I’ve mentioned that I’m a space nerd, but my interest extends beyond the normal civilian programs. If you know the history of the space race and of civilian space efforts, you know that they’re inextricably linked with military programs. Many military space programs have operated under cover of peaceful civilian ones. I write this prologue because I don’t want you to think that I’m interested in war and death. That is to say, I’m not just a space nerd; I’m a technology nerd. I’m all about the technologies, the efforts, the possibilities.
I’m fascinated with military technology. I’m not so interested in the intent of the designers or the creators as I am in the underlying nature of the objects and ideas.
And so I’d like to introduce you to Sprint and Spartan.
These missiles were part of the Safeguard program. This was an early anti-ballistic-missile program undertaken by the United States. It was a system of tracking radars, computers, and intercept missiles meant to protect American assets from nuclear attack. The missiles are what really interest me. Spartan would rocket into space to intercept warheads before they hit the atmosphere. Sprint, on the other hand, was a point defense, a last-ditch effort to destroy a warhead before it was in range of its target.
The logistics involved in intercepting a warhead are really something to behold. You have to track the warhead, plot its trajectory very accurately, issue launch orders, and have a missile with enough acceleration to meet the target within the desired kill zone.
Those challenges are hard enough for Spartan, but Spartan has the luxury of time — its target needed several minutes just to get to the kill zone. Sprint’s target was practically in the kill zone when Sprint launched. Sprint’s launch to intercept time was on the order of 15 seconds! 15 seconds to travel 30 kilometers from a dead stop. 100G acceleration. It accelerated so fast that it needed a heat shield that burned away in flight, just so that the rest of the rocket didn’t melt from the air friction.
Check out the video below. It gives you a brief outline of the whole system and shows actual test launches of Spartan and Sprint.