At the Uptown theater on Connecticut Avenue, the last great movie palace in Washington DC, there is hardly a spare seat in the house for showings of The Revenge of the Sith, the latest installment of the fictional Star Wars. But as George Lucas's epic draws to an end, in the real world, the so-called "star wars" is only getting going.
It started as a dream of Ronald Reagan, the Strategic Defense Initiative he presented to a disbelieving world on 23 March 1983, a Cold War vision of a space-based shield that might protect the US from an attack by Soviet long-range ballistic missiles. Critics nicknamed it star wars and said it could never work. A decade later, with the Soviet Union consigned to history, Bill Clinton attempted to do the same to SDI.
Within the next few weeks, however, George Bush, a champion of missile defense from the start of his presidency, is expected to sign a national security directive moving the US a big step closer to putting weapons in space. Not so, insists the Air Force Space Command, the prime mover behind the initiative. The goal, a spokeswoman insists, is "free access in space, not weapons in space". But the evidence suggests otherwise.
No other nation on earth is going to accept the US developing something they see as the death star. It's not going to happen. People are going to find ways to target it, and it going to create a huge problem.
Center for Defense Information
In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration canceled every Pentagon program that smacked of an offensive use of space. And in its anxiety to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, the historic cornerstone of arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, it also put SDI on the slowest of back-burners.
Today, however, the ABM treaty has gone, 11 September has turned national security into a paranoia, while North Korea is reportedly close to developing a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to hit Alaska. The largely pacifist Clinton policy of 1996 is about to be replaced by a far more forceful doctrine, designed to prevent what Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, once called "a space Pearl Harbor".
Space is already put to military use - and not only by the US - with satellites that gather data, speed communications, and conduct electronic eavesdropping. But these are not weapons in the accepted sense of the word; their purpose, it can be argued, is defensive and non-violent. Whether they are realistic or pure Strangelovian fantasy, the ideas now being kicked around by the Pentagon are a different matter altogether.
Killer satellites, which the US has been developing and that would disrupt or destroy in space an enemy's satellites are just the start. There is the CAV, the Common Aero Vehicle, a hypersonic craft launched in mid-air and swooping from space to hit targets up to 3,000 miles away with conventional weapons.
Another mooted weapon is the Hyper-Velocity Rod Bundle, nick-named "rods from God," consisting of tungsten bars weighing 100kg or more, deployed from a permanently orbiting platform and able to hit terrestrial targets, including buried targets, at 120 miles a minute, 7,200 mph, with the force of a small nuclear weapon.
A third weapon under study is a space-based laser, code-named Eagle, that employs space-based relay mirrors to direct the rays against ground targets. A fourth program would use intense radio waves aimed from space to disable enemy communications systems. Welcome to the age of the so called "death star". Not quite George Lucas, but near enough.
Yesterday's New York Times reported the Bush administration is also working on plans for American civilian planes to shoot down missiles that threaten them. The paper said that technicians were adapting three Boeing 767s with a device that would find and disable shoulder-fired missiles.
The best guess is that the Pentagon has already spent $22bn (£13bn) on space weapons research - although no one can be sure since much of it is financed out of a classified black budget. Some specific programs are said to have been canceled Equally likely, they may merely have been renamed.
A more pertinent question is why all the focus on space weapons, given the meager results of two decades of work on missile defense. Since 1983, the US has spent $92bn, and over the next six years plans to invest $58bn more, to develop a downscaled version of the space shield which was envisioned by Ronald Reagan.
But there is no guarantee even this will work. The first eight interceptor missiles have been installed at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force base in California. Hopes of declaring the system operational by the end of 2004 were dashed by failed launches in December and February.
Canada, meanwhile, has infuriated Washington by saying "thanks but no-thanks" to a US offer to participate. Analysts say the ultimate cost is certain to exceed $150bn.
But since 11 September, the US has been on a military spending binge. Just last week, Congress approved overall Pentagon spending, including on Iraq, of $491bn for fiscal 2006 - more than the combined defense budgets of the 15 next largest military powers. But in the open ended "war on terror", nothing is ever enough.
Far from souring the administration on missile defense, the earthly problems in Alaska and California have propelled US planners to switch their focus to space, even though an effective space-based system could cost up to $1,000bn - at a time when US counter-terrorism officials admit that the real threat is not a nuclear attack from the heavens, with missiles fired by a rogue state, but by a device brought into the country in a suitcase or cargo container.
In its space capability, as in every military field, the US is far ahead of any competitor. But as General Lance Lord, the head of Space Command, warned in September 2004, the US could be challenged by ground-based lasers, micro- satellites or disruption. "You don't need a peer competitor to compete in space. We may not have seen anybody today, maybe not tomorrow, but perhaps the day after that. I don't want it to be like 1957, when this nation woke up after sputnik was launched and said, "Oh my goodness, we're behind."
Such is today's neurosis. The mind set is the linear successor of the imagined but non-existent missile gap with the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
It is also an expression of the Bush doctrine justifying pre-emptive (or rather, preventive) wars, to stop a rival from threatening the United States or challenging it in military might. "We must establish and maintain space superiority," General Lord told Congress this year. "Simply put, it's the American way of fighting." And, critics say, it is the American way of making much of the rest of the world resent, dislike, and fear it.
They compare US behavior over space to its approach to the spread of nuclear weapons - and point to the latest review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to illustrate the diplomatic consequences. The 180-country gathering in New York earlier this month failed, not least because of perceived US hypocrisy. Do as we say, not as we do, was the message from Washington as it excoriated Iran over its suspected nuclear ambitions, while refusing to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty, and openly examining a new type of weapon , the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, (RNEP) to attack underground targets.
A go-ahead by Mr Bush for space weapons would be interpreted in exactly the same way. Yet Washington seems oblivious, or uncaring of the consequences.
As with the RNEP (which, experts say, would have to be a massively contaminating weapon to be effective) the military gains of bringing arms to space are small and the diplomatic downside huge. US officials say the new weapons could hit anywhere on earth in 90 minutes. Had the US been in a position to launch a weapon from space, they argue, instead of a cruise missile from a distant ship, the August 1998 strike against Osama bin Laden might have been a direct hit instead of a near miss.
But that ignores the cost, the military risks and the damage to international relations. Richard Garwin, a top US electronic weapons scientist, has estimated that a laser strike from space would cost $100m per target, compared with $600,000 for a Tomahawk cruise missile.
Theresa Hitchens, the vice-president of the Center for Defense Information, warns that a space arms race could increase the risk of war - what if an American satellite breaks down, the Chinese are wrongly held responsible, and one of their satellites is destroyed in retaliation? And why the rush, she argues, given that the status quo overwhelmingly favors America. Just possibly, General Lord may be right: one distant day, space superiority may be the only thing standing between the US and Armageddon.
Right now, however, it controls 95 per cent of the world's military satellites and accounts for two-thirds of the commercial space industry.
And more fundamentally still, nobody owns space, not even the US, for all its current dominance of the technology. The only international treaty in the field is a 1967 agreement, ratified by 91 countries, that bans the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space.
So why not celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the Reagan dream and draw up a new treaty banning all weapons from space, making sure that the fictional star wars can never come true? As the fate of the ABM treaty, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto agreement, the nuclear test ban treaty make clear, Washington hasn't got much time for treaties right now.
But things change fast. The US might have no rival now, but a major offensive foray into space sooner or later would almost certainly draw Russia, India or a fast-developing China into a space arms race. "No other nation on earth is going to accept the US developing something they see as the death star," Ms Hitchens says. "It's not going to happen. People are going to find ways to target it, and it going to create a huge problem."
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.