Back when I was a kid in the 1980s and 90s I assumed that one day governments would be able to spy on anyone from space. Where did I get this idea? From the odd sci-fi movie or three. As well as books like Future War and Weapons by Neil Ardley from 1981. The unnerving part? They weren't wrong.
In 2012, a U.S. spy agency gave NASA two spy satellites that were more powerful than the Hubble telescope. NASA was a bit dumbfounded. The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (the agency charged with operating our spy satellites) just had these things sitting in storage, and the message seemed to be: Here, take this old surveillance tech that's more powerful than you can even imagine and point them at space, rather than the Earth, as we were planning to do.
As we explored in a post about the 2013 PBS documentary "Rise of the Drones" yesterday, the ability of U.S. spy agencies and private companies to monitor entire cities in real time is now a reality. And logic would dictate that we have no idea precisely how advanced some of the secret spy tech now being implemented really is. But back in the early 1980s, kids were being told that these advanced technologies of tomorrow would only be used to fight the baddies—and it might even prevent war! Or so they said.
From the 1981 book Future War and Weapons by Neil Ardley:
To win any future war, a nation needs more than the best fighting forces and machines. It must also have as much information as possible about enemy forces and their movements. Nations therefore spy upon one another at all times to find out if any power is building up or moving its forces to start a war. In the future, new and highly efficient ways of probing secrets could reveal military intentions to all. This should help to reduce the likelihood of war.
Computers will play an important part in ferreting out enemy plans. Safe on home ground, intelligence experts will try to link their computers to enemy computers and communication networks and gain access to enemy secrets. The computers will also try to plant false information about the nation's own forces in enemy computers in order to confuse the enemy commanders.
Cyberwar, for lack of a better term, is indeed the relatively new battleground where so many governments and independent hackers are jostling for access to state secrets. But the book explained to kids of the 1980s that cyberwar will pale in comparison to the intelligence gathering capabilities we'll have from space.
Again, from the book by Neil Ardley:
However, the most able of spies will not be on the ground but out in space. Already major powers have reconnaissance satellites or spy satellites that fly over other nations. They send back pictures of the ground below and can detect missile launches. In the near future, networks of spy satellites will orbit the Earth. They will take pictures so detailed that even people will be seen in them. The satellites will be able to operate over clouds and at night, and they will even detect forces hidden underground or submerged at sea. Bombers or cruise missiles flying low into a nation's territory will be spotted by satellites, which will instantly report their positions to defending forces.
Further in the future, space command stations are likely to orbit the Earth. There military leaders could be safe from danger if war broke out below. However, it is likely that the war would extend up into space as well.
War in space? You mean up in the stars? Like in that movie about stars and wars that I just saw at the motion picture house? Sign me up!
Images: Scanned from the 1981 book Future War and Weapons by Neil Ardley.