Original Sin: Power, Technology and War in Outer Space

  • Published

Original Sin: Power, Technology and War in Outer Space by Bleddyn E. Bowen. Oxford University Press, 2023, 256 pp.

In his speech at the February 1957 astronautics symposium, US Air Force General Bernard Schriever detailed a vision of the important role outer space might play in the United States’ national security. “In the long haul,” Schriever predicted, “our safety as a nation may depend upon our achieving ‘space superiority.’ Several decades from now the important battles may not be sea battles or air battles, but space battles.”1 At the time, Schriever’s comments appeared to challenge then-existing Eisenhower administration policy, which emphasized peaceful uses of space and sought to address potential Soviet space threats through diplomatic and international channels. A mere eight months later, the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the first human-made satellite, altered the political landscape. As Schriever reflected years afterward, “Suddenly, everyone got space-minded.”2

We have reached a new point in history in which the global public is once again becoming more space-minded. The recent formation of the United States Space Force; the private space missions by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other commercial space companies; the widely-reported uses of space systems in Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine; and the myriad ways in which space-based technologies are incorporated into modern life have all increased public awareness of outer space technologies’ invaluable role in both civilian and military operations. In examining our increasingly space-focused present, Dr. Bleddyn Bowen—space policy expert and University of Leicester associate professor of international relations—uses Original Sin to turn a critical lens on the past and to raise prescient concerns about the future.

Original Sin is premised on a damning idea: because outer space systems were initially pursued to “meet military-political objectives,” the entire history of space technology development has been tarnished by the “original sin” of space militarization (7). Bowen asserts that broader recognition of space technology’s dark origins and the ways in which military use and geopolitical competition continue to influence the space environment is a prerequisite to pursuing global political reform to create a safer, more stable space environment.

The first of the book’s three parts, “The Original Sin of Space Technology,” examines Bowen’s central theme by returning to the beginning of the Space Age. In chapter 1, Bowen describes the origins of early rocketry and its fruition in Nazi Germany’s pursuit of rocket-weapons; the role of nuclear weapons and the need to deliver them at speeds and distances impossible for existing long-range bombers in post-World War II rocket development; and the influence of both nuclear weaponry and intelligence collection on Cold War space competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Military interest in outer space was not, however, unique to the Cold War superpowers. Chapter 2 examines the space program development of China, France, India, Japan, and the United Kingdom, among others, demonstrating that each of these nations pursued space technology development for military and national defense purposes. According to Bowen, the original sin of space technology “does not just taint the dreams of Americans and Russians . . . but every major space power in the twenty-first century” (108).

In part two, “The Maturation of Space Power,” Bowen turns to space-based technologies themselves. Chapter 3 provides readers with a deep-dive into the world of outer space intelligence collection, detailing the history of satellite development for collecting signals intelligence, imagery intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and other forms of space-to-Earth intelligence. Satellite early-warning systems, such as the United States’ space-based infrared system, and their critical role in preserving international stability as “national technical means” of arms-treaty verification are also discussed. In chapter 4, Bowen examines space technology within the orbital environment itself. Satellite constellations—including global navigation satellite systems like the United States’ global positioning system, space situational awareness and space domain awareness systems, and the critical military and economic uses of these space system subsets—are the main topics of this chapter.

The third and final part of Original Sin, “Strategy in the Global Space Age,” is the most fascinating portion of Bowen’s work. Comprising the book’s last three chapters, part three focuses on the theory and practice of space warfare as it exists today and as it may exist in the near future. In addition to describing the systems and mechanisms of space warfare, many previously discussed in his earlier chapters, Bowen examines the tension between entanglement and independence in the space environment. Is a nation’s security better protected with open space systems that integrate easily with those of its allies? Or is independence—building one’s own space systems to ensure access and control—a better, though costlier, strategy?

Key to Original Sin is Bowen’s analogy of orbital space as a “cosmic coastline.” This idea, a central part of his previous work—War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics (2020)—cuts to the heart of military debate over the space domain’s nature and significance. Whether military space forces ought to be “brown water” (concentrating their efforts on littoral, terrestrially-focused operations) or “blue water” (emphasizing wider-ranging operations focused on the protection of space commerce) has been argued by a wide range of space strategists. Bowen persuasively contends that treating orbital space as a coastline and organizing both military and political space policy accordingly is prudent for the foreseeable future.

Bowen’s book is well-researched, his discussions of space technology and its uses thorough and informative, and his arguments regarding space warfare and Earth orbit as a cosmic coastline compelling. This reviewer’s only criticism is the book’s underlying theme that a militaristic original sin blights space technology in unique and pervasive ways. There is no denying the military origins of rocketry, the crimes of some of spaceflight’s original geniuses—including Werner von Braun in his former role as Nazi rocket scientist—or the connection between space technology and nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the idea that space technology as a whole is tainted by German and post-World War II American and Soviet military interests seems an oversimplification.

As mentioned, early space technology development was perceived differently by America’s civilian and military leaders. Schriever and other American military theorists certainly foresaw space growing into a warfighting domain. But on multiple occasions before and after the Sputnik launch, US civilian leadership—President Dwight Eisenhower and senior members of his administration and diplomatic corps—publicly proposed restrictions on military uses of space and various schemes of inspection to ensure that space launches were taking place for exclusively peaceful purposes. Though these proposals were rejected outright by the Soviet Union and, as a result, quickly abandoned by the United States, they show that early American policy related to space technology was multifaceted, rather than purely militaristic.

Further, the idea that a technology born of military interest or with prominent military application could be forever tainted seems to apply so widely and to so many varied fields that singling out space technology development for Original Sin’s titular opprobrium is almost banal. Other writers have also noted the symbiotic relationship between scientific development and military application.3 Should we consider the original sin of the sciences of astronomy, mathematics, or optical physics? Of computing? Of quantum technology? To echo Bowen’s biblical reference with another, does not the story of Cain and Abel also suggest all human technology is tainted—since, at least within the tradition of the three Abrahamic religions, one of the earliest reported uses of a tool is murder? This reviewer believes—and does not think Bowen would disagree—it is humanity’s nature, rather than some inherent predisposition from space technology’s development, that drives geopolitical discord in outer space. The original sin of space technology, as with all human innovations, lies not in militarized technological determinism, but in ourselves.

Regardless of quibbles over Bowen’s theme, Original Sin is an impressive work, providing readers a wealth of information on a critical topic in an accessible and, in comparison to many academic works on space law and policy, affordable way. Bowen’s comparison of orbital space to a cosmic coastline is a creative—and welcome—evolution of military space scholarship. This work should have pride-of-place in the book collections of Guardian and other military space operators, outer space enthusiasts, and space-minded members of the general public. To echo Schriever, as space becomes ever more important and we become increasingly space-minded, works like Original Sin will become even more significant.

Major Jeremy J. Grunert


1 Bernard A. Schriever, “ICBM—A Step towards Space Conquest,” speech, February 19, 1957, First Annual Air Force Office of Scientific Research Astronautics Symposium, San Diego, California, http://astronauticsnow.com/.

2 Bernard A. Schriever, “Military Space Activities: Recollections and Observations,” in The U.S. Air Force in Space: 1945 to the Twenty-first Century, Proceedings Air Force Historical Foundation Symposium, Andrews AFB, Maryland, September 21-22, 1995, ed. R. Cargill Hall and Jacob Neufeld (Washington, DC: US Air Force, 1998), 15.

3 See, for example, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance between Astrophysics and the Military (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2018).

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."