic—the determination to ramp up technology and science to not be left in the dust. Some called it a technological Pearl Harbor, demanding an energetic response; U.S. spending on research soared [and] universities expanded.”
The Soviet Union took another giant leap in 1959 when it deliberately crashed Luna 2, an unmanned spacecraft, onto the Moon, becoming the first nation to “touch” the Moon. However, Luna 2 put some symbolic materials on the Moon as well.
“In addition to scientific equipment and sensors on Luna 2, the 390-pound craft carried a special cargo of geopolitical significance,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “These were medallions that flew everywhere after the ship crashed, settling onto the Moon’s surface. Each one of them was emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, the communist symbol of the Soviet Union.”
Kennedy Raises the Stakes
So how did the United States respond to this news?
“U.S. President John F. Kennedy responded by redefining the goal,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Now, the real prize would be sending men to the Moon and returning them safely to the Earth. With a keen sense for the power of images, Kennedy charted a new course.”
According to Dr. Liulevicius, Kennedy was heard to ask his advisers how they could leapfrog the Soviet Union and win the incredible prestige brought by the optics of superior science and technology. He also said that Lyndon Baines Johnson, at the time Kennedy’s vice president, was quoted as saying, “Failure to master space means being second-best in the crucial arena of our Cold War world. In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period.”
Of course, the United States’s effort to put a man on the Moon was realized through NASA’s Apollo missions. With the Apollo 11 mission, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969.
There has been no official word yet on how the United States will respond to Russia’s anti-satellite weapon specifically, though the announcement by the United States Space Command mentions the need for the Space Force in light of the test firing.
Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius contributed to this article. Dr. Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.