While trying to understand the prerequisites for the epic clashes for the conquest of space – towards which Artificial Intelligence today stands as an alternative of sharing responsibility for the downward curve of resources still available on planet Earth – I am reminded of a book written more than twenty-five years ago by Paolo Cortesi, in which he analysed the real aims of the space race that started in the late 1950s.
At that time everyone was convinced (or at least they let it be understood) that a new era was opening up for mankind by reaching beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and onto the Moon. Everyone declared that the conquest of the Moon would have decisive consequences in the cultural and technological evolution of our planet. Decades after that day, we can verify how inaccurate the emphatic predictions of that time were. Unfortunately, mankind has not changed for the better, if not for the worse, and evolution has not taken any sudden turns except in the technological sphere. The Moon has become remote again, and between the 1960s and the early 2000s, it has been of much less interest than it was a hundred years ago.
The affair of the so-called conquest of space – space is quite another thing – is emblematic of the entire history of astronautics. It was an infatuation, an intoxication as intense as it was swift, instigated by the two hegemonic powers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, which spent enormous amounts of money on it. The USA alone spent $24 billion on the programme that ended with the Moon landing. Just think that NASA’s budget for 1962 was set at $1.784 billion – and at the same time, the US aerospace agency had as many as 21,422 employees.
That dizzying investment was justified by scientific needs. As propagated, man was entering space. The era was beginning in which mankind would leave – at least ideally – the planet on which it had always been confined and astronautics would lead mankind to its full maturity. The reality of facts, however, was not like that at all.
Instead, the space race was an extension of the Cold War, but in the 1960s and 1970s saying so would have been seen as medieval blasphemy. It was preferred to present (sometimes impose) the heroic version of the Promethean man who wanted to wrest his dominion from the sky, the ultimate conquest of outer space. Westerners under the pretext that liberalism and capitalism would lead to everybody’s happiness; Socialists on their way to the bright future, the so-called sol dell’avvenire, from Heaven on Earth.
The truth was much sadder: Russian satellites were spying on the United States which, with the highly secret Corona project – the existence of which was only revealed in the late 1990s – had launched highly sophisticated photographic devices that observed the Soviet Union from above, etc.
All scientific rockets and launchers were conceived, designed and used for military purposes. Space became disturbingly crowded: on 30 April 1969, there were as many as 3,950 satellites in orbit. The Russian Cosmos satellites were launched as part of a vast new “space research” programme: this was what TASS declared – officially and very vaguely – on the occasion of the first launch (16 March 1962).
Nevertheless, if we consider the international political climate of the days when the Cosmos satellites were launched, we could discover very significant coincidences. The first Cosmos satellites were put into orbit when the Cuban crisis was breaking out and when it was tragically developing. In 1968, the monthly average of launches increased in conjunction with the Sino-Soviet crisis.
In March 1969 as many as six launches took place, and it was in that month that the bloody clashes between the Soviets and the Chinese along the Ussuri River for the conquest of Zhenbao Dao Island (Russian: Damansky) took place. In the following months, launches became routine, but in June, when there were clashes on the Western border of the People’s Republic of Mongolia, there was a close launch of five Cosmos missiles. When talks began between Kossighin and Zhou Enlai, the number of satellites put into orbit decreased to only two per month.
The parallelism between satellites and international events was too timely to be a coincidence. As has always happened in technocratic civilisation, the external, journalistic, popular aspects are filtered by an oligarchy of politicians and military to conceal the real aims – i.e. control, conquest, preparation for war, orders placed to friendly companies.
In the pioneering years of space travel, military spending was a bottomless pit that swallowed up rivers of money: in 1962, $121 billion of the time was invested worldwide in armaments; in 1967, the amount rose to $197 billion and in 1970 to $240 billion. The arms-astronautics intertwining was indivisible.
In 1961 the US Air Force signed a contract with Raytheon for the wartime use of globular lightnings (high-energy spherical plasmoids). Besides this shady flip side of the coin, there is another secret story of astronautics. It is the story of unreported tests, of hidden and denied failures, of top secret flight anomalies, of reticence and absurdities. Even today many truths are unknown to us. Despite the great changes that have taken place in recent years, the two superpowers’ archives are still far from being open and transparent.
Nevertheless, we can now less naively reinterpret an era that is our closest past, but which now seems almost alien to us, absolutely remote and sometimes incomprehensible.
The militarisation of space, however, has an older history than Moon landing. From 4 October 1957 to the summer of 1964 – that is, in just seven years – 235 artificial satellites were launched into space, 95 of which were still in orbit in July 1964: 74 American, 18 Soviet, two British and one Canadian. In addition to these devices, 328 fragments of rockets and spacecraft were orbiting the earth, almost all of them US-made. A large part of that space fleet was made up of military satellites, about which the strictest secrecy was kept, with all due respect to the usual idealists who believed that technological progress was for the benefit of mankind. In fact, at least half of the rockets and satellites that were launched in the early years of space travel were intended for an unhumanitarian purpose, i.e. to spy on the enemy and to put into orbit nuclear warheads capable of crashing on targets which, in that case, were not barracks or forts, but cities populated by hundreds of thousands of defenceless human beings.
In the 1960s, the two superpowers’ military spending was colossal: in the US budget for 1964/1965 it amounted to $55,211 million (note that the total expenditure was $97,900 million and therefore the military budget was well over half of the entire national budget). The “defence” item affected the US public finances according to the following figures, expressed in millions of dollars:
1962/1963: $52,800 million
1963/1964: $55,300 million
1964/1965: $55,200 million.
Of these amounts, the spending for the space race was the following:
1962/1963: $2,600 million
1963/1964: $4,400 million
1964/1965: $5,300 million.
As can be seen, investment was steadily increasing. The noble thirst for pure knowledge alone would obviously not be enough to justify and impose such substantial funding. Space was the new “battlefield” on which the two hegemonic blocs were confronting each other. We have not yet official figures available on Soviet space expenditure. A figure provided by the West is very eloquent: the Sputnik programme alone cost the Soviet Union 48 billion dollars each year (1961 data).
For more than a decade space travel was the large use of public money for the obsessive “national security reasons” that replaced scientific purposes, thus making astronautics a truly perfect example of what governments mean by the magic word technology. It is no coincidence that all the first astronauts, namely Gagarin, Glenn, Titov, Cooper, Carpenter, Leonov and White were officers of their countries’ armed forces.
In the early 1960s secret satellites were like a swarm of midges orbiting the Earth. It goes without saying that the word “secret”’ here is synonymous with “military”. The United States (about which we have more information) launched those satellites from the Vandenberg base in California. Almost all the launchers used in those years were Thor-Agena, a 19-metre high missile that developed over 68,000 kilos of thrust. Between 30 October 1963 and 8 October 1964, there were six secret US satellites. Much more hectic activity took place in the first four months of 1966.
Between January 1 and 26 April 1966, 36 spacecrafts were launched, 13 of which were secret US satellites. They were very often spy satellites, which had the task of photographing military installations of the Soviet Union and of other countries considered “unfriendly”. There were, however, also several satellites that carried radioactive material on board, both for batteries and for undeclared uses. These real nuclear bombs wandered around the Earth, posing a real danger not only to spaceships but also to life on the planet: a radioactive satellite crashing to the ground is not much less devastating than a nuclear warhead. But the delusional imagination of militarised technicians went even further, designing apocalyptic scenarios of real war in space, with apparent lucidity and rigour. President Reagan’s Space Shield or Star Wars (Strategic Defence Initiative-SDI) was only the subsequent step.
As early as 1959, the American De Seversky wrote: “Air power and space power are synonymous. Space above the Earth is the natural domain of the air force, which shall conquer the air and space domain in any future war by a well-coordinated and carefully conducted offensive by means of aircraft, missiles and, where necessary, satellites and spacecraft”.
In 1961, the French “Revue militaire générale” wrote that after the first phase of the warlike use of satellites, as observers to spy on the enemy’s moves, “a possible fight that takes place entirely in space may soon follow”. Bearing this in mind, for instance, the US “Air University Quarterly Review” of the summer of 1959 dealt with the Moon’s military potential in a series of articles. The articles mentioned a US Air Force officer, Homer A. Boushey, who – as early as 1958 – had argued for “using the Moon as a missile base from which a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union could possibly be launched”. General Boushey’s most demonstrative and convincing points were as follows:
“From the power viewpoint, it should be recalled that we must remember that 1/5 or 1/6 of the power required to perform the reverse operation is sufficient to launch a projectile from the Moon to the Earth. The Moon has the advantage that whoever is in the highest position has, according to old military tradition. A missile launched towards the Earth from the Moon can be observed and guided from the moment of its departure until the moment of impact. The opposite is not true.
A missile attack launched from the Earth can be observed from the Moon 48 hours in advance of the missiles’ arrival, which allows for a response. The Moon is a base of unparalleled value for retaliatory operations. If we had a base on the Moon, both in the event that the Soviets launched a powerful nuclear attack from Russia against the Moon two or two and a half days before attacking US territory (and such attacks would not escape observation), and in the event that the Soviets attacked the US directly, Russia could not escape our sure and massive retaliation that would reach it 48 hours later.” That Dr. Strangelove-style proposal was appropriately commented by physicist, Prof. Lee DuBridge, who recalled a very important platitude that – in his eagerness to line up nuclear warheads at the edges of lunar craters – General Boushey had missed: “If you dropped a bomb from the Moon on an Earth target, the bomb would take five days to reach the Earth. It would probably arrive when the war is already over”.
Then the following statements were made to try to remedy this: “It is therefore possible to consider elements of Moon potential in terms of psychological and technological warfare, as well as the development of new military doctrines. It is also possible to think of the Moon as a site for limited wars. The unconventional considerations made in this article are encouraging, as they may suggest a good investment of capital”. Fortunately, at that time there was not (nor is there now) sufficient capital to finance the establishment of even a small terrestrial military base on the Moon.
Military astronautics projects are a good illustration of certain mental paths: science and technology are docile servants of political expediency, which very rarely agree with the welfare and well-being of the peoples in whose interests they purport to rule. The Able Project of 1966 is a fine example of this. The Marshall Space Flight Centre in Hunsville, Alabama, developed a missile programme that aimed to put a 600-metre diameter mirror into orbit. That huge reflective surface would be positioned and tilted in such a way as to constantly reflect the sun’s rays onto Vietnam, to deprive the Vietcong guerrillas of the cover of darkness and make them easy targets at all times. Moreover, that “unlimited artificial day” would have destabilising psychological consequences on the enemy. The Able Project – which today appears to us as the ridiculous nonsense it was – kept Marshall’s engineers hard at work for months, under the direction of Edward Gray, a senior NASA official. NASA is a non-military government agency. The fact that it has been involved in wartime projects, such as the Able Project, says a lot about the alleged separation of civil and military bodies.
The early years of space travel are among the most mysterious of our century. Secrecy was the constant factor of tests, the military component of which was played down in a contrived atmosphere of scientific pioneering, fine words and bursts of science fiction bliss. Even the United States of America, which presented itself as the champion of freedom of information, crowded space with secret satellites. It was easier for the Soviet regime to work without being accountable to the public. Many of the Soviet space launches were never officially declared, and some rare news of them was learnt from the US intelligence services. In June 1963 NASA released a document based on observations collected by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). That document listed some space failures that the USSR had never admitted.
A spacecraft, launched into orbit on 25 October 1962, exploded and shattered into 24 metal fragments that orbited the Earth. The first of those wrecks disintegrated by friction in the atmosphere on 29 October. The last fragments continued to gravitate around the Earth until 26 February 1963. On 12 September 1962 (still according to US sources), the Soviets launched a PHI 1-7 satellite, which, however, fell back to Earth only five days later. A BXL 1-5 spacecraft was launched on 4 November 1962 and disintegrated sometime between 5 November and 19 January 1963. On 4 January 1963 three artificial satellites were launched from a Soviet missile base, the first of which remained in orbit for only a few hours and the other two until 11 January 1963. These episodes can never be part of the “official” history of space travel, because they never existed officially.
As much as it repulses the public today, the missile tests of thirty years ago were conceived and conducted without the slightest actual control by the citizens who paid out of their own pockets for the huge expenses of the space race. Scientists and the military – and they were often one in the same – designed tests without regard for their ethical aspects. Is it morally acceptable to intervene on the entire planet just because you have the technical means to do so? Is it lawful (or only reasonable) to alter the balance of the planet by compromising it for tens of years or perhaps centuries? In a delusion of technological omnipotence, magician-scientists imagined reshaping the Earth, like – for example – certain Soviet scientists who, in early 1961, planned to create a belt of potassium particles around the globe. They were to place 1.75 million tonnes (sic!) of potassium, at an altitude of 1200 kilometres, between 70° and 90° north latitude. That potassium cap would serve to “increase the solar intensity on Earth”. Soviet scientists evidently assumed that the planet’s evolution was incomplete or inaccurate, if they believed to be entitled to create something that had not been missed over billions of years. Fortunately, some projects were so megalomaniac as to be unworkable. Others, unfortunately, were not: we have already seen the case of the stratospheric nuclear explosions in the United States of America.
Speaking of nuclear explosions, it is interesting to examine one which, although it does not directly concern space travel, is a fine example of how little the experts’ certainties are reliable and how gigantic the imbecility of power can be.
In the autumn of 1968, the United States of America detonated a thermonuclear bomb called the “earthquake bomb”, the most powerful it had ever made. Its destructive power was equal to that of 1,200,000 tons of TNT, i.e. 60 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. The device was detonated in a cavity dug 1,200 metres deep in the Nevada desert. Experts had predicted that the seismic wave produced by the explosion would propagate within a radius of 400 kilometres. Instead, it exceeded 600 kilometres and was felt with terror as far as Salt Lake City, Utah, where skyscrapers swayed as if under invisible colossal hammer blows. Seismographs jumped as far as Los Angeles, and twelve “natural” earthquake tremors followed the tremendous explosion, which left a crater 90 metres in diameter and 20 metres deep. It would be interesting to know the purported reasons for that explosion, which cost several million dollars, whose only consequences were the devastation of the deep soil and its radioactive contamination. In the 1960s, however, technocrats and the military believed they were finally all-powerful.
Like spoiled, paranoid children, the new sorcerer apprentices had convinced themselves they were improving the world. In order to do this, they put Dr. Mabuse-style tests into practice.
On 9 May 1963 an Atlas-Agena rocket left Point Arguello, California, and its mission was described as secret. Only later would the USAF reveal that it placed 400 million copper needles in orbit around the Earth, forming a belt 40,000 miles in circumference at an altitude of about 2000 miles.
As the usual experts assured us, that planetary cloud of copper needles would be used for world-scale communications tests. The duration of the belt was expected to be about five years, after which it would dissolve without a trace. To date, we do not know if, how and when the needle mass was destroyed. However, knowing the so-called technicians’ infallibility, we could honestly have some doubts about the planned outcome of the test.
Nowadays, while – on the one hand – the technological advances recorded during the so-called scramble for outer space have ensured that the superpowers can spy on each other without many problems, on the geopolitical scene we are witnessing a transition from the bipolarism defined by the Cold War to the multipolarism of the current international space community.
As discussed in the book “Cyberspazio e Intelligenza Artificiale fra Occidente ed Oriente” (Cyberspace and Artificial Intelligence between East and West), which will be presented on 2 March at La Sapienza University in Rome (https://youtube.com/live/7-uVU5p3xfI?feature=share), interest in reaching the Moon not only through human missions but also through stations equipped with robotic means has had a revival with the new millennium.
Their promoters include not only States, individually or jointly, but also private entrepreneurs, especially in the United States of America.
Since 1969, with the presence of many players intent on demonstrating their technological capabilities, space has become an economic, political, military and perhaps even purely scientific centre of gravity, whereas in the early days – as examined above – science was only an incidental optional.
Considering the above, the following can be inferred: technological independence – understood, in this case, as having a comprehensive space programme available – is a sign of international prestige and an element to assert one’s political and economic leadership. High technological development is a driver of economic development, solidity, dynamism and industrial competitiveness.
The US leadership in the space sector is currently witnessing a surge in the People’s Republic of China through very fast technological development and the use of reverse engineering. Many Chinese missions show the high level of development achieved by China through a mix of cooperation and competition. Some believe that while, on the one hand, China has often reaffirmed its propensity for cooperation, on the other it also demonstrates that it turns the technical-national benefits of its space programmes into geopolitical influence.
We can add some convincing ideas to the above points I have tried to highlight in my recent book: space is the new element of competition and States’ interest in the sector could give rise to a reorganisation of international relations on a global level. The new role of international cooperation is defined, since if we have to look for new energy resources, we cannot make them come after a star war that first defines a winner-take-all, not least because in the event of a war very little would remain of our planet. New mechanisms of collaboration and division of the raw materials that are up there shall therefore be developed. Hence space diplomacy is certainly already in place, beyond the European terrestrial conflicts that concern issues that could have been settled long before. Nevertheless, the faint-hearted and fearful EU that had a duty to take action has done nothing about it except for hollow words and arms sales.
Let us go back to what we were discussing.
The renewed call for the “reconquest” of the Moon is obviously associated with the identification of the old protagonists, new States, national space agencies and international organisations, and new players that we will examine later.
The so-called privatisation of space is present in the US reality and is linked to budget restraint, which has forced NASA to outsource rocket and probe design to independent laboratories linked to it, as well as universities and companies with recognised know-how in the sector. Private companies operating in the aerospace sector are also present in other countries, but in the United States of America the capabilities and skills have been strengthened to such an extent that it is capable of developing its own space programme, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace and Eric C. Anderson’s Space Adventures. Anderson.
In any case the return to the Moon is the first step on a path to explore other parts of the solar system. At the moment the Moon appears to be closer, apparently only three days’ journey from the Earth. For the sake of comparison, Mars is almost a year away – just to say that Man’s “conquered” space is nothing compared to real space, but it is much in proportion to the raw materials we can extract from it.
The Moon provides an excellent base for truly scientific tests and should serve as a stimulus for advancing the technological and engineering capabilities of the nations involved.
Furthermore, the additional incentive for space exploration is the possibility of mining on the Moon and on various celestial bodies in the solar system to obtain fundamental minerals and other raw materials. It is hence easy to infer that the advocates of commercial space exploration consider mining a key factor for future missions.
We also need to consider the concrete feasibility of the aforesaid exploration given the very high costs of reaching the Main Asteroid Belt, extracting resources and transporting them to Earth, considering that the largest of them, Ceres, can be reached in about 28 days (259,195,741 kilometres at the closest point), using the fastest unmanned spacecraft ever built, which has reached about 400,000 km/h.
The incentive for investment and projects must also come from the legal instruments defined by some countries, i.e. the creation of an international space law, a new terra nullius, which is even better regulated than what has been instead developed for Antarctica.
Hence the new space race is really interested in the aspect of developing adequate regulation to facilitate the establishment of a climate of co-partnership, from a commercial and entrepreneurial viewpoint, among the players who would like to move towards the new frontier. The potential exploitation of space resources therefore opens up issues that require an agreed solution within the international community as soon as possible.
The aforementioned legal instruments – which we hope will give rise to a well-defined regulatory regime – could, however, stimulate the emergence of national regulations which, in the regime of freedom granted by the Outer Space Treaty – UN General Assembly Resolution 2222 (XXI) of 16 December 1966 – would end up triggering a dangerous race towards more favourable regimes for private investment and initiatives. Hence the need for a true international space law!
Moreover, given its proximity to the Earth, the Moon is well suited to become an experimental laboratory – but a laboratory to which every country can have access, and not only superpowers or private individuals with a lot of money. There are renowned scientists not only from the United States, Russia and China, but also from many other countries that have the right – and we have the duty – to ensure that they draw on these technological resources. A laboratory as a place where to live and prepare missions for the colonisation of Mars, the exploration and exploitation of the Main Asteroid Belt, and human missions to reach even more remote areas.
We must not forget that the Moon could be a source of water and oxygen extraction, as well as minerals such as titanium, aluminium, iridium and even some rare earth elements such as neodymium, although the most important lunar resource seems to be helium-3.
This gas produced by the solar wind and accumulated on the Moon’s surface over billions of years is present in very large quantities. It would be a good clean fuel for nuclear fusion reactors, as its use would produce a negligible amount of radioactive waste. In this regard, we should recall the complex regulatory framework in place for the exploitation of lunar resources, which provides for exploitation only for the benefit of mankind, and includes a whole series of limited activities to be carried out on the soil of our satellite.
In spite of the many failures of some missions not only to the Moon, but also directed elsewhere, and the awareness that the enterprise is not easy, the main reasons that drive the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, and some countries of the international community to attempt a return to the Moon in the near future are apparently – and hopefully in reality – technological and scientific in nature.
The challenge is the development of technologies that – repeating what happened in the past – will accompany the advancement of new architectures to keep a next-generation space station in orbit that facilitates less expensive exploration than in the past. Moreover, as pointed out above, the presence of the station on the Moon would also facilitate missions to Mars. Finally, returning to the Moon could contribute to a better and more comprehensive understanding of the development of the entire solar system.
The previous shelving of lunar missions and the development of public-private partnerships in this sector have given rise to the so-called new space economy in the United States of America. It will see a greater presence of private players, more so in the United States, as in China and Russia these activities are controlled by the respective States. By supporting and financially backing lunar missions, these private players will reduce the costs borne by the public administration, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s examined above. Furthermore, the sector will witness the development of start-ups and venture capital enterprises engaged in this field.
Finally, space resources are attractive to the private sector. We refer to those present on the Moon, as well as asteroids.
The new era of exploration – Moon exploration, at first, and later space exploration in its entirety – needs to be enhanced and made known to the general public properly and adequately so that the global community realises the positive impact these missions have on everyday life.
Artificial Intelligence will handle all this, including trips to the solar system with non-human but robotic crews.
Giancarlo Elia Valori