In the 1980s science fact and science
fiction looked as though they may become one when the American president Ronald
Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars missile defense
system. The program was designed to break the nuclear deadlock between the u.s.
and the Soviets and move beyond the threat of M.A.D or Mutually Assured
Destruction but did the nuclear physicist Edward Teller over sell the
idea to Ronald Reagan and only tell him what he wanted to hear. Even as the world
reacted to America’s new defense plan Tellers theories remained decades away
from forming a working weapon. So how did just the threat of Star Wars change the
world without it actually being put into action. By 1980 both the USA and the USSR
had been stockpiling nuclear warheads for more than a quarter of a century, the
Soviets having more than 30,000 from the US having over 20,000. The U.S. stockpile
had actually decreased since the mid 1960s as new missiles were both more
effective and more versatile nevertheless the superpowers were more
than capable of obliterating each other many times over. It was President Ronald
Reagan’s dislike of the M.A.D policy which he called a “suicide pact” that
drove him at his advisors to seek a new defense strategy. Their solution had to
effectively remove the threat of total annihilation but also allow the holders
of the technology, in this case the U.S. to use their weapons without fear of a
devastating counter-attack Reagan. Had been searching for a new way forward for
decades. In 1967 before he was elected the Governor of California he attended a
lecture at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in which the
hungarian-born scientist Edward Teller proposed using nuclear weapons to defend
against a nuclear attack. Teller known as the “father of a h-bomb” was
passionate about the capabilities of nuclear technology his famous enthusiasm
even made it onto the big screen as one of the sources
for the ex-nazi character in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy dr. Strangelove.
but it was Tellers ideas for harnessing the power of nuclear explosions that
would capture of reagan’s imagination and plant the idea for the Strategic
Defense Initiative. During a visit to NORAD in 1979 Reagan was told that whilst
the US could find and track individual missiles during attack they could do
nothing about it. Two years later Reagan was elected as
the American presence and immediately set his advisors the task of devising a
new concept initially a proposal called “High Frontier” was suggested a
combination of ground-based ABM’s or anti-ballistic missiles and a
space-based laser system to shoot down the incoming Soviet ICBMs but High
Frontier needed big advances in technology from a research project at
the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This project codenamed
“Excalibur” aimed to channel a controlled nuclear detonation in low-earth orbit
into a battery of expendable x-ray lasers, these lasers had to be powerful
enough to destroy incoming missiles in mid-flight before the warheads separated
although testing in the 1970s have been unsuccessful, on November 14th 1980
scientists detonated a two kiloton nuclear device in a kilometer deep
underground shaft that the Nevada Test Site and project Excalibur scored a success and the x-ray laser show promise. In the meeting where “High Frontier” was
presented to Reagan he reportedly lit up with enthusiasm on hearing the details.
Decades earlier the actor term president had himself starred in a b-movie about
an airborne laser weapon in the wartime film “Murder in the air” On March 23rd
1983 President Reagan appeared before the world on television to announce the
launch of the Strategic Defense Initiative. His speech made clear that the
program aimed to be a technological game-changer. The Soviet reaction was
outrage and condemnation according to the thinking that has led both sides to
build up stockpiles of a offensive weapons, defensive initiatives were
destabilizing as they threatened to shatter the existing balance of power.
Reagan admitted as much in the words of his speech this was a bold move and a
gamble. The Star Wars program was announced at a time when the USSR was
already in turmoil at the top. Three Soviet leaders have died in less than
three years, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov
and Konstantin Chernenko. On hearing of Chernenko s death Reagan reportedly
remarked “how am I supposed to get any place with a Russians if they keep dying
on me”. On March the 11th 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader
chosen as part of a new generation keen to revive a stagnant economy. Once in
office Gorbachev filled his cabinet with political allies who like him where
reformists. The new Soviet administration inherited of raft of strained
diplomatic situations including a proxy war in Afghanistan and the U.S.
redeployment of medium-range missiles across Europe. In November 1983 Soviet
representatives had walked out of arms control negotiations that year and only
agreed to resume talks in 1984 if a treaty banning space weapons was on the
agenda Gorbachev came to the bargaining table at the reykjavik Iceland summit
in 1986 with an offer to shrink the Soviet offensive nuclear arsenal in
exchange for cancellation of the Star Wars program. To avoid a new arms race
and save his economy Gorbachev had to neutralize America’s new technological
initiative but even as he tried to negotiate a end to the arms race at home the
Soviet defense industry was milking the opportunity to pursue their most
ambitious programs. Priority was given to Buran, the equivalent of NASA’s space
shuttle and its launcher the giant Energia rocket. This launch system was
conceived as a way to loft a range of weapons that could neutralize the
American SDI satellites such as the carbon dioxide laser called SkiF.
like Buran skif was symbolically important as it tested the idea that the
Soviet Union could offer a symmetric response to Star Wars. Energia’s first
launch was scheduled to put skif into space from May 15th 1987 as part of the
Polyus payload. Polyus was officially a science mission loaded with 10
experiments to carry out any upper atmosphere. Gorbachev himself visited the Baikonur cosmodrome before the launch to expressly forbid any deployment of a
weapon that might be seen as an act of aggression by US surveillance. However in the end skif did even less when Gorbachev it expected. When the Energia
rocket was launched and released polyus, a software error caused the payload to
rotate too far facing backwards polyus fired its engines slowing to
fall and breakup in the atmosphere Shortly afterwards. Although the Soviet
space laser never made it into a stable orbit Reagan had successfully bluffed
his opponent into developing and testing a symmetric response to a phantom threat. As the Polyus crashed to earth a major review of the american technology found
that the space borne x-ray laser still faced huge challenges and remained out
of reach. However by this time the US had effectively outmaneuvered the Soviet
Union forcing them into an arms race they could not win. While the American
economy enjoyed strong growth throughout the mid to late 1980s, Soviet
productivity fell further and further behind. By 1989 the USSR was in a death
spiral Gorbachev’s reforms had resulted in a
domino effect, the policy of glasnost or freedom of speech had led to public
criticism of the fathers of a communist party, destabilizing the state’s
legitimacy. Gorbachev announcement of non-intervention in Eastern Europe
resulted in Warsaw Pact countries calling democratic elections, then in
1991 the Baltic states ceded from the Soviet Union.
In December of that year Gorbachev resigned and officially dissolved the
USSR and the superpower but it kicked off the space race with Sputnik and had
launched the first man into orbit was finished. So as always thanks for
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