‘It is time for America to take the next steps. Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.’ So spoke US president George W Bush at the end of a rousing speech delivered at the Washington headquarters of the US space agency Nasa in January.
Earlier on he had delivered his new vision for the US space-exploration programme. He declared: ‘Today I announce a new plan to extend a human presence across the solar system… We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.’ This ambitious agenda would initially be funded by ‘reallocating’ $11 billion from NASA’s current budget and by the injection of an additional $1 billion of federal funds. (Bush didn’t say how much it would cost in total, but estimates range from $500 billion to in excess of $750 billion.)
More specifically, the money would be spent on developing ‘human missions to Mars’ and on ‘new power-generation propulsion, life-support and other systems’. It all sounded very idealistic, but it is the ‘power-generation’ aspect that is key; atomic power generation, to be precise. For the programme announced by Bush in January is the latest stage in US plans for the nuclearisation of space.
The hope in the Bush White House is that such nuclearisation will give the US monopolistic control over the heavens. The new programme is closely linked with Project Prometheus, a scheme that has just got underway to build nuclear-powered spacecraft and other atomic systems for space use.
Project Prometheus was quietly unveiled, and its initial $3 billion five-year budget presented to Congress, on 3 February last year; ‘quietly’ because Nasa’s Columbia space shuttle had fallen to earth, killing all aboard, just two days previously. Under the direction of NASA, which is working in close coordination with the US Department of Energy, Project Prometheus has proceeded at a rapid pace.
Development and testing of a new US spacecraft to be called the Crew Exploration Vehicle is scheduled to begin by 2008, with a first manned mission following no later than 2014. Major US corporations led by defence contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing have received the first of what are anticipated to be many big Project Prometheus contracts.
Last November Nasa announced: ‘Project Prometheus recently reached an important milestone with the first successful test of an engine that could lead to revolutionary propulsion capabilities for space exploration throughout the solar system and beyond.’ In space NASA’s new ‘high-power electric propulsion ion engine’ would be powered by a ‘small nuclear reactor’. In moving to construct nuclear-propelled spacecraft, the Bush administration is rocketing back to the US past.
From the 1950s until 1972 NASA and the then US Atomic Energy Commission (whose remit has since been taken over by the US Department of Energy) spent $10 billion on the development of nuclear spacecraft. That effort was cancelled largely because of the danger, as real now as then, of an atomic rocket falling back to, and spreading radioactive debris over, earth.
Warning of ‘Chernobyl in the sky’, Dr Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, says: ‘NASA hasn’t learned its lesson from history, and a hallmark of science is that you learn from previous mistakes. NASA doggedly pursues its fantasy of nuclear power in space.’
The risks of nuclear-powered space projects were given graphic exposure in 1964, when an accident involving the Snap-9A plutonium-powered generating system aboard the US navigational satellite Transit 5BN-3 caused the release of a 2.1 pound load of plutonium-238 (an especially nasty isotope of plutonium). A report jointly issued by Europe’s Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Swedish National Institute of Radiation Protection (NIRP) described this accident as ‘the main source of Plutonium 238 in the environment’.
The report said: ‘A worldwide sampling programme carried out in 1970 showed Snap-9A debris to be present at all continents and all latitudes.’ Dr John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, linked the dispersal of plutonium from Snap-9A to a global increase in the incidence of lung cancer. As for the Soviet space programme, the most serious nuclear accident occurred in 1978, when the Cosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite fell from orbit.
The incident was described in the 1990 NIRP report Emergency Preparedness for Nuclear-Powered Satellites: ‘In the early hours of 24 January 1978 Cosmos 954 commenced re-entering the earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific. The object was breaking up and heading towards northern Canada over the Queen Charlotte Islands. It continued for another 12 minutes and 5,500 kilometres before impacting over the Canadian Northwest Territories... Sizeable amounts of radioactive debris had survived re-entry and were spread over a 600-kilometre path from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake… Most of the satellite material had probably been vapourised and dispersed globally.’
There were 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium fuel on board Cosmos 954. Apologists for Nasa’s revived nuclear ambitions insist that the new generation of rockets will however be safe. They point to the fact that the US’s nuclear-propelled spacecraft will not be launched using nuclear power, but by chemical systems; the reactors will be turned on much later.
But that’s the same approach that was used by the Soviet Union with space nuclear reactors. Even in the event of accidents reactors can only generate high-level radioactive poisons after they have been turned on. Because the Soviet space programme was bedevilled by launch pad accidents, the reactor powering Cosmos 954 was only made critical after the satellite had attained orbit. This did not prevent Cosmos 954 from dispersing lethal nuclear poisons when it fell from the sky.
So far, Congress has shown no appetite for checking the new plans to nuclearise space. Last year Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey sought to have the Project Prometheus money redirected towards a severely under-financed programme to clean up hazardous waste sites. His proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by 309 House of Representatives votes to 124.
Much of the enthusiasm for space nuclear power in the US comes from the Department of Energy, its federal nuclear laboratories and the corporations that build space nuclear systems. The nuclear industry, which has not received an order or built a new nuclear plant in the US since well before the accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979, looks at space as a new area of business.
There is also strong support for space nuclear power within the US military, which has long been plotting the development of space-based weapons – devices needing substantial amounts of energy to power them. In 1996 the use of nuclear energy to power ‘space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness’ was projected in the US Air Force Board report New World Vistas: air and space power for the 21st century.
The US military has also been interested in nuclear-powered rockets. From the late 1980s until 1993 Project Timberwind sought to develop ‘dual-use’ atomic rocket technology: technology that could be used both to transport heavy equipment for use in Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars programme, and for voyages to Mars. Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, says that a dual-use approach now underpins all NASA’s work.
He attributes this to the appointment of Sean O’Keefe as the agency’s administrator in December 2001. ‘Right after Bush swore [him] into office, O’Keefe told the nation that from now on every mission would be dual-use. By that he meant that every mission would carry military and civilian payloads at the same time.
This is further evidence that the space programme has been taken over by the Pentagon.’ But as long ago as 1996 the US Air Force Space Command report Vision for 2020 stressed the importance of the US gaining ‘control’ of space, ‘dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interest and investment’ and ‘integrating space forces into war-fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict’.
Two years later Space Command’s 1998 Long Range Plan (LRP), declared: ‘Now is the time to begin developing space capabilities, innovative concepts of operations for war-fighting, and organisations that can meet the challenges of the 2lst century… The time has come to address… the emergence of space as a centre of gravity for the Department of Defense and the nation. We must commit enough planning and resources to protect and enhance our access to, and use of, space. Although international treaties and legalities constrain some of the LRP’s initiatives and concepts, our abilities in space will keep evolving as we address these legal, political and international concerns.’
Then in 2001 the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organisation, chaired by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, declared: ‘In the coming period the US will conduct operations to, from, in and through space in support of its national interests both on earth and in space.’ The commission stressed: ‘We cannot fully exploit space until we control it.’ And in 2003 Space Command used the report Strategic Master Plan Fiscal Year 06 and Beyond to describe space as the ‘ultimate high ground of US military operations’.
Space Command’s commander general Lance Lord said: ‘Future challenges require that we develop flexible, responsive force-projection capabilities to complement our nuclear deterrent force. In short, we must become a full-spectrum space-combat command.’ This commitment was given added momentum when China successfully launched its first manned spacecraft, also last year. Speaking of that incident, former Rumsfeld intelligence assistant Rich Haver said: ‘I think the Chinese are telling us they’re there. And I think if we ever wind up in a confrontation again with any one of the major powers who has a space capability we will find space is a battleground.’
Haver, who is now a vice-president of major NASA and Pentagon contractor Northrop Grumman, added: ‘I believe space is the place we will fight in the next 20 years.’ All of this flies in the face of the landmark 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the US helped initiate and which sets space aside ‘for peaceful purposes’. Gagnon observes that just as centuries ago the then global powers used their great fleets to control the world’s oceans and protect their economic interests, ‘space is viewed today as open territory to be seized for eventual corporate profit’.
He speaks of proposals to ‘mine the sky’ – to extract minerals from celestial bodies. The moon, for example, is being considered as a prime source of rare helium-3, which would be brought back to earth to fuel supposedly cleaner fusion-power reactors. The Global Network coordinator says the US military is seeking to establish bases on the moon and elsewhere in space, so as to protect these operations and to control the ‘shipping lanes of the future’.
But if the US believes it will be able to take military control of space without being challenged by rival powers it may be sorely deluded. Alice Slater, president of the New York-based Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, believes that Washington’s ‘militaristic grab for control of the gateway to space will accelerate a new arms race to the heavens’. She compares the situation today with the race to develop the atomic bomb.
Right now the US might think it can capitalise on its perceived advantage in space, but when, 60 years ago, it felt similarly superior about the bomb it did not take the Soviet Union long to develop a nuclear arsenal of its own. Slater is calling on the US to agree to the proposal, annually repeated by China and Russia, for an international pact banning all weapons in space. ‘At this moment in history,’ she says, ‘Americans can still choose whether to carry hostilities beyond our planet or to maintain the peace of space for future generations.’
When Bush made his January address it was compared to John F Kennedy’s announcement before Congress in May 1961 of his dream of ‘landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth’ before the end of that decade. So far, however, the US public has been found to be less than enthusiastic about the Bush space plan. A Time/CNN poll determined that ‘more than three fifths of Americans oppose… Bush’s proposal’.
Time and CNN reported that only 9 per cent of those queried backed spending ‘billions of dollars on space exploration. Some 40 per cent would rather improve education, 27 per cent would balance the federal budget, and 13 per cent would clean up the environment’. Sadly, there is little hope of these alternative investments taking place. ‘The Bush space plan will be enormously expensive and dangerous,’ he says. ‘It will create unnecessary conflict as it expands nuclear power and weapons into space – all disguised as the noble effort to hunt for the “origins of life”.
Hundreds of billions of dollars will be wasted on plans for the nuclearisation and weaponisation of space. In order to fund these missions, Bush and Congress will cut programmes like social security, education, healthcare, childcare, public transit and environmental protection. The lives of future generations will become more insecure.’
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, is the author of The Wrong Stuff: the Space Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet and the writer and narrator of the Nukes In Space series of video documentaries available from EnviroVideo (www.envirovideo.com)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2004