Big as it is, California's Mojave Desert isn't big enough for both the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The two are in conflict over which has the rights to the air space over the Mojave Desert, and the Air Force is winning. Last month, two F-4s bombed the airship operated at Goldstone Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Twice in the last six months a B-1 bomber narrowly missed the multimillion-dollar tracking antennas at Goldstone, and in the last year Air Force fighters using electronic warfare devices jammed the signals coming to Goldstone from sapce as many as 60 times.
If anything, the conflict is escalating. The Air Force wants to expand its rights to Mojave air space, and the space agency is fighting it. The Air Force has the support of the Navy and Marines and the civilian space agency the support of the nation's scientists, whose military strength is questionable.
Despit some comic-opera overtones, the bombing was erious.
It happened July 8, when two F-4 Phanton fighter planes spread 20 bombs across a dried-out lake bed used frequently as a runway by light aircraft from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the deep space radio network at Goldstone for NASA.
On bombs fell no more than a half-mile from the five bigh-dish antennas that at the time were the sole radio links to satellites in orbit around the earth, the sun and Mars and one spacecraft on the way to the planet Saturn.
Even as the bombs fell a technician was painting a sign near the junction of the runway and a paved road that read: "Danger, Low Flying-Aircraft."
The commandant at the Marine Air base at E1 Toro, where the planes came from, grounded the pilots for two weeks, blaming the incident on "navigation error" and target misidentification.
Angry officials of JPL said that what that means is the Marines should have been dropping their bombs on a runway bulldozed on Navy property in Echo Dry Lake, 20 miles to the north.
The Marines replied that the bombs were "practice bombs" armed only with explosive caps, and said that they didn't consider the resultant six-foot-wide, two-foot-deep craters "serious damage."
The accidental bombing may have been the worst but by no means has it been the only time military aircraft have trespassed on space agency air space inthe Mojave Desert.
Twice in the last six months, the B-1 bomber has buzzed the JPL station at Goldstone. The second time was July 22, when the B-1 and a chase plane flew 200 feet over the heads of technicians deploying a tower to check the sky for radio interference from other military aircraft, JPL officials presume the B-1 was far off the course it normally flies on a test run over the desert floor.
A spokesman at Edwards Air Force Base, which the B-1 calls home and which is 60 miles southwest of Goldstone, explains:
"Course alterations are sometimes made and air turbulence occasionally will cause the pilot to come closer to an antenna than usual, but the B-1 has never overflown an antenna."
Whole they have never flown directly over an antenna, F-4 and F-105 fighter planes out of George Air Force Base south of Goldstone have flown enough "electronic" sorties in the vicinity to have interferred no fewer than 60 times in the last year with radio links the antennas have with spacecraft in earth orbit and in deep space.
Most times, the interference lasted no longer than two or three minutes, but one flight last October in which a fighter pilot is believed to have accidentally turned on this electronics countermeasure device disrupted radio communications with the Viking spacecraft in orbit around Mars for more than one hour.
Whatever information was being sent to earth from Mars during that one hour is lost forever. Viking scientists are thankful that the spacecraft was not in the middle of a maneuver or an emergency at the time. Had it been, the mission would have been lost.
"This is no joke," said Dr. Bruce C. Murray, director of the Jet Proplsion Laboratory, "This is very serious."
What JPL regards as most serious is an Air Force plan to move a gunnery range it as in Cuddeback Dry Lake 30 miles west of Goldstone to Superior Valley which is fewer than 15 miles from Goldstone.
The Air Force says it has to make the move because it needs more room to practice bombing and strafing missions. Superior Valley offers more room and is close enough to George Air Force base to the Air Force won't have to spend extra money on jet fuel. The Air Force says it plans to start construction on the new gunnery range next year.
One of the things JPL finds unacceptable about that is that fighter aircraft will be flying a lot closer to Goldstone's antennas with radar and electronic counter measure devices turned on that almost surely will interfere with signals from space.
Three spacecraft worth more than $1 billion will be on deep space missions in the next five years, one reaching Saturn in 1979, another leaving earth this Saturday for Jupiter and Saturn and a third starting out for Jupiter in 1982.
The Air Force says that starting in 1979 it plans 6,500 sorties a year at Superior Valley, many of them at night and in bad weather, when they will be flown with their radar on at all times. JPL believes that many of the 60 radio losses it suffered in the last year were due to radar interference from military aircraft, but can only guess that this is so.
"It's very hard to find out," JPL Director Bruce Murray said. "The military always says we didn't have any planes in that area, and it's usually a pilot who's in the area because he disobeys his orders or gets confused, like those Marine pilots who bombed us last month."
Not only in Superior Valley fewer than 15 miles from the antennas at Goldstone, but it also lies in direft line of sight of the antennas. A mountain blocks off the Cuddeback gunnery range from Goldstone, but no such obstacle stands in the way of errant electronic signals coming out of Superior Valley.
What's more, the targets at the Superior Valley gunnery range will be the same size as the 210-foot dish antenna at Goldstone. Pilots homing on targets by radar could confuse the Goldstone antenna for their target and conceivably fire missiles at the antenna.
"Don't forget, these will be training missions," said William H. Bayley, director of the Goldstone tracking operation. "These guys will be flying sophisticated aircraft, sophisticated weaponry and sophisticated avionics and attacking targets closer to our installation than the target the Marines were supposed to be attacking when they bombed us. I can't be sure these guys will know where they are, because obviously the guys who bombed Goldstone thought they were someplace else."
The fight over the gunnery range has escalated beyond George Air Force Base and Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the Pentagon and NASA. What are described as "negotiations" are now in progress. One source described the negotiations as a "battle royale."
NASA finds that any move that it not away from Goldstone is unacceptable.The Air Force says it must move because Cuddeback is too small and has too little air space to be of future use to them. The fight may have to be umpired by the White House.