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Rods From God: The Truth of Call of Duty's Killer Satellite

E.T. Brooking | 5 Nov 2013 15:00
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It's the kind of scene that stays with you.

In the opening acts of Call of Duty: Ghosts, you assume control of an American astronaut who fights desperately to protect a space station from unknown assailants. That station, the Orbital Defense Initiative (ODIN), has the power to bombard the Earth's surface with giant metal rods launched at hypersonic speed. In the wrong hands, this weapon could threaten the world as sure as any nuclear arsenal.

Of course, you don't win. As you careen helplessly away from the hijacked ODIN, your suit burning away in the upper atmosphere, you watch as the station activates. Dozens of tungsten poles lance downward, accelerating so quickly that they exceed the terminal velocity of a bullet nearly 100 times over. Within roughly a minute, their first target - New Orleans - has been reduced to rubble. 30 more American cities eventually follow, leaving the United States a battered wasteland and setting the stage for Ghosts' story.

While the events of Ghosts are fiction, the ideas and science of ODIN are very real. Alternately referred to as Project Thor, hypervelocity rod bundles, and even "Rods from God," research into kinetic bombardment has enjoyed a colorful 60-year history among both science fiction writers and U.S. defense planners. While it has yet to move from design to execution, its underlying technologies continue to improve. And should a real-life ODIN ever be built, it would carry truly terrible consequences.

Between fact and fiction

Something brighter than a star showed through, a dazzling pinpoint that developed a tail and vanished, all in a moment.

A long blue-white flame formed, and held for several seconds, while narrow lines of light speared down from one end. Other lights pulsed slowly, like beating hearts.
The sky was alive with strange lights.

...On another night Harry might have taken it for a meteor shower. Tonight...He'd read a hundred versions of the aliens conquering Earth, and they all sounded more spectacular than this flaring and dying of stars and smudges of lights. Any movie would have had sound effects too. But it looked so real.

- Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, Footfall

Like many of the weapon ideas that emerged from the dark days of the Cold War, the idea of kinetic bombardment sounds torn from the pages of science fiction. In this case, the concept has danced especially strangely between these worlds. Even the first scientist to seriously study kinetic bombardment in the 1950s, Jerry Pournelle, would eventually leave the research field to become a sci-fi writer.

In the 1950s and 60s, U.S. and Soviet physicists each struggled to turn satellites into viable weapons. While the U.S. concluded early on that space weapons were "clumsy and ineffective ways of doing a job," both sides kept at it, with the Soviet Union even bringing parts of a system to final test. This competition only stopped with the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which firmly banned the militarization of space.

This weapon could threaten the world as sure as any nuclear arsenal.

At the same time, the idea of kinetic bombardment crept more and more into popular culture through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Among the most notable examples is Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which a weak, poorly armed lunar colonists ("loonies") declare independence from the powerful empires of Earth. In doing so, they repurpose an interstellar catapult - once used to transport grain - and fill it with steel projectiles instead. When Earth authorities refuse to allow the Moon to secede peacefully, the loonies pepper the Earth's surface with hypersonic pieces of metal that impact with the force of atomic bombs. After that, the Earth says goodbye to the Moon in a hurry.

The U.S. military found renewed interest in kinetic bombardment in the late 1990s and early 00s. In a widely reported 2003 document, the Air Force made it clear it wanted the "capability to strike ground targets anywhere in the world from space." That same year, the U.S. quietly changed positions to annul any treaties that limited its "freedom of action" in space. Distracted by wars abroad and troubles at home, however, the nation has had little time to work on killer space stations.

Today, the U.S. military seems to have again lost interest in kinetic bombardment - but popular culture sure hasn't. Traces of ODIN are everywhere: in Tom Clancy's EndWar, it's an American superweapon. It's Nazis who use it in Iron Sky, while it's Cobra who use it in G.I. Joe 2. It's a mod in Kerbal Space Program and a gag in Mass Effect 2. ME2's gunnery sergeant describes kinetic bombardment best: "[This is why] Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son-of-a-bitch in space!"

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