The two seat SR-71 never got to fulfill its primary mission, thank goodness! Or is it an A-12?

I am never so glad my phone has a camera as when I am in Los Angeles. The city has an amazing density of bizarre and interesting sights just begging to be photographed. Admittedly, most of these were in Pershing Park on my most recent trip but the California Science Center’s parking lot has to have the most unique one. On a small plaque I read that the airframe I have always associated with the SR-71 “Blackbird” is actually two different aircraft (whose airframes do differ but I hadn’t realized the importance of that before). There I learned that the CIA used the A-12 for strategic reconnaissance while the Air Force planned on using the SR-71 for battle damage assessment after a nuclear war. It would fly over the decimated corpse of a country targeted by US nuclear weapons and report back on how effective the attacks had been.

This relic of the Cold War reminded me of a Cold War fossil that I came across recently: the “Dead Hand” of the Soviet Union. This included a constellation of satellites that I believe the Soviet Union put in orbit around the Earth to record and rebroadcast nuclear launch orders after Moscow was destroyed. The “fossilized” remains of these satellites are buried in the “bump” of objects around 1450 km altitude:


The altitude of objects in low Earth orbit. The arrow indicates the orbit of the Dead Hand system

Russia has gone on to continue launching satellites into these orbits as part of a commercial “Record and Broadcast system.” I’m not sure what the business model is for such satellites and if any wonk-readers understand it, I’d be glad to know.

It would be fun to say that these two systems represent the national characters of these countries: the SR-71 represents the “optimistic” US while the Dead Hand represents the “fatalistic” Russians. But I suspect that both countries had battle damage assessment and automated launch code release systems, we just haven’t discovered those relics yet. In any case, I find both systems equally bizarre if in different ways.