The Nuclearisation and Militarisation of Space - A Brief History

September 2000

By Dave Webb, Leeds, England

1. The Ethical Controversy

Scientific, military and civilian activities in space have always been controversial, involving questions such as:

In a democratic society it is often argued that for a particular project to obtain funds from the public purse, it has to be approved and scrutinized by a democratically elected government or its appointed servants. So individuals do not need to justify their participation in these projects as they have already been sanctioned by society. However, others argue that people should make their own moral and ethical judgements especially when public policies may have been arrived at through compromise, misinformation and/or powerful lobbying by vested interests.


2. Historical Context

To date there have been over 4,000 world-wide orbital space launches. In October 1971 the UK successfully launched a scientific satellite, Prospero, into orbit using the Black Arrow rocket from Woomera in South Australia. There have been several other British built rockets - Black Knight, Blue Streak and Skylark, essentially developed as part of defence and scientific programmes. However, the UK rocket programme was abandoned due to excessive costs although it is possible to see a real Black Arrow rocket in the Space Gallery at the Science Museum, London.

Although the UK Government now often uses the French Ariane rockets to launch scientific satellites, it relies heavily on US systems for the development of scientific and defence projects. The major players in the development of space systems have, of course, been the United States and the Soviet Union (and now Russia) - although recently Europe (through the European Space Agency, ESA), China and India can add their names to the list of "space capable" nations.

A major driving force behind developments in it may help to look at the historical development of the subject. A comprehensive history of US developments in space can be found in [1].

2.1 In the beginning … the military

It is well known that the first scientific and explorative space missions employed hardware that had been originally developed for military purposes and that the race to send astronauts to the moon was politically motivated.

The military use of space could be said to have started with the German deployment of the V2 rocket towards the end of World War II. The "V" in "V2" stands for Vergeltung (vengence). At one time V2 construction was moved to Nordhausen, or the Mittelwerk Dora, in the middle of Germany where concentration camp labour was used to produce them. Half of the estimated sixty thousand prisoners who entered Dora did not leave it alive.

The use of the atomic bomb by the US on Japan had a significant effect on the cold war between the Soviet Union and the Allies after the war. The US and the Soviets developed their missile programmes separately and in secret using captured German technological knowledge and skills.

It was in 1945 that Arthur C Clarke first suggested using satellites for global communications. He thought though, that many would consider this idea 'too far-fetched to be taken seriously'. However, the RAND Corporation first proposed a military satellite system in 1946. The weight of an atomic bomb payload at that time meant that there was little prospect of them being carried by rockets for many years. In fact the US started its ICBM programmes in 1954 - after the development of the smaller and more powerful hydrogen bomb (first tested on 1st November 1952) required smaller, less accurate rockets [1]. The Soviet Union detonated their first hydrogen bomb in August 1952 and this, together with the launch of their first sputnik on 4th October 1957, lead to some concern that they would soon be able to place weapons in orbit around the Earth. This spurred on rapid US (and USSR) military space developments.

2.2 … and scientific use of space.

On 28th July 1955 The US announced its intention to launch a satellite to study the upper atmosphere during the International Geophysical Year (IGY - a worldwide scientific event from 15th July 1957 to 31st December 1958). It was intended that this programme would follow National Security Council (NSC) recommendations (laid out in May 1955) to effectively separate the military and civilian sectors of the US space effort.

The Soviets also announced the intention to launch a satellite, which they did in 1957. After the launch of the Soviet sputnik the US were desperate to launch their own satellite. However the first attempt on (6th December 1957) blew up on the launch pad with the whole world watching. Despite this deep humiliation a small scientific satellite called Explorer I eventually lifted off on 31 January 1958 and went on to discover the Earth’s radiation belts (

In July 1958 the US government passed The National Aeronautics and Space Act which officially divided the civilian and military sectors and created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA opened on 1st October 1958 and was the brainchild of James R. Killian, scientific advisor to President Eisenhower. Killian and Eisenhower devised NASA to be a strictly civilian enterprise, thereby limiting the military's role in the national space program. However, Congress wanted a much stronger military role in space and so created the Civilian-Military Liaison Committee (to coordinate NASA and Department of Defense [DOD] activities) and the National Aeronautics and Space Council (chaired by the president as commander in chief of the US military to create national space policy).

NASA’s first major project was the Mercury programme to send a man into low-Earth orbit. At the same time long-term planning for Apollo, the US Moon program, began. However, by late 1960, Eisenhower had become disenchanted with the tremendous cost of putting someone on the Moon and stopped the funding for Apollo.

The importance of space support for navigation and communications was recognized early in the space era. The US Navy launched the world's first military navigational satellite system, Transit lA, in September 1959 and used them to improve the accuracy of Polaris submarines to about 1 mile. The US Army launched the first military communication satellite, Courier lB on 4 October 1960.

The first US Antiballistic Missile (ABM) test launch took place on 16th December 1959. However, the programme was cancelled in May 1959 because the mechanical tracking radars were too slow and the computers were not powerful enough.

After the deployment of the US Discoverer reconnaissance satellites, the Soviet Union developed several antisatellite (ASAT) systems in the 1960s and the US also developed ASAT systems as a countermeasure.

The North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) became operational on 12th September 1957 to detect and report on any ICBM attack on the North American continent. In October 1960, NORAD took on space defence with the formation of the space detection and tracking system. NORAD's missions were:
  1. warning of ballistic missile attack,
  2. defense against manned bomber attack, and
  3. space surveillance.

An important component of the missile warning system was, and still is, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) which includes powerful radar systems in Alaska, at Thule in Greenland and at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire.

During the Kennedy administration the military space programs became highly secretive and publicity was concentrated on the development of NASA's manned programs. However, the Soviets again beat the US into space on 12 April 1961, when Vostok 1 orbited the earth with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on board.
On 5 May 1961, US Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard became the first American to go into space with a suborbital flight. Twenty days later came President Kennedy’s historic call to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
During 1963 space systems played an important role in the Cuban missile crisis –because of US satellites, Kennedy knew that the capabilities of the Soviet nuclear forces were quite limited.

The success of the NASA Mercury and Gemini systems led some military planners to look seriously at military applications for men in space. In 1962 there was enormous pressure from the US government to give the US Air Force at least an equal role in the Gemini program. NASA at first claimed that this level of involvement would jeopardize its ability to meet the lunar landing schedule and would signal the militarisation of the civilian space program – however, some Department of Defense (DOD) experiments were carried on Gemini. In July 1963, NASA suggested a space station program with a possible military mission for man in space.

1967 saw the UN General Assembly introduce The Outer Space Treaty, which reserves space for peaceful purposes. It is now agreed by 91 nations including the US, Russia and the UK. The Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction from space, it also says that nations shall not "contaminate" space, that "states shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects" and that "the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried on for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind".

The first manned flight to the Moon’s environment was by Apollo 8 in December 1968, followed by the first manned landing on 19 July 1969 by astronaut Neil Armstrong. NASA was to land men on the Moon five more times in the next two years but there were soon drastic NASA budget reductions.

In 1968 physicists Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe described how China or the Soviet Union could easily elude the "light" US missile shield then under development [2]. There was a fear that such a system would provoke the Soviet Union and escalate the arms race. It was mainly because any national defense system would be technologically ineffective that the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972. After this there was some collaboration and information sharing between the US and the USSR. Both launched vehicles on 15 July 1975 and on 18 July, Apollo 18 docked with the Soviet Soyuz 19 spacecraft in the last US space flight for nearly six years.

In October 1977, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown announced that the Soviets had an operational ASAT system and signaled a redirection in the Carter administration's military space program. The Space Defense Program was initiated in 1977 to research into ASAT technology, satellite survivability, and improved space surveillance.

The first space shuttle flight was 2 years late on 12 April 1981 and astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen landed Columbia successfully two days later.

2.3 President Reagan and Star Wars

In 1982 President Reagan designated the space shuttle as the primary launch system for the US national security space program. He directed DOD and NASA to develop the shuttle and DOD was given priority on shuttle launches. Also the shuttle was made the primary launch vehicle for all government payloads, which guaranteed NASA all the launch business it could handle.

President Reagan made his first speech on space policy on 4 July 1982 at the fourth space shuttle landing. He said that steps must be taken to provide "assured access to space''. A DOD directive at that time (NSDD-42) stated that the ASAT programme was to deny the enemy the use of space and space assets in time of war or crisis. It also extended the principle of sovereign rights over a nation's space assets to include the right to defend those assets in space. President Reagan went on to make his famous Star Wars Speech on 23 March 1983, in which he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and called for defensive measures to render Soviet missiles obsolete. This was a direct move away from the policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) to a policy of strategic defense as a means of deterrence.

The ABM Treaty was signed in 1972 by the US and the Soviet Union and prohibits the deployment of a nationwide defense against strategic ballistic missile attack. From 1983 to 1987 the US position on the SDI and the ABM Treaty was that the treaty banned deployment but not research and development. However, at a Washington press conference on May 13 1986, 3,700 senior scientists and engineers, including 3 Nobel laureates, from universities around the US publicly pledged not to take SDI funds [3].

2.4 NASA - the military options

After the end of the Apollo programme the funding for NASA fell sharply. It became US government policy that NASA become more involved in co-operative ventures with commercial and military projects.

In the 80s NASA and US Space Command joined forces to release spy satellites during classified shuttle missions and have agreed to work together in: "several areas of mutual interest in the hopes of saving both organisations costs and sharing in new technologies to benefit future spaceflight and spacecraft". Partnership teams were formed to study:

  • the launching of Defense Support Program satellites from the Space Shuttle in 1999;
  • the use of the Shuttle for Air Force technology payloads; and
  • space transportation needs of NASA and the US Air Force
  • respective infrastructures and common-use facilities;
  • the problem of orbiting space debris;
  • expanded cooperation in space weather environment research and data sharing
In addition, NASA and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) jointly sponsored The Deep Space Program Science Experiment (DSPSE), launched in early 1994. In 1997, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and NASA created the Space Technology Alliance to coordinate the development of affordable, effective space technologies. More recently, the US Department of Defense gave $200 million to NASA to help pay for the space shuttle Endeavour's January 2000 mission to create high resolution, three-dimensional maps of the Earth.

2.5 Militarisation of Space

Satellites are now commonly used for communications and surveillance and the information they provide is used by military commanders to monitor battlefields, develop their strategy, organise their forces and target their weapons. The increasing importance of satellites in the surveillance and management of modern warfare has led to the recognition that, in order to retain control and ensure communications, important military satellites need to be protected. This is a major reason for the increase in research into weapons systems to defend spacecraft and even threaten "enemy" space based systems.

General Howell J. Estes III (ex Commander in Chief of US Space Command) has said "Space has become the 4th medium in which the military operates in the protection of our national security interests. We will help deny the enemy access to space ... through successful execution of space control and space-based information warfare."

US Space Command’s "Vision 2020" [4] argues that the protection of space requires superior US space warfare capability and proclaims itself "stewards for military space" and sets out two principle themes:

  1. dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment
  2. integrating space forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict
This "vision" will be achieved by a "Long Range Plan" [5] the "Guiding Principles" of which are:
  1. Space is an enabler of military operations. Space based sensors provide information on which forces depend and virtually all other information flows through space
  2. Commercial space explosion - industry growing at 20% pa, 1000+ satellites to be launched and $500 billion spent world-wide over the next few years
  3. Space is an emerging area of vital national interest, critical to military and economic instruments of power
  4. We will be challenged
  5. Military must be ready - the nation’s growing dependence on space cannot become a vulnerability - having the ability to deny an enemy’s use of space will grow in importance

The adopted methodology involves four operational concepts:

  • Control of Space: assure freedom to operate, deny the enemy.
  • Global Engagement: includes worldwide situational awareness, defence against ballistic and cruise missiles and the capability to hold at risk from space a small number of high value targets. Provision of a dominant battlespace awareness enabling on-demand targeting and engagement of all ballistic and cruise missiles
  • Full Force Integration: warfighters to take full advantage of space capabilities as an integral part of special, joint and combined warfare
  • Global Partnerships: strengthening military space capabilities through the leveraging of civil, commercial, intelligence, national and international space efforts.
General Joseph Ashy (ex Commander in Chief US Space Command) has said: "It's politically sensitive, but it's going to happen … Some people don't want to hear this, and it sure isn't in vogue, but-absolutely-we're going to fight in space. We're going to fight from space and we're going to fight into space … That's why the U.S. has development programs in directed energy and hit-to-kill mechanisms."

A US Air Force board report states: "In the next two decades, new technologies will allow the fielding of space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness to be used to deliver energy and mass as force projection in tactical and strategic conflict.... These advances will enable effect very many kills." [6]

These plans are obviously worrying to other national leaders and governments. Speaking in Geneva last January, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the UN's annual Conference on Disarmament to "codify principles which can ensure that outer space remains weapons-free".

At the UN's Conference on Disarmament in March 1999, China moved to strengthen the Outer Space Treaty, to "negotiate and conclude an international legal instrument banning…any weapons, weapons systems and their components in outer space, with a view to preventing the weaponization of outer space".

However, in November 1999 the UN General Assembly was asked to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty and, specifically, its provision that space shall be used "for peaceful purposes" and the "exploration and use of outer space…shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries." Some 138 nations voted for the motion titled: "Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space." The United States, joined by Israel, abstained.

2.6 Beware - Creeping Militarism

Just because a space project does not appear to have any military interests – it doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Very often space projects are sold to the public for one reason (e.g. spotting ecological disasters) - but as soon as the technology can be demonstrated it is sold out to the highest bidder (i.e. the military).

For example, in March this year the Ottawa Citizen reported that Canada's Radarsat 1 satellite, launched in 1995 as a remote sensing satellite was to become a military spy satellite. The Canadian Space Agency had said the system would be used solely used for peaceful assignments - such as mapping forests and charting the movement of ice in the oceans to help ships navigate. However, documents obtained by the Citizen though the Access to Information Act show that the Canadian Department of National Defence intended to use Radarsat for military purposes from the time of its launch. Not only that but Radarsat 1 information and images are routinely passed to the US DOD and military spying will be the main job for Radarsat 3 to be launched in five years time. The Canadian government is also considering the possible use of Radarsat technology to find missile launchers and track missiles.
The original European Space Agency statute limits its activities to peaceful purposes. However, in November 2000 the ESA and the European Council issued a joint strategy paper on Europe's role in space [7,8] in which they make it clear that dual-use is inherent to all space technology, that space plays an important role in a European defence system, and that they see it as "logical to use the capabilities of ESA also for the development of the more security-oriented aspects of the European Space Policy".

The Kosovo war made it clear that Europe depends on US satellite systems for intelligence gathering. This appears to be unsatisfactory both to the US and the EC. The report clearly positions Europe as the counterpart of the US with respect to "dominance in space" and "information superiority". It sees Europe as an "equal" partner and:

"By developing its own infrastructure, Europe will ... prevent other competitors (from Asia in particular) from developing their own infrastructure. By doing that Europe will become the alternative to the US for the world, will consolidate its number 2 position in space and will therefore be able to become a privileged partner on global issiues and large-scale international developments."

2.7 Nuclearisation of Space

Three nuclear devices are currently in use in space:

  • Radioisotope Heating Units (RHUs) are used in deep space probes to heat instruments. Use a few hundred grams of plutonium 238 as the heat source.
  • Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs) use the heat from the decay of plutonium 238 to generate electricity to power instruments on board space probes. Use large amounts of plutonium; e.g 48 lbs on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, 72 lbs onboard the Cassini mission to Saturn – first use was on the Transit 4a navigational satellite, launched June 1961.
  • Space Nuclear Reactors act as small nuclear power plants, generating large amounts of electricity. The US used nuclear reactors in space a number of times in the 1960's. These reactors plus the "Topaz" reactor purchased from Russia in 1991 are designed to be used in earth orbit, or on the Moon and Mars, rather than on deep space probes.

In 1986 NASA were due to launch two space shuttles with plutonium-fueled space probes aboard. Investigative reporter Karl Grossman got to hear of this after reading about the plan in a Department of Energy publication, Energy Insider which said that the government had evaluated the consequences of an accident with the probes on launch. Grossman filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for more information in 1984. It took him nearly a year to obtain it [9]. What the government finally advised was that there could be quite a disaster if the plutonium-considered the most dangerous radioactive substance-was dispersed in an accident but the likelihood of a catastrophic shuttle accident was but 1-in-100,000.

On 28 January 1986 seven astronauts and a $100 million NASA tracking and data relay system satellite was lost when the shuttle Challenger exploded some 70 seconds after launch. If this tragic accident had happened to Challenger's next mission in May, it would have been carrying Ulysses, a plutonium-fueled space probe, with 24.2 pounds of plutonium on board. After the Challenger accident, NASA changed the odds of a catastrophic shuttle accident from 1-in-100,000 to 1-in-76 and the shuttle was grounded for over two years [9].

In 1997, NASA successfully launched the Cassini space probe carrying 72.3 pounds of plutonium – more than ever used before on a space probe - on a Titan - 4 military rocket. Three Titan-4's have blown up on launch since giving an overall failure rate of 1-in-12. Cassini was sent on a sling shot orbit, bringing it to within 700 miles of the Earth’s surface on August 17 1999, to use the Earth’s gravity to help propel it to Saturn. Cassini flew by safely but accidents can happen and just a few weeks later, on September 23 the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost because of human error.

NASA said in its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission said that if the probe had made an "inadverent reentry" into the Earth’s atmosphere during the fly-by, it would have broken up (Cassini had no heat shield). In this case, plutonium would have been released and - in NASA's words "approximately 5 billion of the…world population at the time…could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure." In various statements NASA stated the chance of anything going wrong with the flyby as 1 in a million. But Michio Kaku pointed out that this figure was used to describe the unlikely event of the probe striking a meteor, he calculated the chance of a system failure to be more like 10 percent. He also examined NASA’s figures on a possible human death toll – they projected 2,300 fatal cancers – and noted that they had neglected the effects of the broadcast of plutonium by wind systems [10]. Many attempts were made to estimate a possible human death toll some suggested hundreds of thousands, while others thought millions was more likely [11].

NASA did say in the Final Impact Statement, that if plutonium rained down on areas of natural vegetation, it might have to "relocate animals," if it fell an agricultural land, "ban future agricultural land uses" and, if it rained down on urban areas, to "demolish some or all structures" and "relocate affected population permanently."

According to a US General Accounting Office report [12], NASA is "studying eight future space missions between 2000 and 2015 that will likely use nuclear-fueled electric generators." The next NASA space nuclear mission is the Europa Orbiter scheduled for 2003 [13].

2.7.1 Why use nuclear material in space?

Apart from effective lobbying over many years by groups such as GE and Lockheed Martin who develop and build the plutonium systems, Grossman [9] believes that NASA has become more and more reliant on the U.S. military who want nuclear-powered weapons in space.

Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, former head of SDI organisations has said, "failure to develop nuclear power in space could cripple efforts to deploy anti missile sensors and weapons in orbit".

2.7.2 The Solar alternative

The European Space Agency has developed new high efficiency solar cells for use in space-as a substitute for nuclear power. In 2003 ESA is due to launch the Rosetta probe which employs solar arrays for power and will go beyond the orbit of Jupiter to rendezvous with comet Wirtanen at about 675 million km from the Sun. NASA itself has developed solar cells to this standard, however, it insists on using nuclear power for probes to Jupiter and Saturn.

2.7.3 Accidents involving nuclear devices in space

  • Since the 1960s there has been a failure rate of 1 in 7:
  • The US has launched 24 devices carrying nuclear materials – 3 have failed
    The Russians have launched 39 – 6 have failed [13].
  • In 1964 a satellite carrying a SNAP-9A plutonium power system crashed to Earth with 2.1 pounds of plutonium on board. After this accident solar photovoltaic energy technology was developed and is now the power system on all U.S. satellites.
  • Apollo 13 in 1970 had 8.3 pounds of plutonium on board. It was ejected before re-entry in case the spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere and was said to have been aimed at, and landed in, the deep Tong Trench in the South Pacific.
  • In 1978 a Soviet Cosmos satellite with a nuclear reactor on board crashed into the Northwest Territories of Canada.
  • The Russian Mars probe crashed into Chile and Bolivia in 1996 with a half-pound of plutonium aboard [14]

In 1991 NASA and the US DOE entered into a Space Nuclear Power Agreement. Nuclear space flights are now covered by the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability in the event of a nuclear accident to: $8.9 billion for U.S. domestic damage and $100 million for damage to all foreign nations. This is despite the fact that the Outer Space Treaty specifically says that "States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects."

2.8 US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) System – "Son of Star Wars"

Now, more than 30 years after SDI, Washington is saying that it needs a missile defence system designed to protect the US from a potential new threat of missiles fired by "rogue" states such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. However, George N. Lewis, Theodore A. Postol and John Pike have shown how this system can still be circumvented or swamped by large numbers of actual or decoy missiles [15]. Therefore the BMD system is not seen as a deterrent but as the initiator of an arms race to develop more high technology (including nuclear) weapons to be deployed through and in space.

BMD consists of National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) systems for defence against ballistic missiles at home and anywhere where US fighting forces might be in action. The Space-Based Laser currently being researched (a contract for a Space-Based Laser Readiness Demonstrator was signed last year) is a weapon system to be directly deployed in outer space. 14-24 Space-Based Lasers would be deployed at an altitude of 1300 kilometers in outer space. The operational principle of NMD is that the space-based sensors would provide global, continuous surveillance and tracking of adversary missiles, then interceptors would intercept them at the altitude of 100 to 500 kilometers – i.e. in outer space.

The US has already spent an estimated $120 billion in developing missile defense systems. The budget for BMD has held steady at about $4 billion a year. Extra billions are secret, supplied through a "black budget". In March last year the US Congress approved an additional $6.6 billion to be spent up to 2005. In February 2000 the Pentagon proposed that National Missile Defence (NMD) spending be increased to $10.4 billion over the next five years

And BMD/NMD is internationally destabilising because:

  • It would break the ABM and Outer Space Treaties
  • It is seen as offensive as well as defensive
  • It increases the nuclear and military superiority confidence of the US
  • It increases the risk of first strike policies
  • It could trigger a response from other nations who possess nuclear weapons (to try and swamp the abm system)
  • It will generate a new arms race in space.

France and Germany, have expressed deep-seated concern about the NMD effort - there are fears that it will sour relations with Russia. In fact Russia has already halted progress in a range of arms talks and threatened "retaliatory steps". French Defense Minister Alain Richard has said: "The Europeans are unanimous in calling on the Americans to reflect on the international repercussions of this choice, which can lead to a rupture in the strategic balance." Richard has also stressed that the NMD program "is not very credible militarily or technically." European and U.S. responses might diverge during a crisis with a missile-capable state if Washington had an operational NMD system, but Europe did not have a similar capability. Joschka Fisher, the German foreign minister has said that the proposed US missile shield would lead to "split security standards within the Nato alliance".


3. Justifying Space Missions

The decision to initiate or progress on space projects will usually involve considering their benefits, costs and risks. Any discussion of the ‘worthiness’ of a project should include one or more of the following fundamental questions:

  • Why go?
  • Where do we go?
  • How do we go – and at what cost?
  • How do we prioritise activities and spending?
  • How do we ensure international "good" behaviour?

Of these the first four may involve financial questions, the final will involve political appraisal and the possible implications of international treaties. However, the first three may also involve some ethical considerations, especially when there may be some danger to life (human or other) or the environment (of space, the Earth or some other body).

In 1999 the Interdisziplinäre Arbeitsgruppe Naturwissenschaft, Technik und Sicherheit (IANUS) of the Technische Universitat Darmstadt (TUD), peace groups from Darmstadt, Mutlangen and the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space jointly organised a conference on "Space Use and Ethics - Criteria for the Assessment of Future Space Projects". The conference took place at TUD in Darmstadt, Germany from 3-5 March [16]. At this conference Jürgen Scheffran [17] suggested that the worthiness of science and technology projects should be evaluated by considering:

  • The costs and resources needed to realise the project;
  • The goals and benefits expected from the project;
  • The undesired consequences and risks from the project.

Scheffran also suggests that we should also ask:

  • Who gains what,
  • Who pays the costs, and
  • Who takes the risk.

Very often these are quite different groups of people. In the 21st century, space technology should contribute to solving conflicts and problems on Earth. In this context, he suggested that future space projects should:

  1. Exclude the possibility of severe catastrophe
  2. Avoid military use, violent conflict, and proliferation
  3. Minimize adverse effects on health and environment
  4. Assure scientific-technical quality, functionality, reliability
  5. Solve problems and satisfy needs in a sustainable and timely manner
  6. Seek alternatives with best cost-benefit effectiveness
  7. Guarantee social compatibility and strengthen cooperation
  8. Justify projects in a public debate involving those concerned

We may find these criteria extremely useful when judging and/or prioritising future space missions.


4. Summary & Personal Perspective

In the above I have attempted to show that the military, commercial and scientific endeavors in space are closely linked and that the military requirements predominate. There is not space to cover other important areas such as the growing environmental concerns over the exploitation of natural resources of the Earth and heavenly bodies. Many authors have suggested that billions of dollars worth of metals, fuels and other resources that are rapidly disappearing from Earth, can be found and extracted from the Moon, the other planets and asteroids of the solar system (e.g. [18]). We will need to plunder other worlds once we have exhausted our own.

Is it not more sensible and more ethical to treat our own world carefully and responsibly, and to attempt to live sustainably on the Earth rather than to look for new worlds to exploit and feed our apparent insatiable greed for consumption? There is also much discussion concerning the possibility of finding life elsewhere in the Solar System. Could we be denying the opportunity for new life forms to develop and flourish on their own worlds by denying them their resources? Or could we be putting their survival at risk by crashing plutonium powered spacecraft into them?

In 1972 I started work on a postgraduate research project in the Physics Department at the University of York. The work involved measuring and analysing small variations in the Earth’s magnetic field (geomagnetic micropulsations) in an attempt to understand how hydromagnetic waves are generated and propagate in the near Earth environment. Interestingly, as part of this project we monitored earth currents using equipment that had originally been set up by the MoD to detect atmospheric nuclear explosions before international agreements banned them. Having obtained a D.Phil in Space Physics 1975 I was offered a post doctoral research fellowship at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey extending the research to investigate the interaction of the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Sun. In 1977 I returned to the University of York working as a post doctoral research fellow until 1979.

Then, at the age of 30 I decided it was time to get a steady job with a more secure future. Easier said than done – I did not find it easy to sell the particular skills I had developed during my short research career. There were a lot of jobs in defence but I was not keen to actually design or develop weapons systems. However, after a while I was offered a job as a Senior Scientific Officer in the Directorate of Scientific and Technical Intelligence at the Ministry of Defence. Here I was involved in tracking satellites and investigating and assessing the Soviet space program.

When I took up the appointment I thought of it as a truly defensive operation – I was not developing weapons – just gathering information. However, I gradually cam to realise that what I was doing was to always present a ‘worse case scenario’ to the politicians who were using this to justify the development and deployment of massively expensive weapons systems. There are more people involved in the business of building weapons than those who merely put them together. It occurred to me that the worse case was also being put to the politicians in the Soviet Union and United States. The military industrial complex is only too eager to pick up on any information that will help them obtain orders for huge projects. BMD - Star Wars – must be one of the biggest, most expensive, projects considered by humankind. I left the MoD in the same year that I joined.

It is very easy to convince yourself that the part you are playing in any project is acceptable and has nothing to do with the nasty bits being developed by someone else. In November 1998 Leicester Peace Action Group organised a conference on "Colonising space - Peaceful exploration or military adventure?" There were invited speakers from the Astronomy department of the local University and researchers and campaigners on the military uses of space. What struck me, and many other participants, was the refusal of some people to accept that there was a dark side to the area in which they worked. Most astronomy students and teachers seemed unaware of and unconcerned about the military activities in space. They did not think it was anything to do with them – and did not want to believe or to consider the fact that these activities are going on.

Leicester will soon be the home of the new National Space Centre which is to be a major educational resource for teaching young people about space. Karl Grossman was also a speaker at the 1998 conference and urged that some area be set aside to show the problems associated with military activity and commercial exploitation. As every part of the new Challenger Centre is to be modeled on the original in the US – this seems unlikely to happen.

Of course not all space projects are harmful. There are many astronomy and physics experiments that are aimed entirely at increasing our knowledge and understanding of the universe and these rightly capture the imagination of enthusiasts and the general public. Astronomy and space exploration are fascinating and challenging areas in which to work. However, we must be careful who we associate with in space related projects. We have seen how many projects can either be taken over by the military or used to justify or deflect from associated military activities. If we do not believe this to be the right way to progress we must speak out against exploitation and false representation. We should, we must, refuse to participate in life threatening activities.



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