By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 11/10/2006 7:03:24 PM ET 2006-11-11T00:03:24
ANALYSIS

International frictions over space policy took a rising turn this week, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing unnamed countries — clearly meaning the United States and perhaps Israel — of "seeking to untie their hands in order to take weapons to outer space, including nuclear weapons."

Speaking Wednesday at a anniversary celebration at the headquarters of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, Putin continued: "Great harm to stability is caused by unilateral, illegitimate actions by some powers." In a separate newspaper interview, GRU Chief Valentin Korabelnikov echoed Putin’s specific warning: "Our attention is focused on the threats associated with the appearance of destabilizing weapons, including plans to launch weapons, including nuclear weapons, into space."

In semantics and timing, these warnings are tied to the worldwide uproar over the U.S. space policy released by the White House last month. Inflammatory accounts of that policy have hit a nerve in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere.

Far more frightening than the purported U.S. deployment of space-based weapons — an eventuality that space experts generally consider remote — is the knee-jerk reaction in Moscow, fueled by cultural Russian paranoia, to the widely published press predictions of such weapons.

Thinking themselves justified by such rumors, Russian leaders could instinctively respond by fielding dusted-off and refurbished space weapons from the Soviet era, along with militarized versions of dual-use modern space technologies. But if they did so, they would be sparring with a phantom — and might realize that too late.

It almost happened once before. In the early 1980s, some hysterical Western press reports about NASA’s new space shuttle and its supposedly secret role as a space combat ship, bomb carrier and laser weapons platform apparently worried Kremlin chief Yuri Andropov enough to initiate responses. By the mid-1980s, Moscow was gearing up for a shooting war in orbit, using space combat stations to forbid astronauts the right of overflight of Soviet territory.

It was all a miscalculation then, and was avoided due to unexpected evolution of the Soviet leadership. But now Putin — like Andropov, a former official in the KGB spy agency — seems to be likewise spooked by alarming press reports.

Calming his nerves calls for a vigorous reality check, but that tactic is rarely to be found in the press coverage of a crisis that threatens U.S.-Russian relations and especially raises concerns over the political viability of the jewel in the crown of U.S.-Russian cooperation, the international space station.

Stumbling over words
The Washington Post summarized the policy in the first paragraph of its Oct. 18 story on the national space policy. The new policy, staff writer Marc Kaufman reported, “asserts a right to deny access to space to anyone ‘hostile to U.S. interests.’”

And that’s the way most of the world consequently reported it, usually in quotation marks, without most reporters ever reading the original document.

Here are some examples:

  • An article by Lu Yousheng of the National Defense University’s Institute of Strategic Studies, published in Liaowang magazine in Beijing on Oct. 30, said that one of the policy’s "major points" is "wanting to prevent any state that is ‘hostile to U.S. interests’ from entering space."
  • Moscow's Planeta TV said on Oct. 19: "America assumes the sole right to deny access to space to any country hostile to U.S. interests.... Any space project from whatever country must be examined by experts from the State Department and the Pentagon and only then will the States decide whether to let it go ahead or to launch a countermechanism.... Bush’s latest space initiative is in blatant contravention of the international ‘Outer Space Treaty’ the U.S. joined back in 1967."
  • Yuri Karash of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics said on Oct. 27 that the goal is "to prevent the use of space by countries which are ‘hostile’ toward the United States.... America vests itself with the right ‘to prevent the development’ in other states of those technologies, industries and infrastructure which could be used to deny the United States absolute freedom of action in space. Does that mean that it can ‘legally’ destroy Baikonur and Plesetsk cosmodromes? Does America think that it has the right to conduct a strike against any Russian enterprise, which even is not producing but in principle is only capable of developing or manufacturing weapons for the destruction of artificial Earth satellites?"
  • Speaking at a space commercialization event in New Mexico, former Vice President Al Gore called the new policy "a very serious mistake" and denounced what he saw as a "hubristic" flaw: "We in the United States of America may claim that we alone can determine who goes into space and who doesn’t, what it’s used for and what it’s not used for, and we may claim it effectively as our own dominion to the exclusion, when we wish to exclude them, of all others." That was his interpretation of the policy.

This all sounds downright terrifying, especially since the unanimity of the comments create the impression of consensus. But the problem is, the wording of the Washington Post quotation is carelessly overwrought, and every subsequent citation of the story continued or even enhanced the misrepresentation.

The policy as reported doesn't talk about denying anyone access to space. Rather, the unclassified version, available on the Internet (PDF file), states that the United States will "preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space. ... and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. interests."

Compare this to the Clinton-Gore policy document 10 years earlier: "...the United States will develop, operate, and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries."

The key verb, "deny," is common to both policies, and neither policy is talking about denying access. That which is to be 'denied' is any hostile action by adversaries.

Putin and his military intelligence chiefs appear, with most of the rest of the world, to have fallen for the press misrepresentation of the policy, and with the accompanying commentaries by various experts that weapons testing in orbit could begin within a month, with operational deployment soon afterwards..And even though the orbital basing of nuclear weapons makes no sense, that too has been ‘in the papers’, and Putin seems to believe that, too.

Facing phantom frights
On a Moscow TV program on Oct. 19, veteran Soviet cosmonaut Georgiy Grechko expressed his negative view on the new U.S. policy. He declared: "It amounts to this — we, America, have the right to do whatever we like in space. And moreover, we have the right as well to limit activities by people we don’t like."

Since that’s not what the policy said, Grechko’s opinion is misinformed. And it’s not the first time — nor is it the first time such mistaken fears paved the way toward genuine dangers.

A quarter-century ago, the very same Grechko was making similar wild accusations of space war plans by the United States — that time, about the space shuttle. "We know that sights for laser weapons have already been tested on the first shuttle craft," he told a television interviewer. He asked American astronauts to pledge that "we will shake hands in space and not look at each other through gunsights, that we will not exchange laser blows but exchange information."

Grechko, as it turned out, had not dreamed up his accusation. He had probably read it in the Jan. 9, 1981 issue of Pravda, where a Tass correspondent in Washington referred to an earlier article in the Baltimore Sun and wrote, "One of the first tasks of the crew of the shuttle, after placement in earth orbit in March of this year, will be the testing of the reliability of an aiming device for a laser weapon."

After Columbia’s mission ended on April 14, the Soviet press reported as fact that the laser weapon aiming device had actually been tested.

But we can peel this rumor back layer by layer and deconstruct its origin. The original Baltimore Sun story (Jan. 7, 1981) was actually a Reuters dispatch that quoted "congressional sources" as saying that "one of the space shuttle’s early missions will be to test an aiming device for a space-based laser weapon." That "source" was probably an entry in the Congressional Record (Aug. 28, 1980) where a congressman had inserted (as so many do) a press article on the subject.

That story was an article in Inquiry magazine by journalist David Ritchie that referred to Pentagon plans for orbiting "a scaled-down version of Darth Vader’s Death Star" and added that the military "plans a laser test on one of the early shuttle missions." (The test, by the way, was a proposed experiment called Talon Gold, and it never occurred, neither on the first or any subsequent shuttle flight.)

Ritchie continued to publish alarming accusations about the U.S. space program. In his book titled "Spacewar: The Fascinating and Alarming History of the Military Uses of Outer Space," published in 1982, he declared: ''The Pentagon is now the virtual master of NASA in fact, if not in name.'' Ritchie also said the Department of Defense ''controls the shuttle.''

Such accusations struck a chord in Moscow, and the hard-line regime of former KGB Director Yuri Andropov saw a truly frightening development. The Soviet government came to the view that the United States was preparing a sneak nuclear attack in which the space shuttle would play a prominent role. Space experts began speaking broadly that American astronauts had ‘overflight rights’ across the Soviet Union only if "certain conditions" were observed.

Otherwise, they broadly hinted, they could treat a suspect shuttle just as they treated the lost Korean Air Lines passenger jet in 1983. And Moscow authorized the construction of armed orbital battle stations to enforce such prohibitions. ‘Skif’ was to carry a 1-megawatt carbon dioxide laser, and ‘Kaskad’ was to be armed with space-to-space missiles. A prototype battle station was launched into space in 1987, but by then Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist regime had realized the illusory nature of the original threat and had lost interest in such weapons.

Making the same mistake?
Amid what is starting to look like a 21st-century reprise of the original Moscow miscalculations, it’s too much to hope for the appearance of another Gorbachev. The Russians must be told, and told quickly and credibly, that the press accounts are inaccurate and unworthy of belief — and undeserving of counteraction.

Unfortunately, alarmist news stories are all too often the ‘spin of choice’ in general, and the preferred strategy in the case of domestic political infighting. But the threat of falsely sparking a genuine space weapons race through the cynical or just careless promulgation of myths of such an "arms race" is too high for business as usual, on Earth or in space. Launch the truth into orbit, and abort the myths — that’s the only safe trajectory.

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