When China launched a missile in 2007 that smashed its own satellite into thousands of pieces, the international space community erupted. U.S. policymakers and experts pointed to the rapidly orbiting cloud of debris and declared that this event signaled a transformation in how the United States should approach space. In reality, however, the dynamics brought to light in 2007 represent a much older and deeper tradition in U.S. space policy.
Over the last 10 years, a consensus has emerged that space is a contested, congested, and competitive domain. Some observers argue that this consensus represents a major and recent shift from treating space as a “sanctuary” free from violent conflict. As I show in a newly published report, however, policymakers have worried about protecting U.S. satellites from threats since the dawn of the Space Age. Although they initially responded with a policy to make space a sanctuary, by the 1970s, U.S. policy pivoted towards treating space as contested and has never turned back.