In the annals of military history, there are certain moments that stand out as truly groundbreaking. One such moment occurred on September 13, 1985, when Major Wilbert “Doug” Pearson of the U.S. Air Force achieved an extraordinary feat during the "Celestial Eagle Flight." In a daring display of skill and technology, Pearson launched an ASM-135A anti-satellite missile from the cockpit of his F-15A fighter jet, successfully intercepting and destroying the Solwind P78-1 solar observation satellite. This marked the first instance of an airplane shooting down a satellite in space, showcasing the innovative capabilities of the U.S. military during a time of burgeoning space exploration.
F 15E Strike Eagle - Flickr by Flyguy71 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/78624913@N03/7445610794.
Background: A New Kind of Threat
Long before the establishment of the United States Space Force, the U.S. military was already contemplating the potential of conflicts extending beyond Earth's atmosphere. The late 1970s brought concerns about Soviet killer satellites capable of targeting vital U.S. reconnaissance and communication satellites. In response to this looming threat, the U.S. developed a range of anti-satellite missiles to counteract potential attacks.
The Unconventional ASM-135A:
Among the innovative solutions developed was the ASM-135A anti-satellite missile. Unlike its ground-launched counterparts, the ASM-135A was designed to be fired from an aircraft while in flight. Testing commenced in 1982 with modified F-15 fighters launching "captive" anti-satellite missiles (ASATs) that were not actually deployed. These tests paved the way for more ambitious trials that would eventually lead to a historic moment.
ASM-135A - photo by the National Air and Space Museum
The Celestial Eagle Flight:
On that fateful September day in 1985, Major Wilbert Pearson embarked on the Celestial Eagle Flight, a mission that would become a milestone in military history. While piloting his F-15A, Pearson initiated a steep vertical climb to 38,100 feet, flying just under Mach 1 over the Pacific Ocean. This climb was essential for creating a small launch window for the ASM-135A. With nerves of steel, Pearson pressed the infamous "pickle button," launching the ASM-135A towards its target, the Solwind P78-1 solar observation satellite.
Aiming for the Unseen:
The complexity of the mission was magnified by the fact that the satellite was moving at a blazing speed of 17,500 mph, positioned some 300 miles above Pearson's F-15A. Despite not being able to visually lock onto the satellite, Pearson relied on ground control to provide confirmation of success. As ground control relayed the triumphant news, it became clear that history had been made – a satellite had been shot down from space by an aircraft.
Technology and Precision:
The ASM-135A's success was not a stroke of luck; it was a result of meticulous planning and advanced technology. The missile utilized two solid-rocket stages to propel it into space, enabling the miniature homing vehicle (MHV) to lock onto the satellite's infrared image using a telescopic seeker. The MHV, likened to a spinning tomato can, lacked forward thrust, emphasizing the importance of Pearson's flight path. He had to climb steeply to position himself beneath the target's trajectory, requiring pinpoint precision and timing.
Aftermath and Reflection:
The resounding success of the Celestial Eagle Flight sparked discussions and debates within the U.S. Congress. Concerns over the potential escalation of an arms race prompted lawmakers to enact restrictions on further ASAT testing. Consequently, the United States Air Force terminated the ASM-135A program in 1988, reflecting the delicate balance between technological advancement and international security.
Looking to the Future:
As we fast-forward to the present day, the Russian military's tests of the PL-19 Nudol, a "direct-ascent anti-satellite" weapon, raise questions about the U.S. Department of Defense's stance on space-based conflicts. With the advent of new technologies and potential threats, perhaps it is time for a reconsideration of the Cold War-era ASM-135A ASAT, a testament to human ingenuity and the ever-evolving realm of military innovation.
The Celestial Eagle Flight of 1985 remains an extraordinary milestone in military history, symbolizing the audacious spirit of innovation that has driven humanity's pursuit of dominance in various arenas. Major Wilbert "Doug" Pearson's success in shooting down a satellite from an F-15 fighter stands as a testament to the unwavering determination of individuals and nations to safeguard their interests, even in the vast expanse of space. As we continue to explore the cosmos, we are reminded that the sky is not the limit, but rather a canvas for the art of possibility and progress.