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The Shadow Space Race 192

vm writes "NOVA's recent documentary, "Astrospies," was written and co-produced by journalist and NSA expert, James Bamford. It details the U.S. Air Force's orbiting spy station program begun in the 1960s, the Manned Orbital Laboratory. Designed from a heavily modified Gemini 2 capsule and launched from a Titan III booster rocket, MOL was basically intended to be a Hubble telescope pointed at Earth with the sole intention of collecting photo intelligence on the Soviets using an impressive array of optics and gyro balanced cameras operated onboard by specially trained astronauts. The lab was never launched, however, due to the competing Corona unmanned spy satellite program funded by NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office. Partly spurred by the success of the Apollo missions, the Soviets, meanwhile, sent cosmonauts to its own succesfully launched spy platform, the Almaz. In addition to an onboard film lab and a space-to-ground image relay system, it included an alarming first in manned space exploration; a 23mm aircraft cannon — which is rather ironic in light of Russia and China's recent attempts to ban space weaponry. At a time when we're still unearthing details about the post 9/11 domestic spying debacle, it's a fascinating look at the history of technology used to look over our neighbors' fences." There is more to the story but what these sorts of stories always make me wonder, is since this was the 60s, what are they doing NOW!
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The Shadow Space Race

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  • by usul294 ( 1163169 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:01AM (#22405250)
    If you think about it manned space stations are rather unpractical (especially today). Photographic surveillance can be done just fine now with remote controlled, or even robotic systems. The US government has tracking stations all over the world, so that at no time is a satellite out of contact with America. I would be surprised if the US had any weapons on ships today. Weapons, ammo, and a remote firing mechanism take up precious space that could be used for better spying. Theres no threat of a Moonraker-esque space battle in the future, so having short range weapons seems kinda pointless.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by twrake ( 168507 )
      I link from the article about hints that an agent in British Intelligence was also involved perhaps a Commander in the British Navy??

      "No records were found for the other suit, identified with the spy- appropriate number 007. It still belongs to NASA, and the agency's plans for what to do with the spacesuit are still being determined."
    • A manned space station is generally not practical, yes. However for some things they are eminently practical. That is a very small subset, however.

      As far as weapons, as pointed out below, the Russians have stuff with weapons (or at least did), so having similar is not far fetched. Second, China is carrying out satellite attack programs. Not every battle (indeed very few) are ever like the movies, so referencing James Bond is rather out of point range.

      And finally, in space a pellet gun can be long-range with
  • by PYRILAMPES ( 609544 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:03AM (#22405282)
    Why not drop a couple of listening devices on the other countries spy sat recievers, monitor their communications, steal their passwords, then secretly control what they think they are controlling when they are looking at us looking at them while they are pretending that they are not looking at us when we are looking at them looking at us looking at them. Then we could send their pictures of us to them from someone else with a note about us not liking them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sm62704 ( 957197 )
      If they have good enough optics they could listen to enemies from space. All they would need was for the enemy to be in a room with a window. They could measure the vibrations of the window and turn the measurements into a reproduction of the sounds inside the room.

      Speaking of which, how is it they found Saddam Hussein in a couple of months but they can't find Osama seven years later? I'm starting to suspect they don't WANT to find him. How many spy satellites do they have now? Haven't they known where Bin
      • by Gulthek ( 12570 )

        Speaking of which, how is it they found Saddam Hussein in a couple of months but they can't find Osama seven years later?


        Because he's dead and they know it [whatreallyhappened.com].
      • If they have good enough optics they could listen to enemies from space. All they would need was for the enemy to be in a room with a window. They could measure the vibrations of the window and turn the measurements into a reproduction of the sounds inside the room.

        I don't think they in fact can do that. I think the length of an exposure and the necessary digital post-processing would pretty much knock it out. As far as I know we can't do that reliably with a terrestrial video camera today, because you need a long-range reflection to get adequate travel out of the signal. You need to use a laser.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        They'll 'find' him, but not until a few weeks before the US presidential election.
        • Man, the guys at Illuminati Headquarters must have the most [i]awsome[/i] conversations.

          "So, this Bin Laden fellow doesn't actually exist, you say?"

          "That's right. All a propaganda fiction, I'm afraid."

          "Won't that make us look like incompetent douchebags when we fail to find him?"

          "Don't worry! We'll just [i]pretend[/i] we've found him--more of that propaganda fiction, you know--and look slightly less like incompetent douchebags."

          ". . . "

          "And it gets even better! The longer we wait to 'find' him, [i]the more
    • by Schemat1c ( 464768 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:31AM (#22405532) Homepage

      Then we could send their pictures of us to them from someone else with a note about us not liking them.
      Or better yet we could send them pictures with their own toothbrushes up our butts!
      • Or better yet we could send them pictures with their own toothbrushes up our butts!

        Whatever floats your boat my friend.

        New toothbrushes can always be had. You'll never live down the photos of you having voluntarily placed a toothbrush up your butt. :-P

        Cheers
  • by Shivetya ( 243324 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:04AM (#22405284) Homepage Journal
    their currrent stance because.
    1. The US can do it so much better
    2. They will do it anyway and hope to hamper the US's ability to do it.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )
      Yeah, because if China wanted to fuck the USA they clearly wouldn't want to start a space arms race that'd rack up the US national debt and drain resources until the US collapses much like the Soviet Union.
  • Better than Hubble? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sm62704 ( 957197 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:07AM (#22405316) Journal
    a Hubble telescope pointed at Earth with the sole intention of collecting photo intelligence on the Soviets using an impressive array of optics and gyro balanced cameras operated onboard by specially trained astronauts. The lab was never launched, however, due to the competing Corona unmanned spy satellite

    First, I doubt the summary. Hubble was launched thirty years after the discussed satellite. I'm supposed to believe that the technology for optics, electronics, gyroscopes, etc didn't improve between 1965 and 1995? It could hardly have been a "Hubble pointed at Earth".

    If it wasn't launched because of a "competing" telescope, you can bet your ass the one they launched produced clearer pictures or some other, better capability.

    I held a clearance in the USAF (1971-1975) and saw stuff that is still classified. I wouldn't doubt for a minute that today, decades after the Carona, they can point a satellite at your house and count the fleas on your dog while looking through your roof.

    -mcgrew
    • by nagora ( 177841 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:28AM (#22405484)
      First, I doubt the summary. Hubble was launched thirty years after the discussed satellite. I'm supposed to believe that the technology for optics, electronics, gyroscopes, etc didn't improve between 1965 and 1995? It could hardly have been a "Hubble pointed at Earth".

      Actually, I remember that the week Hubble was launched (after many, many delays), it was described as "Basically an out-of-date spy satellite pointed the wrong way" by a scientist on the news. Obviously, though, Hubble has been upgraded since launch.

      I held a clearance in the USAF (1971-1975) and saw stuff that is still classified.

      That's what they told you!

      TWW

      • by sm62704 ( 957197 )
        held a clearance in the USAF (1971-1975) and saw stuff that is still classified.

        That's what they told you!


        They didn't tell me anything except that I could go to prison if I said anything. If some of the nerdy stuff wasn't classified, we'd have all heard of it by now.
        • by Z00L00K ( 682162 )
          OK! - Time to go to prison without collecting the $500 then!

          Sometimes things are classified just to avoid embarrassment and not because they really are a secret.

          • by sm62704 ( 957197 )
            Ah, but I never mentioned any of the things I saw, I just made conjectures. The "secret things" I was referring to was head-spinning technology.
    • by timster ( 32400 )
      Your history is a little off. Hubble was launched in 1990, not 1995. And it was heavily delayed... launch was originally scheduled for 1983, and construction was actually completed in the mid 80s. Serious design work dates back to the 70s.

      So I can totally believe that the military could have contemplated something similar in 1965. Whether it would have been successful is another question.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Orleron ( 835910 )
      [i]I held a clearance in the USAF (1971-1975) and saw stuff that is still classified.[/i]

      That's because they're probably embarrassed about releasing info on rocket powered elevator shoes and inflatable life raft bell bottoms.

    • by imsabbel ( 611519 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @10:25AM (#22406270)
      a) Hubble was mothballed for many years because of the challanger disaster. It was perfectly finished in the 80s
      b) They made 5meter mirrors before that.
      c) They had bigger lauch vehicles available (anybody know what a saturn 2, or even 5, could lift to a polar LEO?)
      d) They could use film. Earth is plenty bright to that low quantum efficiency doesnt hurt, and they would have a person up there to handle it. Hubble is using a decade-old ccd technology (the original before the retrofit operation was a technology now a quarter century out of date). Because they had to (observing dim objects, need for fully electonic path even though the tech was still immature).

      There are spysats around that are bigger than hubble, today, too. Just because we dont hear about them doesnt mean they dont exist. Hell, even the shuttle as we know was made to be as big as it is in order to lauch those spysats.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

        There are spysats around that are bigger than hubble, today, too.

        If there are - they aren't much bigger. We don't have an operational launcher that can hoist anything much heavier.

        Just because we dont hear about them doesnt mean they dont exist.

        That's the thing - we would hear something. It's impossible to hide a launch of a booster big enough to hoist a surveillance bird of any size. We might not know the exact orbit (though that can be found by other means [slashdot.org]. We might not know the exac

        • Well, basically that was all i wanted to say. I wasnt claiming that they are MUCH larger than hubble.
          Its just that in the public eye hubble is often presented as a unique archivement.
          Thats why a spysat "better than hubble" seems so unbelievable to them.
          I just wanted to put that fact in relation.

          • Except you didn't place that 'fact' (whichever handwaving you are referring to) into 'relation' (whatever the hell that means). In fact Hubble is a unique accomplishment - for several reasons that either didn't list or are unaware of. (For example, on orbit servicing. Or the number of different optical instruments. Etc.. etc..)
    • "they can point a satellite at your house and count the fleas on your dog while looking through your roof."

      That is eaxactly the problem with telescopes. Before you can count the fleas you need to know where they are so you can aim the telescope. You can't aim it at every house hoping to find you dog. These high powered scopes are only good for looking at things that you know are there and then only on clear days.
      • by sm62704 ( 957197 )
        You can find the fleas by finding the dog, and find the dog by finding the house. And if you can see through a roof you can see through a cloud.
    • I held a clearance in the USAF (1971-1975) and saw stuff that is still classified. I wouldn't doubt for a minute that today, decades after the Carona, they can point a satellite at your house and count the fleas on your dog while looking through your roof.

      I held a clearance in the USN during the 80's - so what? Having a clearance doesn't mean the USAF can violate the laws of physics.
    • by Lord Ender ( 156273 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @01:33PM (#22409066) Homepage

      I held a clearance in the USAF (1971-1975) and saw stuff that is still classified. I wouldn't doubt for a minute that today, decades after the Carona, they can point a satellite at your house and count the fleas on your dog while looking through your roof.
      I worked for the USAF from 1971 to 1975. I was part of a team dedicated to developing rigged demos of sci-fi technology, demonstrating it to semi-technical and non-technical staff, and hoping they leaked just enough info to spook the ruskies.
    • Physics says no (Score:4, Informative)

      by iamlucky13 ( 795185 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @03:12PM (#22410522)
      The Soviet Almuz space spy stations, which were disguised as the Salyut research stations the USSR was also launching at the time, had a much smaller primary objective than the Hubble. There is no way they could have matched the Hubble's angular resolution. That's just journalists looking for some handy example of another telescope in space.

      Resolution is limited by distance from the object, objective or mirror size, and wavelength. At visible wavelengths, for a satellite in a 500 km orbit with a 2.4 m diameter primary mirror like the Hubble, the best resolution possible is about 6 inches. Diffraction prevents you from doing any better (consider the famous single-slit experiment for a simple example). This optical limit has been established and understood for over a century, and the same physics apply for NASA, the Russians, the Air Force, and even consumer digital cameras.

      Because of this, even though the Air Force is extremely protective of all details about their spy satellites, even about what orbit they're in (although some nerdy spotters have done a good job of tracking them), we still can get a pretty good idea of their capabilities. Both the Hubble and the Keyhole spy satellites were built by Lockheed and transported from assembly to launch facilities in similar containers. That constrains their size to be pretty close to that of the Hubble. In fact, there's some decent speculation that the basic geometry of the Hubble was copied from the Keyholes, meaning they would also have 2.4 m diameter mirrors.

      So we know they can't count fleas on your dog, since they can only distinguish between objects 6 inches apart. This isn't the same as actually identifying objects 6 inches across (no, they can't read license plates). Supposedly it's good enough to distinguish between men and women based on proportion (is that Pamela Anderson?). It might be possible to do very slightly better using computers to compare multiple images of the same target, but the practicallity would be limited.

      They also can't look through your roof. Visible light doesn't go through roofs. I believe some far infrared does, but because of the longer wavelength, the resolution is probably somewhere on the order of the size of the house itself, and the signal would no doubt be lost amidst the heat of the house.

      The 6" resolution is also only under ideal conditions. That means calm, clear skies (incidentally, the Soviets liked to build smokey factories next to their submarine and strategic bomber bases...go figure) and filming straight down. Because changing the orbit to go directly over a target means burning precious fuel, a lot of shots are made obliquely, increasing the effective distance to the target.

      Incidentally, most of the imagery from the 60's and early 70's was declassified in 2002. This confirmed that the early satellites had a resolution of about 20 feet (enough to spot airplanes, perhaps identify ships) and later versions of Corona could resolve at about 7 feet (spot the movements of military units, mobile nuclear missile launchers, identify planes). The first satellites with 6 inch resolution or close to that probably launched in the late 70's with improvements since mainly in guidance, manueverability, and low light sensitivity rather than resolution. Being already able to resolve people, it's not cost effective to go bigger from space on those rare occassions that you need to, when typically you can send in a Predator drone or a special forces team for a fraction of the price.

      By the way, the Federation of American Scientists has an online primer on reconnaissance imagery. [fas.org] It's pretty interesting and shows samples of photos at differing resolutions. It really illustrates just how good 6" is from a strategic analysis viewpoint. At that scale, a good analyst can even tell what kind of missiles are hanging from a parked fighter jet (The plane in the sample pictures is MiG-25. The missiles are probably AA-6 Acrids).
      • by sm62704 ( 957197 )
        Thank you for that post, it's refreshing to actually learn something from reading slashdot!
  • by mnemotronic ( 586021 ) <mnemotronicNO@SPAMnetscape.net> on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:25AM (#22405460) Homepage Journal
    Form: NRO-10977/A
    From: Nasal Reconnaissance Office

    What are we doing? Nothing. Nope. Nothing going on here. Move along. But I do have a request from the folks down in Monitoring Division: Please stop sneezing. It really shakes up the cameras. And for pete's sake, ask your girl friend to shave that thing.

    Sincerely,
    Your Friendly Government
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Gordonjcp ( 186804 )
      I'm prepared to bet they really *are* doing nothing. We live in a wimpy, cost-conscious, risk-averse limp-wristed world. I wish the government would stop whining about terrorists like they've only just been invented and get back to funding space programmes and groovy high-tech fighter aircraft. Who cares if it's dangerous? If you get killed, just remember that you got killed *flying a spaceship!*
  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:30AM (#22405508)

    The lab was never launched, however

    ...forcing the Soviets to cancel construction of "F" and "K"-shaped buildings of their new large space complex, leaving only buildings "U", "C", "Y", "O", and "U" for use.

  • 23mm cannon (Score:2, Informative)

    by shafty023 ( 993689 )
    Ummmm ok, so the satellite fires the cannon and the explosion blasts the satellite into outer space where we never again see the Russian probe. Did they consider in space firing off a cannon will accelerate the satellite in the opposite direction with the bullet not going very fast towards Earth? I guess if they had some counter thrust at the exact time they fired they wouldn't fly away
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by z0idberg ( 888892 )

      . The Soyuz VI was to include a recoilless gun for self-defence developed by the well known Soviet designer A E Nudelmanfrom


      From the linked article about the Almaz.
  • by $RANDOMLUSER ( 804576 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @09:31AM (#22405534)
    I actually watched the show (Nova). Between the time that Francis Gary Powers got shot down and the advent of DIGITAL technology, there was a time window where all kinds of crazy stuff was tried, like satellites shooting film and parachuting the canisters back to earth, to be snatched from the sky by military planes. But without a preview available, lots of very very expensive pictures of cloud tops got taken instead. The MOL and Almaz were both efforts to put intelligent eyes behind the shutter button. But by the time they got built, technology had marched on. Almaz actually was radioing video images of the on-board developed film back to earth within hours of the pictures being taken. But by then, MOL had been canceled in favor of the NRO's satellite program.
    • Also known as "bucket dropping", this was the method used from the early 60's (Corona/KH-4) through the mid-70's (Big Bird/KH-9), when the digital KH-11 came online.
    • by coolmoose25 ( 1057210 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @10:58AM (#22406740)
      I watched too. The thing about Almaz that floored me was that the Russians were so paranoid about their station that they armed it. A 23mm cannon was attached to the station. According to the show, if any kind of satellite got too close, they would blast it with the cannon... The station could turn and swivel using gyros to keep a photographic target in sight, and could do the same thing with the cannon. They were afraid to fire it with men aboard, but they did fire the cannon with remote control. It worked and the station survived the vibrations caused by the cannon... Bottom line - the Russians were militarizing space before Ronnie ever conceived of Star Wars...
  • by ericferris ( 1087061 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @10:01AM (#22405898) Homepage
    It has long been rumored that since the US started the Shuttle program, the Soviet recon sats were equipped with a small self-destruct explosive charge. The idea was that the charge would be a deterrent in case NASA attempted to grab one of the Soviet birds.
    • It may have been before that too, according to http://www.astronautix.com/craft/soyuzp.htm [astronautix.com] Soviet satellites had the self-destruct since the 1960s.
      • Thanks!

        Evidently, the US sats lack a self-destruct charge. It would be useful in case something large and unwieldy is heading toward Earth [wired.com], and, as luck would have it, might very well end up in Russian or Chinese hands with several critical components in good enough shape to be reverse-engineered. I wonder how many megabytes of classified algorithms those embedded EEPROMs would reveal.

    • by raddan ( 519638 )
      There are other reasons to have explosives on spacecraft. For instance, whether the space shuttle's explosives were detonated or not was determined by the Range Safety Officer [wikipedia.org]. Apparently, it was common for astronauts to joke about the RSO's mother, etc, since the RSO could monitor the shuttle's communications, but not respond. Of course, you don't want to antagonize him too much.

      Anyway, self-destruct is at least useful for killing Klingons ;^)
  • 1960's vs. now (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Iphtashu Fitz ( 263795 ) on Wednesday February 13, 2008 @10:12AM (#22406048)
    I personally never do anything outdoors that I wouldn't want to be caught doing. Paranoid? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Definitely not.

    My dad was an electrical engineer with advanced degrees from places like MIT. Back in the 60's he had a top secret security clearance and worked for Mitre [wikipedia.org], where he worked on projects that as few as six people (including President Kennedy) knew the full details of. He's spoken a few times about a series of photos he once saw, taken from a spy plane something like 10-15 miles up. It started out with a photo of the continental United States. The next one in the series was of a region within the US. The next one was of one particular state (I forget which). The next one was a town within that state. In the next one you could clearly make out a golf course. The next one was one of the holes of the golf course. The next one was the green on the golf course where you could see the flag (pin) in the hole. The last photo in the series showed a golf ball on the green and you could clearly read the name on the golf ball.

    If that had that level of sophistication back in the 60's you can be sure they can do even better than that today, which most likely means the same or better level of detail from orbiting satellites.
    • by AsnFkr ( 545033 )
      I personally never do anything outdoors that I wouldn't want to be caught doing. Paranoid? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Definitely not.

      You want paranoid? I'll show you paranoid: What makes you think the man can't see through your roof, buddy?
      • What makes you think the man can't see through your roof, buddy?

        All my ceilings are lined with tinfoil.

        That, and the fact that I live in an apartment with two units over me, and one of those people is more paranoid than I am, so he probably has both lead and tinfoil on his ceilings.
        • by Rich0 ( 548339 )
          If you were truly paranoid you wouldn't be sleeping in a bed under several layers of heavy metal plating in a building not designed to handle it...
          • Who says the building wasn't designed to handle it? Maybe it was built by a bunch of paranoids specifically to keep the prying eyes of the military industrial complex out!
    • He's spoken a few times about a series of photos he once saw, taken from a spy plane something like 10-15 miles up. It started out with a photo of the continental United States. The next one in the series was of a region within the US. The next one was of one particular state (I forget which).

      This doesn't even pass the giggle test. A bird that high up can't see an entire state (unless it's one of the tiny ones in New England), let alone the entire continental US.

      If that had that level of s

      • A bird that high up can't see an entire state (unless it's one of the tiny ones in New England), let alone the entire continental US.

        The U2 used a camera package designated the A-2. It actually consisted of 3 individual cameras, one pointing straight down, and one to either side. It was common practice to "stitch" individual photos together into a single coherent image. In that manner the U2 could easily create what appeared to be a single photo of the entire continental US while flying at its operational
        • The A-2 camera system used by the U2 is publicly known to have had an image resolution of 2.5 feet. So at 70,000 feet it could clearly resolve an image under 3 feet. The SR-71 could fly at 85,000 feet and its Technical Objective Camera (TEOC), which was used for very high resolution reconnaissance, is reported to have a resolution of 6". This is all information that's publicly available and you can find it yourself if you bother doing a little bit of searching.

          I guess I need to point out the obvious - a go

          • ROTFLMAO. At six inch resolution the smallest printing you can read are letters about two feet tall (under ideal conditions). Something a foot tall is just a blobby handful of pixels.

            The point I was trying to make is that from 80,000 feet, viewing something at 6" vs. 1" doesn't require a huge increase in detail.

            Sorry, I get my information from actual sources - not random webpages.

            Fine. Provide some actual sources then. You haven't provided any actual sources to refute my claims, just a lot of bluster.
            • The point I was trying to make is that from 80,000 feet, viewing something at 6" vs. 1" doesn't require a huge increase in detail.

              ROTFLMAO.
            • Fine. Provide some actual sources then.
              Sure. My uncles wifes cousins friend who worked with the military on a top secret project that only seven people (including Margaret Thatcher) knew about, and they said that the army could literally bend light in space using zero point gravity pumps to see around corners with special goggles, but they had trouble photographing the text of golf balls. Therefore I never go around corners, call me paranoid but it's just to be safe.
  • 3" Resolution (Score:2, Informative)

    by bxwatso ( 1059160 )
    Actually the most interesting thing about the show was the public statement by a knowledgeable ex official that they had 3" pixels at the time. AFAIK, the NRO has never said what its resolution was or is.

    I wonder what the theoretical maximum resolution is for a bird in LEO. The number of photons leaving a given surface area that reach an object 400 mi above is not infinite and therefore resolution is not unlimited. I suppose it is a function of: 1. the brightness of the object, 2. the distance, 3. Th

  • There is speculation that the US had a military space program called Blackstar, that used a high-speed bomber to launch small orbital vehicles similar to the National Aerospace Plane [wikipedia.org] -- although this would be considered two-stage-to-orbit.
    What Aviation Week & Space Tech has to say about it [americanthinker.com], claiming an modified XB-70 was used as the launch vehicle.
    Another, more whackjob, account. [abovetopsecret.com]

    I submitted this as a story when AW&ST originally broke the story but it as rejected. I was/am fascinated by the idea tha
    • Are you sure that wasn't actually the Brownstar program? The one that uses volatile compressed organic compounds to launch giant gas bombs?
  • Really, it's not. Hypocritical, a change of policy, call it what you will, just not ironic.
  • If you don't support our distorted view of corporate law you are a terr'ist. Its gotten so bad many countries have implemented laws regarding copyright and IP so they don't have to put up with the stupidity thats damaging global trade being pushed by the US.
  • I thought the Soviets and the USA were still racing around the Solar system in hovertanks fighting over lumps of biometal?

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