Low-orbit, crewed equatorial space control stations

Many think the idea of a military crewed space station is new. It is not. The Russian Almaz (“Diamond”) was a highly secret Soviet military space station program that began in the early 1960s. In fact, three crewed military reconnaissance stations were launched between 1973 and 1976.

These were referred to as Salyut 2, Salyut 3 and Salyut 5. To camouflage their real mission the three stations were designated as civilian Salyut space stations. As it happens, Salyut 2 failed shortly after achieving orbit, but Salyut 3 and Salyut 5 conducted successful crewed testing. However, the results convinced the Soviet Defense Ministry that this approach was too expensive. In 1978, Almaz was discontinued.

The U.S. also pursued a military crewed station known as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), also in the 1960s. This was part of the U. S. Air Force human spaceflight program at the time. The project was to develop a reconnaissance spacecraft that had a single use in which crews would stay for 30 days at a time.

The MOL program was publicly announced as an inhabited platform to demonstrate the utility of putting people in space for military missions. Seventeen astronauts were selected for the program and Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC 6) was developed to permit launches into polar orbits. However, in the late 1960s funds for MOL were reduced in favor of the Vietman War and the program was cancelled in 1969.

Today, we have excellent robotic reconnaissance satellites that can collect data from anywhere on the Earth’s surface. However, a primary mission of the U.S. Space Force must be the implementation of “space control”, the protection of orbiting U.S. national security assets.

This is now a most pressing issue due to recent developments by other spacefaring nations that are aggressively testing the willingness of the U.S. to defend its national security assets. Near-Earth space is already highly congested and contested. Russian and China have been developing offensive weapons that can surveil and attack spacecraft in orbit. Such activities cannot be ignored. However, the defense of orbiting assets is very challenging and complex. Ground-based deterrent methods are quite limited. This brings us to the question: “Is it time to revisit the use of crewed military space stations?”

We don’t yet know the answer, but we can speculate on the possibilities. Recent technology advances have resulted in the idea that such stations may best be utilized in orbits over the Earth’s equator and at altitudes that coincide with those used for military operations.

For example, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites are typically at altitude below 1000 km. Military astronauts in equatorial space stations can frequently observe all such satellites as they cross the equatorial plane, since all low-orbit satellites must pass through the equatorial plane every 50 minutes. In fact, such space stations could see everything in low orbits over 28 times per day.

Equatorial spacecraft have several other advantages. All maneuvers would be two-dimensional, requiring minimal usage of thrusting propellant. Servicing, refueling and crew changes could be done without launch window constraints. However, launch sites would be limited to equatorial locations for maximum payload efficiency. Nevertheless, this concept could evolve into a permanent deterrent to in-space aggression.

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