In the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. began to develop anti-satellite aircrafts to combat Russia’s vast space expansion.
On 13 September 1985, Maj. Wilbert D. “Doug” Pearson, flying the “Celestial Eagle” F-15A 76-0084 launched an ASM-135 ASAT about 200 miles (322 km) west of Vandenberg Air Force Base and destroyed the Solwind P78-1 satellite flying at an altitude of 345 miles (555 km).
See Details: F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft shot down a satellite using air-launched anti-satellite multistage missile
Task & Purpose published an interview with Major General Wilbert “Doug” Pearson Jr., U.S. Air Force, retired. In addition to receiving the high rank of major general Pearson is the only pilot on Earth known to have shot down a satellite in orbit. Pearson accomplished this on September 13th, 1985, in the skies over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
On September 13, 1985, an Air Force pilot pushed his F-15A into a steep climb at near-supersonic speeds as he prepared to launch into history. The pilot had prepared many months for what he was about to do: fire a heat-seeking missile towards a satellite the size of a 1969 Volkswagen as it hurtled through orbit at five miles a second. Basically, he was about to hit a bullet with another bullet, which would require absolutely perfect timing. But the pilot was ready for it.
“After we left the tanker, I started getting very confident we were going to make our timing,” said Maj. Gen. Wilbert “Doug” Pearson Jr. (ret.), who was then a major. “Everything was looking just perfect as we flew out to the launch point.”
The G-forces piled on as Pearson climbed 7 miles over the Pacific Ocean at nearly Mach 1. He was about 200 miles off the coast of southern California, but his target, an aging weather satellite, was still over Hawaii, more than 2,000 miles west. That was just fine for Pearson, whose aircraft carried the ASM-135, a missile purpose-built to hit that faraway mark.
At 38,100 feet, Pearson launched the missile, which blew through two rocket stages as it left the atmosphere. It then released a miniature homing vehicle that locked onto the satellite’s infrared image and rammed it at 15,000 miles per hour 345 miles above the Earth.
Pearson was too far away to see the hit or the 285 pieces of debris that scattered into orbit. Mission control back at Vandenberg Air Force Base also couldn’t tell him, since they were not using a secure channel and the event was considered classified. But the major had worked out a code with his friend Scott in the control room.
“I’m going to level off at 36,000 feet today,” Pearson told Scott before the flight. “You can tell me if that’s a good altitude or bad altitude. If you say that’s a good altitude, I’m going to assume we hit it. And if you told me that’s a bad altitude, I’m going to assume we missed.”
But when the time came, Pearson didn’t need the code to figure out what happened.
“When Scott keyed the microphone, he couldn’t get a word out because all the screaming and yelling at the control room totally overrode him,” Pearson said. “I had a pretty good idea we’d hit it at that point.”
The AGM-135 was the largest missile ever mounted on a F-15 Eagle. The weapon, designed by Vought was originally called the Prototype Miniature Air Launched System (PMALS). It was based on the Short Range Attack Missile, a nuclear-tipped missile used by the B-52 bomber. PMALS added a second stage and modified the missile to ascend straight into space, where its infrared-guided sensor package picked up the target and guided the missile into a collision.
The U.S. had built anti-satellite missiles before, but the weapons were land-based and couldn’t move. This restricted the weapon’s ability to shoot down enemy satellites. A fighter-based missile, on the other hand, could self-deploy worldwide to hit a specific satellite at a specific time. According to military space analyst Brian Weeden, the Air Force planned to purchase 112 AGM-135s and modify 48 F-15s to launch them, basing them in Washington and Virginia.
The program, though promising, was considered inflammatory and many believed would end up militarizing space. The program was killed in 1988, Weeden explained at The Space Review “due to a combination of Congressional restrictions on its testing, budget restrictions, and concerns over potentially igniting a space arms race with the Soviets.”
U.S. fears of igniting a space arms race may only have delayed the inevitable with the introduction of global positioning satellites such as the American GPS, Russian GLONASS, or Chinese Beidou, making anti-satellite weapons more useful than ever before. The U.S., Russia, China, and India have all tested anti-satellite weapons.
The U.S. SM-3 missile, designed to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles, also has an anti-satellite capability. In 2008 a SM-3 shot down a U.S. military reconnaissance satellite that had malfunctioned and threatened to shed a toxic hydrazine tank on reentry. The Ground Based Interceptor, designed to protect the continental U.S. from ballistic missile attacks, also reportedly has a limited anti-satellite capability. Worldwide, Russia has the land-based Nudol anti-satellite missile and what appears to be a AGM-135-type weapon on the MiG-31 Foxhound fighter. China destroyed a satellite in 2007 with an ASAT weapon, while India successfully tested a land-based system in April 2019.
The AGM-135 was a pioneering system but by no means the last. Although the U.S. is avoiding building mission-specific anti-satellite weapons for now, it seems inevitable the Pentagon will field such a weapon—if it doesn’t already.