President Carter signaled yesterday that he is worried about the United States and the Soviet Union fighting each other in outer space with weapons that Russia's Sputnik elevated from newsstand comic books to Pentagon drawing boards.
Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite which the Soviets launched in 1957, not only opened space to peaceful exploration but to warfare as well. Today, both America and Russia are working on space weapons.
One such weapon scientists on both sides are developing fires a pencil-thin beam of destructive light with pinpoint accuracy. Pentagon scientists, and presumably their Soviet couterparts, are worried that such light beams might become destructive enough to blind the Soviet Union keep in orbit to spy on each other.
Not only does the United States look down on Russia with picture-taking satellites like Samos and Big Bird to keep track of military activities, it also stations other satellites in orbit to record the heat from a Soviet rocket launch and pass a warning to American ground stations.
The United States in recent years also has built satellites for use in military communication and navigation, including helping position submarines and guiding their missiles.
Carter apparently feels that satellite warning systems help reassure U.S. and Soviet leaders. He became the first President yesterday to discuss the possibility of fighting with space satellites and disclosed he has tried to head off such a space war between the superpowers.
Carter said at his White House news conference that he has already suggested to the Soviet Union "that we forgo the opportunity to arm satellite bodies and also to forgo the opportunity to destroy observation satellites."
The Soviet Union already has launched a number of test satellites evidently designed to hunt down another satellite and destroy it be exploding nearby. Carter apparently believes existing U.S. Soviet treaties covering space warfare are not enough.
In 1967, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to ban weapons.
Also, the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty states that "each party undertakes not to interfere with the national technical means of vertification of the other party." National technical means is the diplomatic description for reconnaissance satellites.
Despite those agreements, Pentagon executives this year sounded the gravest public warnings the U.S. government has ever issued about the possibility of a war in space. Said Malcolm R. Currie, former director of Pentagon defense research and engineering, in his farewell posture statement released in January: "From the U.S. viewpoint, perhaps the most portentous Soviet activity in space is the resumption of their anti-satellite development program afte a hiatus of more than four years.
"The U.S.S.R. is seizing a new initiative," Currie continued, "and creating the prospects of a new dimension of military conflict - war in space. We cannot let them obtain a military advantage in space through anti-satellite weapons, because the consequences to the future military balance between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could be no less than catastrophis."
Currie said that the United States is now highly dependent on satellites that could become "important targets in times of crises. Although space has thus far been a sanctuary, it may not always be so. In fact, the demonstrations of a Soviet anti-satellite weapon may indicate that space is no longer a sanctuary for us."
Yesterday, the Pentagon's acting director for research and development, Robert N. Parker, disclosed that the U.S. military space program is being accelerated. He said $2.77 billion is earmarked for space programs in fiscal 1978, $478.5 million more than Congress appropriated last year.