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Jessica Citizen

When the Space Shuttle flew its 135th and final mission in July and retired without a direct replacement, some critics accused Washington of abandoning America’s 50-year orbital legacy. The Telegraph even called it a “retreat.”

Then last week, the U.S. government revealed new and formerly secret space initiatives that underscore America’s continuing orbital dominance. NASA announced plans for the biggest-ever rocket, set to launch in six years. Meanwhile, the hush-hush National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), keeper of America’s most secretive surveillance satellites, used the occasion of its 50th birthday to declassify its ongoing orbital eavesdropping campaign over Afghanistan.

Far from retreating from space, Washington is doubling down on its orbital force structure. The risk is this: with more and more of its critical capabilities packed into Earth’s limited orbit, America is increasingly vulnerable to a space counter-attack by China or Russia.

At 400 feet tall, NASA’s planned Space Launch System, depicted in the video above, will carry more, higher than the Space Shuttle it will replace. The Shuttle payload to Low Earth Orbit maxed out at around 26 tons. In its ultimate incarnation, the liquid-fueled SLS will haul up to 143 tons, balanced atop five main engines and two bolt-on boosters.

NASA estimates the gargantuan rocket will cost $18 billion to develop; skeptics say it could cost four times that. When it enters service in the 2017, the SLS will “ensure continued U.S. leadership in space,” NASA chief Charles Bolden said.

The SLS will be an “exploration-class” rocket with enough oomph to boost a vehicle out of Earth’s orbit. NASA wants to use the SLS to send astronauts to an asteroid no later than 2025 — and Mars after that. But there are possible military applications, as well. Just like the Space Shuttle, the giant rocket will be “dual use,” capable of carrying big military satellites in addition to purely scientific payloads.

Satellites like those unveiled by NRO boss Bruce Carlson during his agency’s birthday celebrations. The formerly tight-lipped Carlson told reporters that the NRO has launched six new spacecraft in just seven months — “the best we’ve done in about 25 years.”

The NRO’s secret sats have been busy spying on America’s enemies and rivals. The goal, Carlson said, is to “do sensing … in the daytime, at night, in bad weather, good weather … and sandstorms.”

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