Earthlings, You Have Been Very Naughty

Star Bound №25: The Underview Effect

Bruce McCandless III
6 min readMar 27, 2024

Rocketry, Redemption, and Original Sin

Writing about the American space program involves two significant challenges. One is new. The rise of commercial space companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic has radically increased the amount and pace of information generated on the topic. To use a familiar metaphor, keeping up with space news these days is like drinking from a firehose.

The other challenge is roughly as old as orbital launches themselves: the fact that much of what America does in space is defense-related, and takes place behind closed…um…apertures. Granted, some very dated Department of Defense operations are now public record. For example, we now know all about the Air Force’s top-secret Lunex Project, which called for creation of an underground military base on the moon. Space fans are well aware of the Dyna-Soar orbital bomber and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, once-sexy Pentagon projects whose origins can be traced back to the days when Khrushchev was banging his shoe on a desk at the United Nations and promising that international communism would bury us. (News Flash, Nikita: You’re going to need a bigger shovel.)

Model Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the Air Force’s Skylab for spies (not to scale).

But a lot of Defense Department and National Reconnaissance Office work remains strictly classified, many years after such work has been completed. And given that at least half of the fifty-five billion or so dollars we spend each year on space technology and operations goes to the military or the NRO, we’re left with a big gap in our understanding of what, exactly, U.S. satellites and spacecraft are doing and why they’re doing it. Secret missions are part of our space program too.

In fact, if you read Bleddyn E. Bowen’s book Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space, published electronically last year by Oxford University Press, you may well conclude that secret military missions are the most important part of our space program. Original Sin is a good way to get a look at the history and thinking behind the machines our friends at the Pentagon — and military planners in Beijing, Moscow, and Mumbai, for that matter — are putting into orbit or planning to shoot down OUT of orbit. SATCOMs, ASATs, C4ISR systems and SSBMs, they’re all here — in excruciating strings of acronyms, at times.

Bowen’s thesis is that all space technology is tainted by an “original sin” — the fact that rockets were created in order to kill people. This stain sullies the microgravitational dreams not only of the U.S. but also of all the other Big Six space powers — Russia, China, India, Japan, and the European Union. “The foundations of space technology and infrastructure are rooted in imperialism,” Bowen writes, adding an ancillary sin just for good measure. “Space warfare is merely the continuation of terrestrial politics by other means due to the original sin of space technology,” he goes on to say, and “not even the remarkable and humbling images of [the Hubble Space Telescope] escape the original sin of space technology.”

Insert eye roll here. Repent, ye vile orbital observation instrument!

Bowen’s argument is suspect from the jump. After all, the first liquid-fueled rockets were built by an eccentric New Englander named Robert Goddard, who had no particular military inclinations. But even accepting the factual premise of his thesis, Bowen’s portrait of the evolution of space technology leaves out one crucial element of the theology he borrows from: Redemption. He’s not much interested in the scientific work that has been done in space. He doesn’t care that the presence of anorthosite in the moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts provides clues to the mysterious origins of both Earth and the moon, nor that our satellites have detected thousands of worlds in other solar systems, or that Hubble actually imaged that long-theorized phenomenon now thought to be at the center of most galaxies, a black hole. Neither discovery nor wonder fit into the author’s argument regarding the accursed nature of cosmic tech. Because this is true, his view of space exploration is perhaps as limited in its own way as the average flower child’s optimism that humanity is bound to find a home in the heavens because we’re all made of star dust.

Not the author of Original Sin.

But we’ve all heard enough of that. Despite his rhetorical excesses, Bowen does provide a much-needed tonic to notions of space exploration as “a spiritual quest, a rite of purification for humanity, a road to absolution.” Rather than surrendering ourselves to pie-in-the-sky notions of space as a uniter, as a sort of campground where we’ll all gather to sing a cosmic kumbaya, we have to face up to the fact that machines like the Falcon 9 and the Long March 5 allow the most powerful nations on Earth to be the most powerful nations in space, and the best able to exploit whatever resources can be ripped out of the moon or nearby asteroids. Far from an extraterrestrial Elysium, space is just as likely to be a battleground — and, quite possibly, a boneyard. Our politics have followed us into orbit, and will likely follow us further. We are who we are, and pretending that we’ll somehow forget our national, ethnic, and religious prejudices and affiliations in the near future just because we’re outside the Van Allen Belts is naïve.

Though I wasn’t a fan of the theoretical meanderings of the book, its recitations and refutations of scholarly writings from days gone by, I did find all kinds of interesting facts and recitations in the pages of Original Sin. The Pentagon commenced building satellite tracking stations in the mid-1950s, Bowen reveals, well before Sputnik flew. Four nations — the U.S., Russia, China, and India — have blown up satellites in orbit, creating large fields of debris hazardous to other space vehicles. America’s first successful satellite assassination came in May of 1963, when we destroyed an orbiting Agena D upper stage with a Nike-Zeus missile. After the Sino-Soviet split in the sixties, and before we became enemies of the People’s Republic of China, we were wary allies, sharing military intelligence and constructing a shared monitoring system in the mountains of western China meant to keep an eye on Soviet space launches. (Because, after all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.) Deng Xiaoping visited Washington and even toured the headquarters of the CIA, apparently at the invitation of a young senator named Joe Biden. In 2010, the space shuttle Atlantis evidently deployed a “lurker” satellite named Prowler, capable of sidling up to the satellites of other nations in geostationary orbit to surveil and classify them. Like so many other defense-related programs, including the U.S. Space Force’s X-37B orbital space plane, Prowler is a subject — and a satellite — that remains taboo to this day.

The X37B — We Think.

If you have an interest in space warfare theory, along with a taste for historical fact-finding, this may be the book for you. But fair warning: It’s not an easy read. You’ll need to dig in, and provide yourself with logistical support, including telecommunications, because you’re going to be occupied for a while. But the pay-off is worth the work. Original Sin is a mostly balanced, credible tour of military space technology and how we, and other space powers of the world, arrived at where we are today. Looking back at Earth from space may engender feelings of shared humanity and love for the planet — the so-called “Overview Effect,” as defined by space philosopher Frank White. Looking up from ground zero at the constellation of communications and surveillance satellites placed there to aid us in our seemingly ceaseless conflicts engenders what I would call, by contrast, the Underview Effect — the sinking feeling that maybe we’re not going to make it to the stars after all. But that’s okay with Bowen. He doesn’t even see the stars — just the vast dark spaces in between.



Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: