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Science: Extra-Atmospheric War

5 minute read

It will not come in a year, nor perhaps in ten years, but U.S. scientists and military lookers-ahead are already planning soberly for war beyond the atmosphere. Eventually, they are convinced, the earth can be decked out with man-made satellites, revolving in orbits hundreds of miles out, keeping baleful watch with instruments on man’s little world. Even before that day, they believe missiles can be sent through the atmosphere’s outer reaches, and directed to hit any target on earth.

Such developments had been long predicted, but usually by freewheeling prophets or Buck Rogers artists who ignored an obvious deficiency: power supply. No known fuel contained enough chemical energy to lift a useful payload above the atmosphere. But new knowledge of the possibilities of atomic power (details secret) has changed all that.

Levels of World War III. Military scientists agreed that it was neither practical nor safe to try for the “ultimate weapon” in one jump. It would have to be reached step by step. Furthermore, war might come before it was ready, so the in-between steps had to be taken first, anyhow. The climb toward extra-atmospheric warfare would be in three stages.

First stage will be vastly improved airplanes stemming from conventional designs. If the scientists are right, they will fly faster than sound, climb to the lower edge of the stratosphere, be bigger and longer-ranged than anything now known. Their functions: patrolling, old-fashioned atomic bombing, fighting their enemy opposite numbers.

Middle Level. Chemical-fueled rockets, V-2 and its relatives, will fill the second stage of preparation for war. Thanks to the Germans, they are already effective weapons-in-being, known in Russia and Britain as well as in the U.S. If war were to start in five years, improved V2s with atomic warheads might be the dominant weapons.

At the end of the war in Europe, Nazi scientists had designed, but never tested, several advanced rockets. One, the Ag, had wings. When it plunged into denser air from the top of its trajectory, it was expected to glide for 1,500 miles before striking the earth. The A10, even more ambitious, was a composite rocket, weighing 85 tons. Part would drop off at 15 miles up, allowing the remainder, an A9, to reach an altitude of 165 miles. Theoretical range: 3,500 miles. The German A14 was still secret last week, which might mean that either the U.S. or Russia does not have its details.

V-2 type rockets will be intensively improved in the U.S., and presumably elsewhere. Radio controls are being refined; atomic warheads will make the pinpoint accuracy of World War II unnecessary.

Scientists are also busy on defense. The Army has a smallish rocket called GAPA (Ground to Air Pilotless Aircraft) “believed capable of seeking out and destroying enemy weapons.” Fired in salvos toward V2s picked up by radar, GAPA and its successors might “home” on them by magnetic attraction or heat radiation and destroy them high in the air.

Into the Blue. Ten years of uneasy peace, say military scientists, should bring outer space missiles close to maturity. By that time atomic power (looking constantly better) should give them enough energy to travel almost anywhere in space at almost unlimited speed.

Such a missile could easily be turned into a satellite. If made to move at the proper speed outside the atmosphere’s drag, it would settle itself on a stable orbit, circling the earth indefinitely. Such satellites might serve as observation posts or radio relay stations. They could be “called down” to their base (or upon an enemy city) by proper use of their atomic power plants.

Basic Research. These triumphs of technology, if not of cultural achievement, will require an enormous amount of basic research. During the war, the world used up its accumulation of unutilized discoveries in physics. Theoretical mysteries were left unsolved while scientists worked feverishly on practical applications like radar and atomic bombs. Now the nation’s research reservoir will have to be filled again.

This is being done. Government funds are pouring into universities and special foundations for laboratories packed with costly apparatus. The Navy is paying a Harvard astronomer for work on meteors, which had never before attracted an admiral’s eye. Both Army and Navy are. helping M.I.T. to study cosmic rays.

Both projects are typical of the push for outer space. Meteors are nature’s flak, which space ships must withstand. Cosmic rays, mysterious high-energy particles striking into the atmosphere from outside the solar system, are another kind of spatial flak. They play tricks with electrical apparatus at high altitudes, may do other damage which science needs to know about.

Cosmic rays, besides, are the only dependable source of “mesons,” subatomic particles of varying size whose properties are only vaguely known. They seem to be associated with the atom’s nucleus while not forming part of it. Scientists believe they may guide the world to a vastly more violent source of atomic energy.

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