“Space is a hostile place,” former B-52 bomber pilot and current Lockheed Martin employee Kurt Nelson told me. By this, he means that the cosmos is just naturally so, what with its radiation, its frigidity, its vacuum, its void. It’s rough out there for a satellite, the variety of aerospace object Nelson currently deals with. But if you add to space’s natural hostility that what Nelson calls “intentional threats”—weapons and cyberattacks that target stuff in orbit—it feels even more dangerous.
As you know if you get Space Force T-shirt advertisements in your Instagram feed, as I do, the US government is increasingly concerned about those threats and potential conflicts in orbit. Lately, Pentagon officials like to call space some word-soup version of a contested and congested warfighting domain. In an event that started September 4, the Air Force Space Command pretended there was a war involving space. This “Schriever Wargame” involved 350 people, who spent a week or so pretending it was 2029 and “a notional peer competitor” wanted to mess up operations in space and beyond.
If those details sound fuzzy, it’s because they are: All the interesting parts of Schriever stay secret. But it’s not hard to imagine what an Air Force Space Command might want to protect, and what another country or perhaps space pirates might want to sabotage or destroy, like satellites for communication, surveillance, timing, and navigation. Not to be alarmist, but modern life would buckle if the wrong satellite went down at the wrong time, screwing with electrical grids and financial transactions and our ability to talk to each other and navigate and generally live our lives.
That uncertainty is a big reason why Lockheed Martin has created a new facility, announced today, where customers both governmental and commercial will be able to run simulations and wargames using on 360-degree screens, test novel space software, and deal with VR versions of spacecraft. It’s called “Pulsar Guardian,” although no one is guarding any pulsars, which are just weird dead stars and, as such, are not in need of much protection.
I’m not allowed to go in to the actual Pulsar Guardian, which is located in Colorado Springs, home to multiple Air Force bases, the Air Force Academy, and also the Focus on the Family welcome center and bookstore. I am only allowed to go see its twin, a place simply called Pulsar, which has essentially the same tech and whose only real differences are superficial, like the color of the paint on the walls.
Pulsar lives at Lockheed’s headquarters outside of Denver, on a canyon-y, red-rock campus where turkeys cross Titan Loop, named after the missile, as I pull up to the main building. After walking down a blue-lit hallway where Lockheed projects are done up like movie posters (teaser lines include “Secure world coming soon!”), I walk with Pulsar Guardian’s guardians–Nelson and Christine Jeseritz—down a second hallway. It resembles the tunnels in Space Mountain, if those tunnels displayed floating digital worlds like “Immersive Collaboration” and “Engineering Visualization Services.”
When we enter the main Pulsar room, an Earth is projected onto a sphere above us. Nelson and Jeseritz settle into cozy white (space)ship’s-captain chairs in the center of the room, ready to show off Pulsar’s capabilities. But disappointingly, they can’t show me what they’d show an Air Force colonel. I am to get only the no-security-clearance-required NASA demo.
The lights dim, and the surface of the sphere shifts to that of Mars. A rocket fills the wall at the front of the room, and subwoofers project its roar into my chest cavity, where it resonates and resonates. Smoke piles unnervingly against the wall. I feel like it will soon enter my lungs.
This is video from the launch of the Mars InSight mission, which went to space in 2018. Soon, a simulated version of InSight is touching down safely on a Mars that wraps all around us. Mission control appears on all sides, personnel erupting in cheers at their mission’s success.
Finding myself suddenly at the center of this triumph, I do, despite my impartial observer status, feel like I’m there with them, and like I deserve to feel their triumph, too.
“LOCKHEED MARTIAN” the screen says at the end. It is a joke.
The Air Force (or whoever uses Pulsar Guardian, which is…also kind of a secret, apparently) is not going to sit around watching old videos that they can’t interact with. They want to use the facility to inhabit realistic, visual simulations of what’s going on—or what might go on—in orbit. That’s not the norm today, when people are analyzing happenings in orbit. “It’s a lot of people looking at streams of data,” says Nelson. But humans are pictorial, narrative creatures. And therein, cosmically, lies the rub. “It’s hard to visualize space,” says Nelson. And there’s not a great way to acquire an intuitive sense of how things work up in orbit. “We do most of our work on the ground,” he continues. Pulsar Guardian thus aims to give space-defense types a common picture, worth a thousand internal memos, of goings-on beyond the atmosphere.
But, like, what goings-on? It’s hard to get a super-straight answer about the situations that Pulsar Guardians might want to game out, but Jeseritz and Nelson point to a Defense Intelligence Agency report from earlier this year: “Challenges to Security in Space.” It largely describes China’s and Russia’s efforts to beef up their own spy and communications satellites, and their work on weapons that jam signals, cyber attack, shoot instrument-zapping lasers, slam into space vehicles, or gently sidle up and disable them.
All of that means US military space people want to be nimble and quick in ways they weren’t before. The people controlling, say, GPS III satellites may need different skills and tools than operators of yore. They may need to be more evasive. In Pulsar Guardian, they could simulate different scenarios (missile or malware today, Lieutenant?), practice their reactions, and find if they could use some new command buttons.
And that’s how Pulsar Guardian will conduct business: Outside organizations, like those within the Department of Defense, will bring Lockheed a problem. Lockheed will search the world for simulations and data that could help solve the problem. And then it will synthesize them into a wall-coating visual display, or a collective VR hallucination. “One company—Lockheed Martin—does not have all the answers to everything,” says Jeseritz. Some of the answers do come from inside. But others come from academia, where people have highly accurate models of, say, solar flares. Other times, as with tracking and mapping space junk, they may be a smaller company’s specialty.
In addition to that specialized stuff, Pulsar Guardian will use physics-based models—kind of like the Kerbal Space Program but for serious—of weapons and general orbital behavior. That could be useful if, say, the Department of Defense wanted to launch new weather satellites. Should it send a bunch of small, cheap ones to low Earth orbit, or a few beefier ones up higher? To find out, it could slingshot a simulation into Pulsar Guardian, watch how well each covers the globe, and project how often they’d have to dodge debris or replace their satellites. When it has that decision under control, it could test out the software that controls those would-be satellites. Will it stand up to a specific cyberattack? What happens when you thrust this way and they thrust that direction?
“We’ve got a sandbox,” Nelson says. “Bring your toys.”
Right as he says this, the ambient lights abruptly change from bluish to red.
“Huh,” we say in unison, then immediately adjust to this new-colored reality.
Outside this room, still inside the larger space called the “Pulsar accelerator,” Lockheed employees are tramping around the surface of VR Mars on VR “treadmills.” Goggles strapped over their heads, they each stand in the center of a low-friction bowl. Their hands grip the bars that encircle their torsos. They wear slick-bottomed shoes that slide up and down and around the bowl, propelling their fakes selves around the surface of fake Mars.
Would I like to try? the developer of the program asks.
I would, and I awkwardly join the Lockheed Martians, who already have their space legs, on the alien planet. I begin walking away from them and toward the rocket in the distance when I hear someone say, “It’s landing.” I turn, and in the fake distance, a fake InSight touches down. We fake-spacewalk over to it, as it unfolds its fake solar panels (right into my fake hip bone) and delivers a fake instrument to the fake planet’s fake red surface.
I nod: Very cool.
The simulation then overlays a timer and a start and finish line. A race is apparently about to begin: Who can get back to the fake rocket the fastest? GO! We waddle-run, sliding our feet and leaning hard against our personal railings.
I am in third of fourth place for a little while, feeling very silly about how Nelson and Jeseritz can just watch me fumble around in this whole other world while they stay invisible to me. I approach what I think is the finish line, but that perception was a trick of the fake light, a kind of false summit. And in the final, faltering steps between there and the top, an engineer runs past me. I come in dead last.
It doesn’t matter, I tell myself: It was just a game. I take off the headset and return to Earth.
When I leave Pulsar and give my security badge back, an email from the Air Force Space Command awaits me. “SCHRIEVER WARGAME CONCLUDES,” the subject line screams. “Schriever Wargame 2019 explored critical space and cyberspace issues in depth,” the body says. But as it was within the walls of Pulsar, those “issues” remain opaque. The outcome isn’t visible, either. It doesn’t even say who won.
Similar if smaller-scale wargames will play out within Pulsar Guardian, hidden down hallways, behind doors, within the bits and bytes of secret simulations. People will play out fake versions of a very real space race, one whose winner is also unclear, one in which no one really knows what the word “winner” means, and one whose finish line will likely always recede into the distance.